Eclecticism in Mime Theater

Eclecticism Cover Image

Performance Without Limitation

The work of Tony Montanaro and Jacques LeCoq

ec•lec•ti•cism

noun, practice of deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.

Philosophy

The theories or methods of the ancient Eclectic philosophers, who did not belong to or found any recognized school of thought but selected doctrines from various schools of thought.

This lecture will be a mix of personal experience combined with the history of mime and its eclectic outreach as I see it. Eclecticism is a conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions, but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories in particular cases. This is often done without conventions or rules dictating how or which theories were combined.

Mime has been culturally eclectic since its inception, from Asia, to Africa, Europe, and the Americas mime was always culturally integrated, and not always isolated from the arts of singing, dancing, and storytelling as the form was purified in the twentieth century as being strictly silent. Mime has historically been the secret foundation of all stage arts, for without it, theater would be nothing but words and more words. When Shakespeare stated in Hamlet as he instructs the actors, “The action is suited to the word, the word to the action” he was referring to mime. The Japanese Noh Theater has long had a traditional discipline of mask and movement, the Chinese Opera likewise has a long tradition of mime and physicality that developed outside of the western tradition, and the bushmen of the Kalahari incorporate incredible mimesis bordering on shape shifting as they tell stories about animals and the hunt. All these approaches are effective, and have contributed to our understanding of the universality of the human body to express and create context. The language of gesture is a primal part of humanity, and mime has ever been among the first arts. From the primitive indigenous peoples describing the hunt, by evoking the movement of the animals, mime was the most basic method of communicating. This is because a single gesture or imitation spoke more than volumes of words and condensed them into the most efficient way to communicate emotion and idea. Mime was, and is, direct and universal. That is its power.

Indigenous Fire Dancer

Post World War Two Theater heralded a revolution in the art of mime. New techniques and concepts ripped the door off the predictable past, and new talents brought them out of the closed studio and the realm of research into public awareness. 

In the Millennial era mixed media and mixed mediums became the norm more than at any other time in history because of the rise of technologies and global communication. Back in the day, here in the USA I was on a panel for the National Endowment for the Arts called Inter-Arts where the NEA was promoting and supporting the concept of mixed mediums. The pendulum swings, in the beginning there was a raw and undefined art of mime that was built on the need to communicate, and then there was a purist form that evolved, then it was integrated into popular theater and, and through another medium contributed to the advancement of public awareness of mime via television and film. From the Red Skelton show featuring the pantomime blanche of Marcel Marceau, to the robotic comedy of Shields and Yarnell, to Mummenshanz and their innovative mask work, to the eclectic relationship of puppets, masks, mime and voice found in Julie Taymor’s direction of The Lion King. The new wave of theater represented all the elements of theater working in a symbiotic relationship to serve the whole, while simultaneously showing each art to the best advantage. In the Lion King we see animal heads, legs, tails, appear as extensions of the actors’ bodies. We see the puppeteer as hybrid performer creating character through constructed appendages. Puppeteers are no longer strictly invisible entities hidden behind a curtain, but appear in full view, alongside or intertwined with their objects and are brought to life through the mimetic ability of the performers. Mime is an integral part of Cirque, of Broadway, and even Hip Hop culture. When physicality that expresses meaning is embraced in those productions the presence of mime is revealed and this meaningful expression provides substance to what would otherwise be pure spectacle.

My professional studies in mime began with Tony Montanaro in 1974 at Celebration Barn. I was still in high school the first summer I studied with Tony. As I write that date today in May of 2020 it is approaching fifty years of study. I say that because I am still learning from the path that Tony Montanaro set me on at seventeen years old. At that time I was a young, inexperienced, hungry novice on a spiritual and theatrical quest. Tony fulfilled my quest by taking me under his wing as an apprentice and eventually a performing partner. 

I bought Celebration Barn in the Mid-1980’s and created an eclectic roster of master teachers to build a summer institute.  Although it may have looked eclectic from the outside the thinking behind bringing specialized master artists into the Celebration Barn fold was this: If you took every single offering that was presented, mime, circus art, voice, combat, Kyogen theater, Commedia D’ell Arte, mask, you would have a thorough experience in a wide range of disciplines that would further your career as a stage artist. I was in pursuit of a sort of renaissance artist who was skilled in multiple disciplines. My feeling was that to survive and prosper in the industry you should prepare yourself for multiple incarnations and career reinventions, and the ideal of Total Theater was also part of this approach I brought to Celebration Barn. Now it is more a series of unrelated workshops, but my goal had been to build a true school. At that time I even thought that a course in acting for the camera would be useful, and I had begun research on making that offering just before selling the Barn and going to California in 1990 to pursue a career in film making. With the onset of the current pandemic, this would still be a useful skill to have in your artist’s tool bag as during the period of social distancing; digital performances were often the only way to reach wide audiences.

The Digital Stage

During the pandemic of 2020, I was performing virtual programs on green screen, and using the camera frame much like they did in the silent movie era. My own eclectic combination of mime, magic illusion, and film had been called on like never before, and I embraced the creation of new work using movement through the digital medium. Foundational movement work retains value and effectiveness even in the ones and zeros realm of Zoom, YouTube, and other online venues. There was a reason the early mimes and entertainers gravitated toward silent film and the film medium, now during the pandemic the value of blending the mediums is even more pronounced.

Although Tony passed away in 2002, almost twenty years ago at the time of this writing, I still feel his teaching in an experiential way. I especially feel his presence when I set about creating a new work. In my experience, that is the true measure of a master. What made Tony Montanaro’s work so impactful was not just that he was a wonderful performer, but that he was a profound teacher. He loved his students, and his students had great respect, loyalty, and love for him. That is the true measure of a master, not only the impact they had on mime as whole, but the transformative influence they have on the lives of those they guide.

As I began my studies with Tony it was revelatory. I realized I was in the presence of a master on the first day of lecture and class. When Tony entered the doors at Celebration Barn he entered prepared and was excited about what his mind had been revolving on the previous day. He exuded charisma, passion, a deep intellectuality, and it was all founded on a spiritual premise.  Our days started with a short talk that set Tony’s theme for the day, often delivered as we stretched, did the yogic sun salutation as a group, followed by rolls, basic acrobatic drills, and techniques to develop the mime vocabulary and wake up our bodies. That was the morning ritual. Mornings were devoted to technical instruction that improved and expanded the range of our physical vocabulary. Afternoons we had time to imbibe the techniques, and work on our own material. Two to three times a week we would have evening class where we would present material for our peers and Tony’s critique. 

In the beginning there was a lot of physical foundation work, a building of illusion mime technique, the practice of Decroux vocabulary and classical pantomime training. Tony had invented the “wall” illusion while improvising with his friend Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, and little did he know that in years to come it was to be the very first thing the public thought of as “mime”. Tony had first utilized the illusion in his “Nightmare” sketch on Broadway. It was a classic where the walls close in smothering the mime until he wakes up. Of course, as it always seems to happen, the sketch and the illusion was lifted by derivative performers and became a cliché of the art form. Even Marceau lifted his concept if not his technique in those formative times by creating The Cage where the walls of the cage get smaller and smaller. Tony always laughed about that, and in some way felt honored that Marceau would do that. In these early years Tony was a true drill master and our bodies were honed and built to be technically strong. In later years Tony was less interested in physical mastery and more focused on the eloquence of the mind/soul/body integration, it was a maturation of his ideas and approaches to theater. Much of the culmination of his work is found in his book Mime Spoken Here and in the lessons he put down for the camera. My film Theater & Inspiration covers his life and impact in documentary form.

Tony Montanaro performing "Nightmare"
Tony Montanaro in "Nightmare"

When I first arrived at Celebration Barn, Tony had already collected a movement theater ensemble called Celebration Mime Theater. This company was an innovation in the popular theater scene of its day, and was making a buzz among those looking for an alternative approach to creating theater. They got a grant from The Beatles Foundation and created a piece built on Rocky Raccoon; they received a grant from The National Endowment to perform The Mother Goose Suite by Ravel with a live symphony, they did a national television commercial in the days when there were only three broadcast companies. Tony and the ensemble continued to build a reputation as they toured to colleges and performed at venues like the Open Eye in New York City. No one had seen mime like this. An ensemble of bodies creating impressionistic choreographic figurations, or as Tony called them “graphics”. This was mime that had moved beyond the boundaries of silence and story based pantomime, it was the first time modern New York audiences had seen this kind of mime theater. It was a minimalist theater celebrating non-linear impressionism, choreography and the accumulative power of ensemble figuration. Five people transformed into a tractor, a roller coaster, a cathedral, a chess game, and on and on. Physical graphics, and figurations working in combination with Sound Poetry was a true innovation for that moment, as up to that point mime had been literally boxed in. Here is a transcript of the review that appeared in the New York Times:

The diversity of American mime is so vast today that, as the Celebration Mime Ensemble proved on Sunday, it is an art form that can readily take in social comment, comedy routines and spoken dialogue. The group, which is based in South Paris, Me., and directed by a former New Yorker, Tony Montanaro, made its New York debut in a series of weekend performances at the Theater of the Open Eye.

The chief difference between the troupe and other mime groups, of course, is its frequent use of speech, not merely as a voice-over narration, but as dialogue among the characters themselves. A program note suggested that the six performers were meant to see themselves not exclusively as practitioners of the silent art, but as “total” performers whose roots were in the commedia dell’arte.

Certainly the commedia dell’arte was popular entertainment and it might paint a more cogent picture to suggest that the Celebration Mime Ensemble is closer to the cabaret style skits of Nichols and May and television situation comedies—the popular entertainment of our time—than the stylization in most other mime groups.…The actors—for that is what they are—are skilled in their movement technique, which only occasionally dips into classic mime. Frequently they score points by reacting to what they impersonate. “Camp Wahoo,” an amusing takeoff on summer camp, depicted an archery range in which a forearm shot up on a human target after the archer releases an arrow. A wrestling match was one of the sharpest numbers in “An American Collage.” The program was completed by “The Dog,” a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Mother Goose Suite,” based on the Ravel score: a circus piece and “Grab Bag,” full of tricks.

This ensemble garnered grants from the Beatles Foundation to create a piece based on Rocky Raccoon, a grant from the National Endowment to create a performance of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite with a live symphony, and was touring to colleges and universities. They had become a phenomenon in the American mime circle.

Tony Montanaro
Tony Montanaro
Mime Students
Celebration Mime
Celebration Barn Historical Image (1970s)
Celebration Barn 1970s
Celebration Ensemble Egg
Celebration Mime Ensemble's Eclectic Egg Logo

Eclecticism may be a reaction to the stricture and structure of purism. It demonstrates a need to work and think outside of the accepted norms of the period. At that time the success of Marceau had defined the public definition of mime, and Tony himself, the inventor of “the wall” made a choice. He chose to blow the very tradition that had made him a success, out of the water. This fresh approach to mime theater was expressed as an accumulation of ideas rather than a linear plot; it was poetry more than plot. The sum of the experience was greater than its parts. It was an inspiration and it freed the imagination to see whole worlds created in this way. The powerful use of ensemble choreography and figuration was what Tony called “graphics”. A bit like haiku in that the images created had multiple meanings that were often inferred and not pedantically pointed out. It was a theater where the audience filled in the blanks, where sets, costumes, and props were almost non-existent and where the actors became all the elements. One of the few times I saw his ensemble use props; it was newspapers that they used during their impression of New York City. They were doing a series of choreographed crosses across the stage carrying them, and as it began to rain they put the papers above their heads. As the papers were shaken they provide the sound of rain, turning into a downpour. Impressionist mime was not dance, but it embodied the physical freedom that dancers draw on for movement abstraction and it was a theater built from essential images and ideas, all of it illuminated through movement. 

Tony had the ability to be a purist of classic proportions and demonstrated eloquent technique when it came to pantomime, and this was embodied in his solo mimes like Golf, War, or Baseball, but he was also a skilled actor, choreographer, improviser, and director. Teaching such varied artists as harpists, sculptors, storytellers, dancers, jugglers, comedians, and magicians, they all called on his expertise. In ways that challenged expectation. His students were truly an eclectic mix if ever there was one, in the end it was his ability to rise to this challenge, and fulfill a need among performers that fueled his own eclecticism. This is the universal power of mime to give support to other arts; this is because physicality is so fundamental when it comes to any performance and is intrinsic to all human expression. 

In the latter part of his career Tony would perform with his wife Karen Montanaro. Karen was a prima ballerina in her own right, ballet is a demanding physical art that is supremely demanding of perfection. Karen was very successful working some of the top dance companies of the day. Her classical discipline and Tony’s ebullient inspirations led to highly creative performances that were completely movement based. Pieces like Excellent Birds, movement choreographed to the incredible collaborative composition by Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson. Because Tony was in the latter part of his career I was deeply impressed by his creative artistry and beautiful collaboration with Karen. Today Karen works as in a medium she has titled Mime Dance, and teaches mime, dance, and movement. She is primarily a soloist as well as an outspoken advocate of arts in education. She co-wrote the book on Tony’s teaching methods and was Tony’s muse and inspiration. She credits her work with Tony and her transformation from the highly technical world of ballet, to a fuller physical and spiritual level of work that she was unaware of prior to meeting, studying, and working, with Tony and his method for creating theater.

Tony & Karen Hurll-Montanaro

Contemporary off shoots of Tony’s influence include the Obie Award winning performances of former Celebration ensemble members, clown Bob Berky, acrobat Fred Garbo, who created a triad with the ground breaking juggler Michael Moschen in a successful Broadway run. One reviewer wrote:

 “-through the magic of Bob Berky, Fred Garbo and Michael Moschen, the members of “Foolsfire,” it becomes a circus ring, a forest, the stratosphere — or, if you let yourself see it, the infinitude of the universe”

Defying description is one of the experiences that this wave of theater artists, and those performers who represent the off shoots of mime training, often encounter. It is hard to categorize originality, and novelty. The eclectic work of this trio showed each artist to their best advantage, and that synergy is a hallmark of the eclectic process. 

Another offshoot of Tony’s ensemble process was the Canadian mime group Jest in Time. They created new physical graphics and figurations as well as adopting some of the legacy work of the Celebration troupe through Tony’s direction. They became a highly successful touring company. Sherry-Lee Hunter, Christian Murray, Mary Ellen MacLean, Shelley Wallace and Franz Rinjbout worked intimately with Tony Montanaro and his unique approach to creating physical magic and devising impressionistic mime theater. The company achieved international success, and their fast paced characterizations melded elements of satire, physical comedy, social commentary, slapstick, and movement theatre. 

People came out of Celebration Barn looking like themselves, not like clones of a specific pedagogy. Pedagogy is useful for developing a sustainable and repeatable learning experience, and it may define the teacher and the school, but it is not necessarily what defines the artist.

As disparate as it sounds, even the popular American television host Tom Bergeron credits Tony’s theater training with his success, Tony taught Tom to be himself and do things in his own way, and not copy the traditional mime route. Tom uses his training in subtle ways when he is working in the high profile world of national television, and his career has led him far from the field of mime to hosting national game shows like America’s Funniest Videos, and the incredibly popular program Dancing with the Stars. 

Tony’s call did not turn these performers into professional mimes, but the training opened their minds and bodies to their own spirit of self-expression and taught them authenticity.

Jest in Time
Foolsfire

Louise Gifford and Delsarte

Tony was exposed to a high level of physical theater before his training with Decroux and Marceau by Louise Gifford of Columbia University who introduced him to the work of Francois Delsarte, and Ted Shawn. She opened the world of Modern Dance and the disciplines of physical performance to Tony. At first Gifford thought he was an egotistical, and superficial young student, but one day Tony had been researching in the library and came across The Delsarte System of Oratory. He bubbled over with excitement and made an appointment to speak with Louise, and when he disclosed what he had been researching and his thoughts on Delsarte, Gifford was taken. She said, “Tony, I misjudged you.”  And she opened up her extensive library and research on Delsarte. They remained fond friends throughout their lives, and obviously Gifford was a big influence on Tony. His early career and education at Columbia University was formed by this respected academic researcher, and expert historian on mime, acting, and dance. For years she taught movement, mime, and theater at Columbia. Gifford wrote the preface to Ted Shawn’s book Every Little Movement. 

In the eclectic spirit of this project I should mention that, she also wrote a chapter in the seminal book for magicians called The Amateur Magician’s Handbook where she admonished magicians to study movement and incorporate the language of the body into their work. She described appropriate body mechanics, and stage movement applicable to magicians and in doing this Gifford demonstrated how mime can influence all kinds of performing arts and disciplines. Here is an excerpt of what she wrote: 

-To acquire good body mechanics the use of observation and memory is important. In pantomime training, many exercises are given to sharpen observation of how people walk, sit, react, etc. in everyday life. Everyone is aware that feelings and body attitudes are closely connected. Body attitudes are made through feelings, and are shown through, and only through, muscle contractions, muscle extensions, or muscle release. Our vocabulary to describe the physical coordination called posture, carriage, or bearing consists of words for feelings. Posture is accepted as a symbol or indicator of an emotional condition. The words “dejected,” “elated,” “despairing,” ” hopeful, ” “joyous,” “sadly” bring to memory various and contrasting pictures of posture. Take weariness or dejection as an exercise. Carefully observe the muscle pulls or posture of a dejected or very weary person. Such a person is easy to find on any street. Observe carefully, remembering that the whole body-trunk, legs, and feet- is included as well as the already skilled arms and hands of the magician. Practice this pattern of physical coordination with the entire body as carefully as a palming pattern or coordination for magic.

-Louise Gifford, The Amateur Magician’s Handbook-

Specialty arts within theater, arts like magic, can become insular and practitioners can fall into the trap of purism just as a ballerina does. As you can surmise, there is a natural triangle of connection between mime, acting, and dance and this foundation spreads out into the other performing arts, in fact all the arts with an element of physicality are supported by mime. Some of these ideas were first put into print and action because of the scientific approach to gesture laid out by Francois Delsarte.

Etienne Decroux by Christian Mattis
Etienne Decroux (1975) by Christian Mattis Schmocker (mattis.ch)

Delsarte

Delsarte was a revolution in understanding the science of gesture. He was the first Western artist to codify the language of gesture, and create a pedagogy that built an awareness of meaning as it related to the movement and centers of the human body. His theories of movement began in his quest to become an opera singer. After attending three different schools of singing because none of them seemed to have the right technique. Subsequently he found his voice had been ruined by bad instruction, and he would never be the opera singer he dreamed of being. Shattered, he took a job working as an orderly in a hospital for the terminally ill. The conditions in 1800’s were often barbaric, and he developed a doctor’s attitude toward the vagaries of watching people die, and working with the bodies of the deceased. He adopted a scientific outlook, and in so doing observed that the thumb of those giving up the will to live withdraw into their palms, and that the corpses in the mortuary all had their thumbs withdrawn toward their palm. He saw the thumb as a “thermometer” of vitality. This was to be the basis of his system for understanding human physical expression and gesture, the first science of movement. He divided the body into trinities based on his observations. He proposed laws, accords, and ideals, and he transformed public awareness of gesture. He developed methods of performance based on an analysis of the human attitude and gesture and became a tremendous success. Too successful, his work became so popular that his name became associated with ideal physicality and suddenly his name (without permission) began to appear on shoes, clothing, and even wooden legs! Posing took the place of performance, and his work devolved into superficiality and was heavily misinterpreted and forgotten until a new generation of movers and shakers rediscovered him in the mid twentieth century.

Tony understood and had a certain mastery of Delsarte that other mimes eschewed as antique, or destined only for the opera. Tony applied the techniques, interpreted and taught an understanding of the Delsarte System that few teachers have been able to articulate. His deep study and research into the science of gesture was integrated into his whole persona. It was not something that was posed, he used the system to create natural, and eloquent gesture that revealed character, attitude, and emotion.

It was remarkable to watch him illustrate the concepts and ideas of Delsarte in a way that was so intelligent, meaningful, and effective.

Francois Delsarte
System of Oratory

The LeCoq Revelations

My introduction to the work of Jacques Lecoq was meeting Avner Eisenberg at The Festival of American Mime in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1978, and then seeing the phenomenal work of Mummenshanz in the early 1980’s, and then meeting and studying with Bari Rolfe. The performances that came out of Lecoq’s school were completely different in performance as can be imagined, yet they were based in the same pedagogy. This resonated with me because it repeated Tony’s call to burgeoning mimes to be your own person and celebrate an individual style and not be a clone of a clone. 

Mummenshanz used masks, and not the classic Commedia or theater masks; they used original, abstract items as masks. They were not anecdotal story makers; they created a sense of immediacy versus an expectation of plot. They used masks made of dough, toilet paper, and more. Sometimes their whole bodies were masked, yet they communicated their ideas through movement and without words. At that moment they were completely innovative and unlike any other concept of mime seen to that date. Much of this impact was because of Lecoq demanding work without anecdote.

Masking was integral to Lecoqs work. From the clown nose to the full body mask, this physical transformative tool was integrated into his mime and movement work from the very beginning.  Lecoq began not as theater artist or mime teacher, but as a physical education teacher. I believe his approach was pedagogical because of this academic, science based, background.

The huge contribution Lecoq made with the universal (neutral) mask was brought home to me by Bari Rolfe.  Bari was Lecoqs first ambassador to teach his approach in the United States.  She was a master of the universal mask and was deeply appreciated by Jacques Lecoq. Bari wrote volumes on mime, mask, and movement, but her books don’t capture her character. She was a bright, sensitive, and insightful presence. Bari was a true master of the neutral mask and held a deep understanding of Lecoq’s Fundamental Journey, his mimetic architecture of the archetypical human journey. Bari taught this process to me, and what I learned by improvising with Bari Rolfe during Neutral Mask assignments taught me how to physically embrace the state of consciousness where there is no past, no future, just the present. All was done as if for the first time, I improvised and knew that I understood because she told the class she had nothing to say. That, for me, was the best of affirmations. She transformed people and how they saw themselves. I have never experienced anyone more insightful. I brought both Bari Rolfe and Avner Eisenberg to Celebration Barn to teach their individual approaches to performance, and co-taught workshops in mime and mask with Bari. Avner still teaches at Celebration Barn and I have great respect for both of them, but Bari’s contribution to the academic history of mime is enormous and prolific it was a great loss to the intellectual community of mime when she passed away. Bari wrote a favorite book of mine called Mimes on Miming that interviewed a huge spectrum of artists and revealed their approach and thoughts on mime as an art form. It is also an exhaustive history of mime and its eclectic roots and manifestations. 

My favorite quote from that book is from Carlo Mazzone-Clementi the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte master and founder of The Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater in Blue Lake, California. He said, “Mime is a preliterary condition; definitely the alphabet was created by illiterates, probably mimes.” 

Students of Jacques Lecoq have included members of the Theatre de Complicite, which he helped to found, the mime ensemble Mummenshanz, as well as the actor Geoffrey Rush, the directors Ariane Mnouchkine and Steven Berkoff, the dancer and choreographer Joelle Bouvier, the mime clown Avner the Eccentric and the playwright Yasmina Reza (”Art”). Other students include architects, psychoanalysts and a clergyman, a mark of the eclecticism intrinsic to mime. In fact the title of his show Tout Bouge (Everything Moves) is in itself a declaration of eclecticism.

As a mime, Lecoq was not as well known internationally as Etienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau, a pupil of Decroux. Lecoq rarely performed, or even spoke much about his work. But he was considered an extraordinary teacher of mime, a few weeks before his death Lecoq said to his biographer, “I am nobody. I am a neutral point through which you must pass in order to better articulate your own theatrical voice. I am only there to place obstacles in your path, so that you can find your way around them”. These obstacles gave birth to some astounding and profoundly creative theater that helped define the mime of the twentieth century.

Mummenschanz publicity photo from NPR
Mummenschanz

Lecoq became involved in mime in the mid-1940’s when, in training to teach physical education he met Jean-Louis Barrault and founding members of L’Education par le Jeu Dramatique, a movement linked with Antonin Artaud. Later, he worked with small but influential theater groups, among them that of Jean Daste in Grenoble, where Lecoq taught movement and gesture and learned about the Japanese theater of Noh and the use of masks which had a profound influence on him. Lecoq also taught in Germany, moving on to Italy in 1948. In Padua, the brilliant sculptor Amleto Sartori agreed to help by creating the seminal neutral mask made of leather for Lecoq. Mr. Lecoq also became close to Giorgio Strehler, organizing his Piccolo Teatro theater school, and worked at the Cinecitta film studios, and with Dario Fo, the famous Italian comic, actor and playwright.

Lecoq did not admire French mime trends of his time, believing, he said, that it was important to move ”toward open mime and not toward the mime which is enclosed in its own silence.” He trained his students with strenuous physical and emotional exercises, which ranged from acrobatics to clowning. Struggling to make their classmates laugh, students learned to be funny from within. Wearing masks, they learned how body movements could turn facial blankness into expression. They worked through neutral masks, character mask, clown, ensemble figuration, and bouffon each research adding to the eclectic milieu of his pedagogy. Mime, Lecoq taught, was not imitation or even virtuoso technique. Though disciplined and stylized, good mime could be spontaneous and even playful. It could ”liberate the body, and reveal innate cultural differences among nationalities. ”Now your job is to get over me,” he told students graduating from the two-year program.

Lecoq performed a one-man show, Tout Bouge (Everything Moves), in the 1980’s and taught a master class, Le Corps des Choses (The Body of Things), in Europe and the United States. I met him at a master class, and it was lovely to see him in the pub after the course as our social group of mimes took over the dance floor. He was a humane and accessible person, very charming. 

It is obvious that mime and its offshoots have had a tremendous influence, not just on opera, theater and film but on other arts and on world culture as well. When the pressure walk techniques researched by Decroux and Barrault, developed during their period at Copeau’s school of theater in France, were appropriated from Marceau by Michael Jackson and renamed “The Moonwalk” it became part of the burgeoning hip hop era and erroneously credited to Michael Jackson. This is the curse of popularity and cultural influence, the history of mime can be revised by popular social mythologies. Just as Delsarte was appropriated by other cultural influences and turned into a commercial endorsement without permission.

Even Decroux’s approach to systematic movement using the axis of the human body has been similarly appropriated by the world of dance and hip hop. It has become to a certain degree pedestrian public knowledge, and it’s historical source lost by the new generation of movers.

Jacques Lecoq
Marcel Marceau

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. My personal work has been influenced heavily by Tony, and Lecoq, as well as artists, thinkers, and scientists in other disciplines. I will continue my own eclectic approach and push forward in my personal quest to develop my own path, but will forever be thankful for the guidance my genius gurus have given me, their foundation has helped me, and will continue to help, countless others in their quest to find their artistic muse and be wholly themselves. These teachers are the bonding agent that brings disparate elements together, that supports the evolution of theatrical art into something new and unique. Without this eclectic embrace, it would not be a living art, it would simply be a historical museum piece repeated ad infinitum, it might be beautiful on one level, but it would be lacking life, immediacy, and vitality.

Mime itself will continue, although it has its pendulum swing of popularity. For example, in American theater it is in a dark period, as is much of society during this pandemic, but it is such an intrinsic part of theater and humanity that it will never disappear unless humanity itself vanishes. It is true that the techniques of mime have morphed into other performance disciplines, to be appropriated and camouflaged by the allied disciplines it supports and elevates, but that is not a negative. It shows it’s power. The art is still influencing street performers, puppeteers, hip hop artists, clowns, jugglers, magicians, musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, contemporary performance artists, psychologists, even reaching into the realm of design and architecture. Mime is the hidden ally that elevates all the arts and empowers them to communicate eloquently from the heart, because it is the most human of arts.

Leland Faulkner performing at Celebration Barn

Some photos in this post are made available by Pexels.com. Pexels offers free to use images that share the work of photographers from around the world to help promote their art. Visit these talented photographers by browsing Pexels.

Pexel images in order of presentation: Marcelo Chagas, Chait Goli, Panel Danilyu, Quang Nguyn Vinh, Niko Twisty and Cottonbro Studios. 

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