Published in The List
The art of course acting
Sing it from the rooftops! Free running has entered the theatre. Mark Fisher catches his breath as the athletes of 3Run blur past him
To see Sam Parham in his element, you'd need to be on a beach in South Africa. With no one else around, you'd see him bounding from boulder to boulder, oblivious to the world.
Not so long ago, the 24-year-old from Basingstoke was in just such a place. 'I had the day to myself so I went down to the beach,' he says. 'There were these huge rocks all along the bay and I just started jumping from one to the other. Four hours went by with me jumping from rock to rock, completely in my own world. It was like my form of meditation, the only time I was completely me.'
Where you are more likely to see Parham – and where he is almost just as much in his element – is on the city streets, leaping from pavement to wall, from wall to stairwell, from stairwell to rooftop. He is a free runner, a leading light of 3Run, a group of friends whose love of parkour (from the French 'parcours du combattant', a military obstacle course) developed from a hobby into a career. When they're not out and about enthusing the next generation of Basingstoke teenagers, they are appearing in James Bond, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean movies or doing adverts for Nestle, Sprite and Microsoft.
Now, on the Edinburgh Fringe, you can see them in Free Run: Confidential, an hour-long show that attempts to capture something of the skill, agility and excitement of their freeform sport. Directed by Annabel Haydn and performed in the upside down cow of the Udderbelly, it takes place on all sides of the audience, as the eight-strong crew swing, leap and dive around the space, while video footage suggests the concrete playground that is their more usual habitat. In a blur of movement, they take turns to show off their street stunts, acrobatics, body-popping, martial arts, climbing skills and cool athletic moves.
What is striking about Parham, when I catch up with him before a performance of Free Run: Confidential on London's South Bank where the Udderbelly is grazing, is how much he defies expectation. Short, muscular, articulate and irrepressibly good natured, there is nothing about him to suggest the lawlessness and danger that free running calls to mind. On the contrary, he talks about his life's passion not as an anti-social pursuit, not even as a sport, but as an art.
It is an art, he makes clear, informed by strict discipline and serious philosophy. The 3Run website talks about the group's determination to develop 'not only as physical performers, but also as "good" people [and] supportive friends'. As mission statements go, it wouldn't be out of place in a Christian Union newsletter.
Yet this is an activity with a less than squeaky clean reputation. In a recent court case in Southampton, a man accused of stealing lead off a roof claimed he'd spotted his haul while indulging in what a newspaper called 'the daredevil sport of free running'. When a teenager fell 20ft from the roof of Poundland in Twickenham, the police considered pressing charges. In Bristol, a policeman ended up in hospital after one of the men he was talking down from a rooftop fell on top of him.
This, though, is not the kind of free running Parham recognises. As he sees it, parkour, with its aim to get from A to B as efficiently as possible, and free running, with its belief in aesthetics and individuality, are high-minded pursuits. 'It develops your body and your balance and it develops you mentally and psychologically as well,' he says, adding that his own approach is influenced by Buddhism. 'It also develops your confidence. I never used to be able to speak to people in a room, whereas now if I can do a back somersault in front of people, I can talk to them. Any challenges I come across in life, parkour and free running has helped me.'
But what of the media image of free running as a form of vandalism? 'That's the misinterpretation that some free runners are going to give,' he says. 'There are vandals out there and it may get confused with parkour and free running. I always say the environment is our playground. If we don't respect it, and if we're not respectful of private property, then we're no longer going to have this environment – people will put up anti-climb paint and barbed wire. It's not something I would ever condone.'
He admits there's a grey area between the acceptable and the illegal, but sees no problem as long as participants are respectful. 'Just be mindful that, if a place is a private property, to try and stay away from it. Don't be jumping off a public staircase when there's children trying to walk down it. It's those common-sense things.'
An element of risk is part of the fun, but far from being an adrenaline junkie, he is a cautious runner who knows his physical limits. The 3Run team are more likely to be found working on their moves in a confined area than to be scaling the city skyline. 'It's actually those small beautiful intricate movements that are more appealing to me than just finding the biggest roof jump,' says Parham, who has never broken a bone. 'The philosophy is to prepare your body for something that may or may not happen. I do roof jumps, however I would never tackle one where if I fell I would die, unless I knew I was going to make it.'
For many young people, free running is a craze that comes and goes, like skateboards, rollerblades or Rubik's cubes. But for the 3Run friends, it was less a fad than a way of life. 'We started off as kids with no intention of this being a profession whatsoever,' says Parham. 'We watched Jackie Chan. He was our biggest inspiration. We saw Jackie's films and went out almost trying to recreate them. We were just practising in sandpits and swimming pools and heard about parkour and free running as a discipline slightly after that. We realised it was similar to what we were doing except we didn't have a philosophy.'
They took on board the philosophies developed in France by Sébastien Foucan and David Belle, spent time in the local gymnasium and, on the streets, started coaching each other. The form was so new, there was no way to learn it unless they taught themselves. In doing so, they realised they could integrate their existing passions and skills into the sport. 'Essentially, it's just movement,' he says. 'You can incorporate the same kind of movement you'd use in climbing or skateboarding or martial arts and you don't need anything except your body.'
For 3Run, the freedom of the form was not an excuse for anarchy, but an opportunity for self-expression. 'We always consider ourselves as students of movement,' he says. 'Parkour and free running fit that idea so well for us because there are no rules, there is no competition. If you look at three people doing exactly the same thing, it would be totally different every single time.'
Having a similar enthusiasm for making videos – member Chase Armitage being a particular whiz behind the camera – they started uploading films of themselves onto YouTube. Before they knew it, they were getting hits in the hundreds of thousands. 'It showed us there was a potential for this,' says Parham. Advertising agencies also recognised their potential and soon the requests for commercial cameos, public appearances and sponsorship deals started coming in. 'It was so surreal,' says Parham, who studied business at university, but is making a living from 3Run. 'One day you're just training and having fun and then the next day, you're training and having fun, but you're getting paid for it.'
There is a contradiction, of course, in bringing a free-ranging sport into the enclosed space of a theatre, but that's a small hurdle for 3Run to leap and their combination of athletic skill and enthusiasm is infectious. 'We love doing it,' he says. 'That's something that I hope comes across in our shows. It's the reason why we keep doing it and why we keep wanting to improve. Getting good is the by-product of enjoying it.'
Free Run: Confidential, Udderbelly, 0844 545 8252, 3–29 Aug (not 16, 22), 6.20pm, £10.50–£17.50 (£13.50–£15.50).
© Mark Fisher 2011
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