Interview: Physical Theater Maven Leonard Pitt appearing with Flying Actor Studio in “Up For Air!” at Stagewerx in the Mission District

Photo Credit: Flying Actor Studio

by Charles Kruger

This weekend and next (February 17 and 18 plus March 3 and 4), Flying Actor Studio presents “Up for Air!” — described as “madcap, lyrical, and poetic responses to recent world challenges . . . a plate of deliciousness as it salutes a San Francisco Heritage…..”

What heritage, exactly? you might wonder. That would be the work of the Flying Actor Studio, a school of physical theatre founded by James Donlon and Leonard Pitt that has trained a veritable cornucopia of clowns, mimes, acrobats, comedians, circus acts, et cetera, who have participated in the explosion of physical theatre which has rocked the theatre world for the past several decades. There was a time when mime, acrobatics, juggling, dance, and circus skills were not typical stock-in-trade for professional actors. Since the 1960s, these skills have been increasingly in demand and nowadays few actors do not receive training in these once very esoteric theatrical arts. Flying Actor Studio has been a force in that movement.

As theatre is being resuscitated following the ravages of COVID on our social fabric, founders Donlon and Pitt asked themselves how Flying Actor Studio might contribute. They came up with the idea of bringing together some graduates of the program to present four nights of physical theater over a two week residence in San Francisco’s mission, featuring new and old, tried and true, funny and blue. Well, they didn’t put it like that, but I like the sentence and I hope it captures the spirit of what they are after.

Anticipating this extravaganza, I recently was able to sit down with Leonard Pitt, where he holds court at a coffee house near his home in Berkeley, to interview the man and be regaled by a master raconteur.

Here follows an edited transcript of some of our talk. My words are in regular type, Leonard’s, of course, warrant the boldface treatment:

Leonard Pitt, Physical Theatre Maven

CHARLES: Well, here we are. I’m so happy to be talking with you, Leonard Pitt. You are an accomplished physical actor, teacher, all around theatre person, sculptor, filmmaker, and travel writer. Your energy seems boundless! And now you’re planning a series of performances in San Francisco’s mission district. What’s that about?

LEONARD:  Well, for several years, James Donlon and I had a conservatory in San Francisco, downtown. Our students came five days a week for four hours a day. For a full year. James had this idea recently to get this theater and get a bunch of old students who’ve been performing and present them. But the idea is bigger now. The performance will be focused on physical performers beyond those from the conservatory. We’re going to present two evenings February and two more in early March.

CHARLES:  What do you mean by “physical theatre,” Leonard? How is that different from other types of theater? Isn’t all theatre physical?

LEONARD: Well, it really depends on where your emphasis is. If you’re doing what we call straight theatre, the emphasis is on the text and the dialogue. And that’s where the expression comes from. That’s where the story comes from. I can tell you a good story. You don’t even need to see me. It can be just a recording. Or it can be onstage in front of an audience, but still be all about the text.

At one of our performances, I may do a piece by the Nobel prize winner, Dario Fo. It is one of his satirical pieces called “The Raising of Lazurus.” It’s a great satirical piece. It has about 15 characters, and I’ll do all of them. It’s highly physical, rapid fire, machine gun pace. So its strong language, but also strong physicality so, for me, it’s a piece of physical theatre.

CHARLES:  It seems to me that these days a lot of theatre is becoming more and more physical theatre, more than it used to be. How did that come about? What made that switch?

LEONARD: I credit this to what I call “the grounding of America.” For many, many years, American culture was like a pyramid on its point. Out of balance, really, but stable. And then, along came the 1950s, and certain things happened in our culture. That brought the center of gravity of our body much lower and it took the pyramid and turned it in its face.

And one of the people responsible for that was Elvis Presley – because he was focused on the pelvis. And there were low riders, and limbo dancing, and then hula hoops and skateboards. All things, you see, that focus on getting the body very low. The hula hoops made a difference. You’ve got literally millions of children standing there wriggling their hips and when those kids get to be adults, they’re going to have a lower center of gravity in their body then their parents.

And so they have a different sensation of being on the ground. Their parents felt disassociated from the ground. Those kids felt the connection. That was a generational thing. They gave us the environmental movement, Earth Day.

It all works together. You’ve got to see connections between these things which most people don’t see. And that’s what I do, that’s the business of physical theatre.

Connection! Connection! Connection!

So that’s where physical theatre comes from. It comes from developing more respect for, and seeing more value in the body.

CHARLES: How is it you came to enter the profession?

LEONARD:  My mother told me that when I was very small, I kept asking, “Mommy, is there a school for comedians?” I must have been 10 years old. I had learned to love Laurel and Hardy when I saw them on television. In those days, television was new. I saw them all the time. I just had a feel for Laurel and Hardy. Then when I was a teenager, I began doing white face pantomime. No training. I just started doing it. I’d seen Marcel Marceau on TV and just  imitated that.

Later, I went to school to be an artist. I barely got out of high school, but I was good in my art classes so i went to art school in Los Angeles. It was a very good school with a four year program. I did two years and then I got a job at this big ad agency with 500 employees and our biggest client was Chevrolet. And it was boring. There was no creativity at all!

And somebody said, well do something else! Why don’t you go to New York and study with Etienne Decroux, who was Marcel Marceau’s teacher? So I did.

He had a studio in his apartment in midtown Manhattan. And I didn’t know what I was doing but remember I got up to improvise because he said, “It’s Monday, so we’ll do improvisation. Leonard, you go first.”

So I had to get up in front of all these students who had been there for years and I had to do something. So I took a piece of music to guide me. And that turned out to be perfect for Decroux because he was all about the rhythm. So I did my couple of minutes, and I finished, and I was nervous and sweating. And Decroux responded, “It’s better than I expected.” He didn’t speak English, though. He said this to his interpreter and the interpreter said it to me. Well, that was encouraging.

So that summer, in 1962, I quit my job and sailed to Europe. I thought I’d go and see Decroux and he accepted me as a student and I got taken right away and spent four years with him. Six days a week!


Leonard is a great raconteur and has a lot more to say on the subjects of Etienne Decroux, physical theater, reflections on his friendship with the great Stan Laurel, his views on Jerry Lewis, working with masks, Balinese puppetry and more.

So much more, that I am saving the rest of this interview to be published next week!

In the meantime, you can check out the work of Leonard and his crew as they perform, “Up In The Air” tonight (February 18, and next weekend, March 3rd and March 4th, at Stage Werx in the Mission District of San Francisco. For further information, click here. 


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