OK, I know I have taken some pains to stress that mime does not have to be silent. Nevertheless, inspiring an audience’s imagination without the aid of words or music is a formidable challenge that all actors should take seriously. It is not easy, and these days making a virtue of silence feels like a counter culture movement. Decroux once said that “One of the characteristics of our world is that it is sitting down. Corporeal Mime stands up. It enjoys representing the world, and all those who work with their body… To be in mime is to be a partisan, a partisan of movement in a world sitting down.” I would like to add that to be in mime is to be a partisan of silence in a world woken by alarms and lulled to sleep by late night talks shows.
In my experience, there are two aspects of this issue: how to make the audience comfortable with silence, and dealing with silence myself in rehearsal. Our audience is coming into the theater from a world where it is now possible to fill every waking moment with sound, and many do. We must take this into consideration when deciding how silence is introduced, and how it is interspersed with text or music. There is no formula for this; it depends on the overall tone of the show and judging how long an audience can sit in silence before becoming uncomfortable, which is also effected by whether or not you expect them to be laughing (which produces sound). The main thing is that silence needs to be treated as an element of the performance, it needs to be chosen and worked with in the same way you would choose and work with a piece of music or a prop. Think about how it is introduced, how long it will last, and how it is broken.
Of course, working on solo material involves my being in silence a lot. All my pieces are developed largely in silence, even if they are eventually performed with music. That way, the rhythm is dictated by the action and the character, not by the music. The music is there to accompany the actor, not the other way round. In addition, for me silence is a necessary ingredient of creativity. It clears away outside distractions and gives me the space to find the movement which is proper to the dramatic tone of a piece. To be totally honest my brain distracts itself quite enough without help. Once I am focused, however, silence is integral to the kind of reflection and work that leads to good storytelling.
But even I eventually want some auditory stimulation. I am not unaffected by the spirit of my time. Occasionaly I wonder what it must have been like to live in a time before the internet, TV and radio when, if you wanted music, you sang or played an instrument. As much as I love my iPod, I do not think we fully understand the impact technology has on our lives and I believe that an acquaintance with silence is a source of strength for the human soul and for the actor.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. When and where do you experience silence? Are there particular activities you tend to do in silence? Or if you find silence rare or uncomfortable, can you explain why? Leave a comment.