“Get thee to a gym” was pretty much a prerequisite for anyone hoping to tour in “Black Watch,” the National Theatre of Scotland’s acclaimed 2006 play about a Scottish regiment in Iraq, coming to Chicago March 29. “Everybody had seen the show before they auditioned,” says “Black Watch” movement director Steven Hoggett. “Most of this cast had prepared and had been to the gym. They knew what the demands were.” Still, cast members on video say that, during rehearsals, “We basically ran until we dropped.”
Hoggett, a cofounder of U.K. physical-theater troupe Frantic Assembly, and John Tiffany—his childhood friend and NST associate director—created this impassioned, stage-crafty take on Gregory Burke’s interviews with soldiers more than five years ago. Chicago finally gets a look, in a short run at the Broadway Armory, courtesy of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
“In ‘Black Watch,’” Hoggett says, “there’s a lot of movements that are choreographed that the audience wouldn’t necessarily spot. And there’s a choreographic arc throughout the show. In the first scene in the pub, they’re relaxed but still in a military line, and then towards the end, they actually come into a military formation. In the scene when the embedded journalist comes in, we worked on how the actors can show being at ease—and not being at ease—depending on who’s in the room.”
“The spectrum of movement is wide. There’s a balletic energy where we show the effect of the bombs on bodies, and then another scene where we give physical expressions to the soldier hearing voices from back home.”
A pool table figures prominently in “Black Watch,” as it does in Frantic Assembly’s “Othello.” How come? “Pool tables are good sturdy things to have in a room to throw yourself at,” Hoggett says.
Hoggett, who has no dance training, got hooked by physical theater in 1991, when he saw “Medea: SexWar,” by the Welsh company Volcano, while still at university in Swansea. He says he doesn’t think so much about choreography as about movement: “My philosophy is to make it as clear and communicative as possible—but never to shy away from the difficult. Movement can show emotional states and narrative. It’s easy for an audience to get their head into that world. Movement should be as thrilling and as exciting as possible, but there should be no compromise in the clarity.”
Since “Black Watch” ran in New York, Hoggett’s been tapped to create movement for Green Day’s “American Idiot,” about to close after a year-long Broadway run; the boxing show “Beautiful Burnout,” which recently opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn; and “Peter and the Starcatcher,” recently extended at New York Theatre Workshop. “There’s a very direct line,” he says, “between ‘Black Watch’ and the rest of the work I’ve been fortunate to have had since then.” He’s also working with John Tiffany on the Broadway-bound “Once,” a musical based on the 2006 film.
“It’s a really exciting time for someone in my position in NYC—Frantic Assembly have been doing this for 16 years and are now accepted as part of the theater establishment [in Britain]. In America there’s a little less of this work around, and I think audiences now want to see this kind of work. We’re at a really exciting point where audiences are less afraid about movement.”