Laurence Olivier is famously reputed to have asked method actor Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, 'have you ever tried acting, dear boy?'

Whatever the truth behind this cherished piece of movie mythology, one has to wonder quite what Sir Laurence would have made of Secret Theatre's antics.

Hoffman supposedly earned Olivier's disdain by staying up for three nights to get in character for the dentist's chair torture scene (he later claimed he'd simply been enjoying the excesses of Club 54 a little too much).

In A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, according to actress Nadia Albina, the 'method' is all about shaking off the constraints of character.

As the title suggests, she and fellow cast members are challenged to complete a range of endurance tests on stage, from eating a whole lemon to holding their hands in an ice bucket. To keep things fresh, each night the audience gets to choose a different protagonist to put through his or her paces.

On a basic level, the various feats serve as entertaining and uplifting metaphors for the hurdles facing us in life and love.

But pushing themselves to the physical limit also helps the cast open up emotionally to the audience, shedding any pretensions or inhibitions.

"The object of these tasks is to allow yourself to be as open and as vulnerable as you can be as a person and as an actor," says Albina.

"If you're doing something practical and physical it releases a part of your brain that's more emotional and spontaneous. You're surprising yourself as well as the audience.

Adelle Leonce and Matti Houghton in Secret Theatre's A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts (photo by Helen Maybanks)
 

"When I did this the first time, it felt like my chest had been ripped wide open and I was riding this gamut of emotions.

"At drama school a director once told me 'you're much more interesting playing yourself than you'll ever be playing another person' and I think that's true."

The play is in some ways the obvious extension of the company's ethos to bring a new sense of naturalism to both original works and the classics.

As Blanche DuBois in one of Secret Theatre's first productions, A Streetcar Named Desire, Albina had to down a bottle of water in the first few minutes.

Performing this and other physical acts for real on stage, says Albina, helped her and her fellow actors introduce an emotional rawness to their roles.

It's nearly two years since Secret Theatre was born out of necessity, to ensure productions could continue while the Lyric Hammersmith underwent a major transformation.

Audiences were asked to book tickets based on the strength of the company, without knowing what they were going to see or even precisely where within the bowels of the building site they would see it.

The theatre's artistic director Sean Holmes described the project as a challenge to the increasing commercialisation of theatre, and its reliance on big names and often gimmicky promotions. That risk has paid handsome dividends.

After taking its work on tour, the company will return to the Lyric Hammersmith next month to perform its full repertory, including a new seventh show. Its members will then take a well-earned break, but Albina insists they will be back.

"We've worked together for two years now and we need a break so we can do our own thing," she says.

"We've really enjoyed it because it's so different from the usual process where you meet each other for six weeks and then go off to your next job.

"Having worked together so intimately, the depth of the relationship means we can push each other further and get to places you simply couldn't reach in the space of six weeks.

"We'll see how a year apart from each other informs us and our journeys but we will come back. In the meantime hopefully we can bring a bit of Secret Theatre's ethos to other projects."

* A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is at Kilburn's Tricyle Theatre from January 12-31. For tickets, visit

www.tricycle.co.uk or call the box office on 020 7328 1000.

* The Secret's Out, a celebration of Secret Theatre's output so far, will take place at the Lyric Hammersmith from February 12 - March 1. For tickets, visit www.lyric.co.uk or call 020 8741 6850.