Sunday, 29 July 2012

Beyond Whiteface: My Mime Ain’t Your Mime

In this era of ear pollution, silence—however temporary—is golden. And noise (which can be defined ecumenically as whatever annoys) is driving us all to the brink of bonkers. Forty years ago, my favorite noise—Stan Kenton—used to turn my gentle mother into an enraged freak—which is just what acid-rock does to me today.

So the benign invasion of silencers sponsored by Movement Theatre International is cause for general rejoicing. Their Mime and Clown Festival (June 13-July 11, at the Annenberg Center and the Painted Bride), with multiple performances, a conference and two sequences of master classes on “gestural theater” marks the Philadelphia debut of a husband and wife team who have tried their act out of town successfully for five years—at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia.

They got too big for their leotards down in the mountains, and when the local airport shut down, making them nigh inaccessible to their international clientele of teachers and students, Mike and Judy Pedretti started shopping around for a venue more befitting their organization’s title and their outsize aspirations to channel the emerging energies of gestural theater.

That’s when Oliver Franklin, Philadelphia’s deputy city rep for culture, started wielding his magic—mainly, opening corporate doors. It’s taking $200,000 to field this world-class event, with its 50 performers and 100 students. Tuition for a master class is $300—and most of the festival’s earned revenue the first time around here will come from tuition.

In past summers, students have come from 48 states and 20 countries. When I interviewed him, Mike Pedretti had just finished taking a call from India from an enrolling student. His median mimer has been 29 years old, what Mike describes as “entry level pro,” with five years experience and eager to translate his or her studies with world masters back into performances.

The course agenda is deliciously eclectic—circus technique, masks, advice on how to take your act into the streets, puppetry (both creation and animation), “sociopolitical buffoonery” (a course that may not be needed in this town), mime, acting in contemporary movement theater, directing movement (by no less a teacher than Tom “Hair” O’Horgan), and courses in “corporeal mime” by two students of the genre’s originator, Parisian Etienne Decroux.

Because Eastern Europe is also big in this burgeoning movement—MTI has teachers from Romania and Poland—I asked Mike if the nonverbal aspect might develop as a way of circumventing political expression. “A possible factor,” he allowed, “but there is also a theory that gestural theater flourishes in times of decadence—imperial Rome, the late Middle Ages, our time.”

Mike also sees strong connections with the fitness boom, our growing understanding of the importance of non-verbal communication, a greater sensitivity to the joy of the body in motion, as in the dance revolution, as well as this generation’s heightened kinesthetic sense as movie and video buffs.

If it moves, mime is interested. And so seems the public: Mike estimates that the number of pros living from corporeal mime has jumped dramatically, from perhaps a dozen in 1970 to over a thousand today.

As befits a rapidly expanding cultural development, there’s a lot of controversy about what’s “in” and what’s “out” in gestural theater. Marcel Marceau has become a fashionable whipping boy for the partisans of Etienne Decroux (who was himself Marceau’s teacher). The public assumes Marceau is mime, but Mike argues that Marcel is simply a very powerful presence whose idiosyncratic style has been falsely construed by the uninformed as the art.

Hence, MTI types don’t mind the kind of mock laid on by wordy, wordy types like Woody Allen. You may remember his New Yorker put-down: “The mime now proceeded to spread a picnic blanket, and, instantly, my old confusion set in. He was either spreading a picnic basket or milking a small goat.”

The third ring MTI’s circus, beside public performances and courses, will address itself directly to these lively contested issues at a conference at Annenberg, June 26-29, followed by the National Mime Association Annual Meeting.

The conference kicks off with Jacques Lecoq’s internationally acclaimed performance, “Everything Moves.” And Daniel Stein (direct from a stellar performance at EXPO 86, not to forget a U.S.-Japan fellowship) will present “Inclined to Agree.”

Decroux disciple Tom Leabhart (who also edits The Mime Journal out of Pomona College) will dazzle with “How I Was Perplexed and What I Did About It.” His perplexity centers on the nature of the mime form itself, and his act is a working out, non-verbally, of where mime is headed. It’s part of what Mike Pedretti calls the “healthy ferment” in his field, in which “no one is secure enough that they can afford not to experiment.”

Don’t get the mistaken impression that these mimes are mute. I’ve been noodling through the transcript of the First National Mime Conference (1983), and these gesturers are hardly at a loss for words. Listen to Martha Coigney of New York’s International Theatre Institute on grooming your troupe for international tours:

“America’s artists are a corps of ambassadors that are not just unsung, but really viciously ignored by our government. A country’s quality of civilization is known through its artistic excellence—and that’s a fact of life that the United States has yet to confront and use. So, I would tell you to prepare carefully and modestly.”

The most contentious issue is “the garbage problem,” the upstaging of the well-trained professional by the hokey “Sunday mimer.”

Says Mike Pedretti: “There’s nothing we can do to stop bad mime, any more than we can stop bad poetry. Everybody writes poetry, everybody puts on whiteface or a red nose one time or another in their life.

“Mime is currently the most unsung, the least understood, the most innovative and exciting field in the performing arts today. If the ‘60s was the era of the regional theaters and the ‘70s was the era of dance, then the ‘80s is the era of mime.

“The range of styles is immense. The frontiers of exploration are mind-boggling. The integrity of the leading performers is unquestionable. The clarity, the innocence, the penetrating power of the best work is pure.”

For the next two weeks you can test for yourself this new frontier of movement theater. In these noisily noisome days, if silence is golden, then mime at its best is pure platinum. Try it. You’ll probably love it.

Mime and Clown Festival: June 13-July 11, at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street, and at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street. Two sessions of master classes and conferences at Annenberg Center. Complete listings and phone numbers under “Events” in listings section of After Dark.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 11, 1986

No comments: