This summer at the Minnesota Fringe, I introduced both my audience and myself to mime with text. I haven’t yet watched the video – I like to give myself a bit of distance if there is no urgent need to review and revise – so I’m not entirely sure how successful I myself think this foray was. But simply doing it brought into sharp relief something anyone who has studied mime is well aware of, though we may not alway state it as such. Our culture is wholly unaware that there are different styles of mime.
This is a testament to how completely Marcel Marceau dominated the field in popular culture. His devotion to silence, his neutral mask and costume, and his Chaplin-esque style, have come to be the definition of mime. But think about this for just a moment. Mime is the oldest form of theater in the world – it probably began with cavemen describing their day’s hunt around a campfire. Furthermore, it has existed in some form in almost every culture that has ever embraced theatrical presentations. Obviously different styles have developed. And yet, even as a student and practitioner of mime, I am only truly familiar with the styles that emerged from western Europe, from Commedia to Corporeal Mime. I am aware that there are Russian and Polish schools of mime, and that there is a strong Asian tradition, but I really couldn’t tell you much about these.
Fortunately for me, the 20th century was a fertile time for the development of mime in The West. Marceau himself grew out of the work of his fellow French innovators Etienne Decroux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jaques Copeau. And early film and TV captured for us an American tradition honed by performers on the Vaudeville circuit and clearly present not only in silent film but also screen favorites such as the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and Danny Kaye. These are my inspiration and influences.
Of course, once text is introduced the line between “A Mime Piece” and a performance that uses mime is as blurry as three fingers after a good night at your local Irish pub. And when it becomes abstract, the line between mime and dance can also become quite difficult to distinguish. But then, artists have never been known for coloring strictly inside the lines so I’m not sure that matters. Suffice it to say, there is a rich and fascinating variety of styles lurking behind that simple word, “mime”.
From Decroux’s repertoire, Love Duet, performed by students from the International School of Corporeal Mime in London.