Jacques Lecoq is regarded as one of the twentieth century's most influential teachers of the physical art of acting. He was born 15 December in Paris, France and participated and trained in various sports as a child and as a young man. During World War II he began exploring gymnastics, mime, movement and dance with a group who used performance to express their opposition to the German occupation of France. After the war, Lecoq then studied mime with Jean Daste, (a former pupil of the acclaimed teacher of mime, Jacques Copeau) who introduced him to masked performance and Japanese Noh theatre. He left Grenoble and spent six months teaching mask work in Germany, before accepting another teaching position at the University of Padua in Italy. He spent eight years in Italy teaching and working as a creative practitioner and discovered the traditional and popular Italian theatre style of commedia dell'arte as well as the tradition of masked chorus work developed in Ancient Greek tragedy. He returned to Paris in 1956 and opened his own school, the Ecole Internationale de Mime et de Theatre which has had many homes in Paris over the years but has continued to attract large numbers of students from all over the world. Lecoq also toured with demonstrations of his physical art of the actor and periodically conducted classes in Britain that had an enormous impact on the development of British theatre. He was awarded the prestigious Legion d'Honneur in 1982 and continued to take classes at his school right up to the day before his death on January 19, 1999.
Lecoq's work and research has mainly been disseminated through the training he has conducted with the many students who have attended his classes and demonstrations overseas or his classes at his school in Paris. This may be why a myth is often circulated that suggests his methods were somehow secretive or reserved only for his students. However, he has published numerous articles and interviews, edited a text in French entitled Le Theatre du Geste (1987) and his book, The Moving Body (Translated and published in English posthumously in 2000) outlines a number of his philosophies and approaches. The texts he has produced also indicate why it is so difficult for students to pass on his teachings. They explain that the training is very practical and very specific for each student because every actor's body and mind has accumulated different tensions and conditioned responses. Lecoq's training methods therefore focus on releasing preconditioned views of acting and bringing an actor's attention back to ‘playing.' In his last publication he explained that: “There is a huge difference between actors who express their own lives, and those who can truly be described as players…They have learned not to play themselves but to play using themselves. In this lies all the ambiguity of the actor's work.” (61) The strong emphasis on improvisational activity at the school reinforces the central significance of play and students are introduced to physical exercises, masks and popular theatre that reinforce the distinction between playing and being. Lecoq and those who now direct training at the school work on the premise that: “A true understanding and knowledge of theatre inevitably requires a profound experience of play” (97).
Like Konstantin Stanislavsky, Jerzy Grotowski and Eugenio Barba, Lecoq created a place to study and teach what he believed were important principles of acting. Lecoq, like these other figures, described his research into the human body and its movement as his ‘passion' and he pursued this work throughout his life. He saw his teaching as ‘a path to his own greater knowledge and understanding of movement' and said that his work with students helped him to discover that ‘the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant' (9). Masked work had a powerful influence on Lecoq's approach to performing and he was intrigued with the simple and direct way masks could amplify the physical aspects of a performer and be used to communicate with all kinds of audiences. His research and analysis of masks, movement, body language and gesture has had a huge impact on the development of contemporary theatre and his work has popularised genres such as the clown, bouffons, commedia dell'arte, tragedy, and melodrama.