The Postwar Mime Culture: The Spread of the Mime Culture

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

The Spread of the Mime Culture

A major alternative to Decroux’s heritage of mime education came from the Parisian-born Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999), who never was a mime and never studied mime. His background was in physical education, and his thinking about physical movement derived in large part from his extensive study of gymnastics and training for various sports, especially swimming. The poetic qualities of athletic movement encouraged him toward theater, as did the actor Jean Dasté (1904-1994), Copeau’s son-in-law, who arranged for him to act briefly (1945-1946) with a company in Grenoble. Dasté introduced Lecoq to the mysteries of masks in performance, an experience that shaped his philosophy of movement education and compelled him, in 1948, to spend the next eight years in Italy working with the mask maker Amleto Sartori (1915-1962). With Sartori, Lecoq discovered much about the original commedia tradition that French theatrical practice had obscured. In Milan, he established in 1952 a school attached to the Piccolo Teatro established by the director Giorgio Strehler (1921-1997) and the impresario Paolo Grassi (1919-1981). He directed or choreographed numerous productions in various Italian cities until he returned to Paris in 1956, when he established his École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, which subsequently became famous for teaching so many people who became major actors and directors in theater and film (cf. Leabhart 1989: 88-101; Wright 2013: 72). But it was not a mime school; it was a school of movement education for students who wanted to be actors in the theater, not mimes. Mime was for Lecoq simply a pedagogical device to make actors more conscious of their bodies and consequently more expressive. Unlike Decroux, Lecoq was open to exploring relations between physical action and the other arts, including architecture. His pedagogic method relied heavily on improvised exercises or games in which students, individually and in groups, created through movement a scene given by the teacher. As is evident from videos documenting his classes, Lecoq displayed powerful imagination in coming up with practical situations that allowed students to respond with consistently effective theatrical solutions. The use of masks was an important part of the two-year course of study, although only 30% (thirty students) received admission to the second year. Students began with the “neutral mask” to free themselves from all identities that imposed constraints on their ability to move in relation to the given situation rather than in relation to a “natural” inclination. Students then moved on to masks derived from the commedia tradition, which had the effect of exaggerating movement for comic effect. Lecoq urged students to clown, to delight in the freedom of the clown, to accept clowning as fundamental to discovering the poetry of theatrical movement. But a significant consequence of this veneration of the clown, which has pervasively influenced theatrical productions since the 1970s, is that “theatricality” of movement has become largely synonymous with comic effects, with caricature, with the exaggeration of a character attribute, so that the actor (or director) adopts an exaggerated movement to signify a defining attribute of the character’s status, motives, or values and thus, as Brecht might put it, to construct in the audience a critical, humorous, or distanced attitude toward the character: it’s difficult for the spectator to take the character seriously. In any case, Lecoq kept mime within the commedia paradigm and Leabhart regards Lecoq’s teaching as “responsible in large measure for the renaissance of interest in commedia dell’arte” in the 1970s (1989: 100). Here as in other schools of mime, the actor-centered approach to performing evolves out of improvised exercises, games, situations, or sketches of few minutes duration, distinct from each other, and revealing, as Decroux would say, one thing at a time, one incident at a time. Mime schools, including Lecoq’s, do not study the sequencing of physical actions to construct large pantomimic narratives that reveal a dramatic reality otherwise obscured by speech or choreographed efforts to regulate the body; they study the sequencing of physical movements to show how the actor theatricalizes the body. To pursue a larger idea of pantomime, one needs a deep appreciation of the “verisimilar,” rather than “histrionic,” performance of physical actions, to use Pearson’s terminology regarding silent film acting, which means an acute awareness of how non-exaggerated or “natural” physical actions in sequence build the emotional involvement of the spectator with patterns of physical signification unique to the narrative rather than to the actor, unique to something observed outside the theater rather than to theatricality. 

            Perhaps the most successful mime enterprise to come out of the Lecoq School has been the Swiss group Mummenschanz, founded in 1972 by Bernie Schürch (b. 1944), Andres Bossard (1944-1992), and Floriana Frassetto (b. 1950). Schürch and Bossard met while studying at Lecoq’s school in 1967-1969. In 1970, they collaborated on cabaret entertainments performing as a clown duo, Before and After. While performing their cabaret act in Rome, they met Floriana Frassetto, an Italian-American, who had studied acting at the theater academy in Rome founded (1957) by Alessandro Fersen (1911-2001), a Polish-Italian film actor, socialist functionary, journalist, dramatist, director of numerous plays in a rather expressionist vein, and practitioner of what he called “mnemodramma,” a process by which actors “abandon techniques” to reach a state of trance wherein “there are no more dams, psychological streams, which somehow curb and control their expression” (Fersen 1973: Paragraphs 6, 8). Mummenschanz began repeated tours of Europe and the United States in 1973, and in 1977, their show began an epic run on Broadway that lasted until 1980 and required the group to hire new performers to replace them, so that they could meet obligations elsewhere in Europe, South America, and Asia. A new show, launched in Zug, Switzerland in 1984, also toured the world with great success. As Mummenschanz absorbed new members, it developed new productions in 1989, 1993, 2003, and 2016, and made a movie in 1997, although in recent years the group has ceased to be the show business powerhouse it was in the 1970s and 1980s (cf., Bührer 1986; Garduño 1997). The company has built its performances around ingeniously designed masks made out of a large variety of materials: Styrofoam, dough, Velcro, toilet paper rolls, violins, a suitcase, plastic containers, plastic membranes, and various kinds of fabric. In the 1984 show, Mummenschanz greatly expanded the number of masks that covered the entire body to produce, for example, a sort of giant slinky worm that manipulates a large red ball, a giant clam that opens and swallows things, a pas de deux involving two huge humanoid figures made out of inflated air bags, huge blob-like creatures that move slowly and gelatinously over platforms and ramps, enormous cloth hands. Although the company has its headquarters in Altstätten, Switzerland, it has spent much time in former industrial spaces in Zürich, Lugano, and St. Gallen that provided sufficient room to experiment with so many different materials, which required long periods of testing, rehearsal, and collaboration with materials manufacturers. Mummenschanz subordinates all movement to the mask, for the point of performance is to show how the body transforms the mask and makes the mask a dynamic, unstable sign of identity. A typical program involves a series of discrete scenes, usually three or four minutes in length, in which one, two, or three performers display their skills at manipulating their own or each other’s masks to describe their relations to each other, invariably for comic effect. In more recent productions, four performers appear on stage, which seldom contains more than a box platform and a ramp. Very rarely do music or sound effects accompany the action. Two bodies with giant electric plugs for heads meet and kiss by plugging their heads into each other; two bodies with violins for heads conduct a rather quarrelsome dialogue by plucking the strings of their faces until a giant metronome appears and gets the violin heads to pluck a tune together. In one of Mummenschanz’s funniest scenes, dating from 1974 at the latest, two performers sit on a platform with the goal of applying dough to their masks to make the masks more expressive and decorative. The figure on the right applies the dough with ceremonial precision and artistry to create a beautiful commedia mask. The figure on the left tries to emulate his partner, copying all of his gestures and applications, but succeeds only in making hideous but very funny messes of his mask. The exasperated artist “fixes” his partner’s mask by making it look like a woeful dog’s head. Left then sabotages Right’s mask by pushing his head into the dough plate. Right responds by transforming his mask into a menacing, predatory creature, while Left does likewise; they attack each other’s masks until they smash into each other’s faces and become one blobby mask. Yet even though no one disputes the ingenuity with which it constructs its masked mime performances, Mummenschanz has provoked criticism, even from Lecoq, that the group too readily seeks to please audiences with feats of cleverness that do not bring with them any larger understanding of relations between body and mask (cf. Bührer 1986: 40; Leabhart 1989: 105-106). The silent miming of the body conveys extraordinary plasticity on the mask, but this dynamism never creates any larger implication than that it is “fun,” a delightful revelation of the desire to transform mundane materials into something living, something human.

            In the United States, the commercial viability of mime performance reached its most impressive manifestation in the 1970s through the duo of Robert Shields (b. 1951) and Lorene Yarnell (1944-2010). Without having any formal training in mime, Shields began performing on the street in Hollywood in 1969. Marcel Marceau saw him perform and offered him a scholarship to attend the Marceau school in Paris, but Shields left the school after less than a year because he did not want to become “a little Marceau.” He moved to San Francisco and began performing on the street. While appearing briefly in a 1972 Sunday morning children’s TV special produced by the puppeteering team of Sid (b. 1929) and Marty Kroft (b. 1937), Shields met TV dancer Lorene Yarnell, and she followed him back to San Francisco, where they married the same year. Shields was a gifted acrobat and dancer—and extremely handsome. On the street, he performed in white face and wore a kind of parade uniform while interacting with bystanders in San Francisco’s Union Square. Police arrested him several times for public disturbance, though bystanders found amusing his interactions and imitations of them, and thus his street performances brought him to the attention of news media and television producers. With Yarnell, he perfected a “robotic” style of mime, although it is more accurate to describe their characters as automatons. They presented their bodies as imperfect, sometimes malfunctioning machines that moved in a jerky, spasmodic manner, like marionettes with broken strings or toys whose springs or gears are out of synch. They applied their robotic style to the enactment of numerous characters and situations, such as a robot couple grocery shopping, a robot couple eating breakfast, a robot couple going to bed, automatons imitating Sonny and Cher, robots trying to kiss, or a human dancing a tango with an automaton. Their robotic style of mime was especially effective on variety television shows, where they did not have to present a whole program of mime sketches, and they appeared on many nationally broadcast TV shows. In 1977, CBS gave them their own variety TV show, which featured skits involving the robot suburban couple, The Clinkers, but the show lasted only one season. They continued in Las Vegas and as guests on numerous TV shows; comedian Bob Hope (1903-2003) included them on a tour of China in 1979. But in the 1980s, Shields and Yarnell began to develop separate paths as entertainers, divorcing in 1986, with Yarnell acting occasionally in films and on stage before moving to Norway with a new husband and Shields eventually pursuing ambitions as an artist and jewelry maker in Sedona, Arizona. Shields complained that bad miming had killed off mime altogether in 1980s, by which he implied that too many less talented performers had tried to imitate him or Marcel Marceau to the point that the broad public no longer believed that mime was capable of anything more than what Shields and Yarnell or Marceau had done with it (Shields and Yarnell “The Lost Tape” 2010). Indeed, in the 1980s, hostility toward mimes, especially street mimes, became a trope of popular culture and a persistent attitude within large sectors of the public. It wasn’t television that “killed mime,” but the idea of mime as a sort of “democratic” entertainment that invaded public spaces because apparently anyone could do it in the street as it was done on television. Mime in this mode became an emblem of craving for popular success that many people found pleasure in despising. 

            However, the stigma attached to mime in much of popular consciousness, especially in the United States, did not deter the spread of mime schools or depress the desire of many young people to study or perform mime. But the stigma did spur efforts within the mime culture to broaden, redefine, or repudiate the term “mime.” The American Mime Theatre, established in 1952 in New York City by Paul Curtis (1927-2012) and Leslie Barrett (1919-2010), still remains the oldest mime company in the United States, although it has always been much more of a mime school than a production company. Curtis, who studied with Decroux in 1950, claimed to teach “American mime,” which meant performing without whiteface and in black body suits. The company has retained the word “mime” to refer to speechless characterizations mostly of a humorous nature vaguely reminiscent of vaudeville. But for a company that has existed so long, its work and aesthetic remain remarkably obscure, perhaps more deeply attached to the hermetic philosophy of Decroux than the word “American” might indicate. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, founded in 1959 by Ronald Guy Davis (b. 1929), another student of Decroux, used the term “mime” in the ancient Roman sense, as a form of comic political street theater that used speech and was never pantomime. The United Mime Workers (1971-1986), based in Urbana, Illinois, also included spoken dialogue in most of its comic satires on suburban middle class life, but occasionally it did construct pantomime scenes in which middle class types performed various actions, such as shopping, hanging clothes, eating lunch, cleaning house, working in an office, without talking to each other (United Mime Workers 2014). One of the company’s co-founders, Bob Feldman, living for many years in Singapore, went on to pursue an unusual application of mime skills to the training of corporate personnel in delivering more effective presentations at corporate and public events. Some American companies, beginning in the 1970s, rebranded speechless performance as “new vaudeville” or new forms of “circus” to include juggling, trapeze acts, magic tricks, acrobatics, and above all clown acts, which are not a theme of this book but which, nevertheless, reinforced public perception that mimes were thin, nimble clowns. In America, however, due perhaps to the tendency of mime performers (though not mime schools) to consider themselves heirs of silent film comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, mime became synonymous with comic speechless performance, and the idea of mime in a serious, emotionally turbulent mood was practically taboo (cf. Leabhart 1989: 123-127). To receive grants from public arts agencies or civic-minded donors, other mime companies or companies that once did mime (like the Milwaukee Public Theater) moved beyond the street or parks to perform in schools, healthcare facilities, prisons, or churches, which meant performances designed to accommodate “positive” (good-humored) civic or therapeutic messages (cf. Milwaukee Public Theatre 2017). The Montreal company Omnibus le corps du théâtre, founded in 1977 by Jean Asselin (b. 1948), a student of Decroux in the 1970s, as an adjunct to the mime school, has presented student productions that imaginatively use mime to reveal the bodily signification of sexual misunderstanding, romantic expectation, sexual harassment, female anxiety over body image, and deconstructed “sexy” poses, as in Rêves, chimères et mascarade (2009) and Misère et splendeur d’une courtisane (2013) (Omnibus Archive). But Asselin has moved far from Decroux: the school still offers courses in corporeal mime and productions of “pure mime” on contemporary themes, but since at least 1982 company productions often contain a great deal of speech that relies on texts by or adaptations of famous authors (Shakespeare, Racine, Proust, Faulkner, Lewis Carroll, Henry James) or on original texts by Asselin and co-director Sylvie Moreau (b. 1964). Within Omnibus, mime functions as movement for the stage, in a manner similar to Lecoq’s school, to develop an actor-driven kind of hyper-physical theater closer to Artaud than to Decroux. 

Two members of the original Omnibus Company, Kari Margolis and Tony Brown, both students of Decroux, founded their own company, MB Adaptors, in Brooklyn in 1984 and immediately attracted international attention with a piece called Autobahn (1984), a twelve-scene mostly pantomimic satire of American infatuation with pop culture images involving eleven performers: 

Three TV monitors glare out at the audience and remain ever-present through the evening, as much a constant as they are in American lives. At one spot on the crowded stage, a couple grills franks on an outdoor barbecue; at another, three men in astronaut outfits wrestle with a huge coil of metal tubing. Elsewhere nearby, a woman tending flower pots seems about to strangle herself in a garden hose; a sunbather lolls on a chaise, and other characters busy themselves with pets and infants. The sound track mingles Bach, birds and bees, and racetrack bugles. […] Among the most memorable images are those of the quartet of women with ironing boards, turning themselves almost literally into living dolls; the spectacle of a man at first terrorized by a microphone, and then, conquering his fear, using it to deliver a diabolical tirade in a mock-language that sounds like a fusion of Japanese and Swedish; a woman pitching erotic woo to a hair dryer, as four of her friends bounce their rumps on the floor; a platoon of red-eyed toy robots whirring and clanking across the stage as a woman croons “Let’s Bring Back WWI”; and a scene called “Executive Suite” paying homage to Kurt Jooss’ ballet, “The Green Table,” with corporate types tearing each other to bits over vested interests (Alan Kriegsman, Washington Post, February 19, 1988).

The company moved to Minneapolis in 1993 and then to rural Highland Lake in New York State in 2004, where the company offers summer workshops and improvisational exercise programs for training “actor warriors.” Brown and Margolis have presented their productions as “non-linear dreamscapes,” pantomimic satires of American obsessions with popular culture icons and of media-constructed models of consumerist behavior, such as American Safari (2001), in which a suburban everyman, having won a trip to Disneyland, travels across America in a toy Chevy convertible (MB Adaptors Archive). More adventurous perhaps was Vidpires! (1994-1998), a twenty-scene, twelve-person “comic, multimedia movement piece whose central characters are two vampires stuck in the boredom of today’s media culture which both fuels and mocks their sentence of immortality” (Basting 1998: 147-148). These two vampires, Desmodus and Diphylla, appear to “feed on film images to perpetuate their own immortality both on and off screen” (149). The production integrates film and television imagery with live performers who imitate this imagery, and their imitations then become film imagery, dramatizing the “inseparability of bodies and [image] technology” (156). Some of the imagery comes from silent films like The Sheik (1926), in which Brown and Margolis, as Desmodus and Diphylla, enact on film their sadomasochistic relation to immortality in the 1926 style of film pantomime with intertitles. In other scenes, performers manipulate screens that project clips from movies and TV shows: a man pulling an “almost medieval” cart filled with TV screens showing Mickey Mouse cartoons; Desmodus holding on his arm a TV set depicting the playing of a violin, so that it appears as if he is playing the instrument. “In the seventh scene, ‘The Body of Love Video,’ a male and female dancer stood to the right of the stage with their backs to the audience, their naked bodies washed in the hot light of hand-held video projections […] The video was another rapid succession of looted classic film images, this time of kisses rather than death scenes. As the performers moved slowly in unison, the film images contorted to the shapes of their bodies” (157). The guiding idea of the piece is that a culture built around a vampiric consumption of film images nourishes a sort of life-sustaining or, as Basting puts it, age-denying uncertainty concerning the distinction between “real” (mortal) and mediated (immortal) bodies. But despite its emphasis on voiceless performance, MB Adaptors has for a long time ceased to identify itself with either mime or pantomime, claiming that it is a “performance ensemble” which constructs its “dreamscapes” out of a collaborative process, as if mime and pantomime had lost all allure in describing a postmodern performance sensibility.

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