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The Invisible Edge


By Mark Olsen, 1992, Dayton, OH

"The art of mime has fallen from favor of late. For long, 'anyone with make-up, slippers, and a knack of annoying people could hit the streets and claim to be a mime.' Professional mimes became clowns, dancers, storytellers, and puppeteerseven stage combatants!"

Today, mime bashing is in! Consequently, except for the occasional joke in film or television or on a cartoonist's panel, the art of mime seems to have all but disappeared. There are very few mime shows and the once plentiful population of street mimes has (some would say 'mercifully') dwindled to nearly zero. But it is not as though they died off, like a species facing extinction. Indeed, mime has survived and, in some ways, flourished by using its chameleon-like ability to assimilate into other creative modes.

'The art of mime has fallen from favor of late. For long, 'anyone with make-up, slippers, and a knack of annoying people could hit the streets and claim to be a mime.' Professional mimes became clowns, dancers, storytellers, and puppeteerseven stage combatants!'

Many professional mimes, for example, have become clowns, new-vaudeville artists, actors, dancers, puppeteers, and yesstage combatants! The power and range of this adaptation makes it apparent that, although currently unpopular as an art form, mime is nevertheless an unmistakably useful skill. Any craft which gives performers an edge; enhancing the depth and accuracy of performance in a wide variety of areas, can't be that bad.

My personal experience with mime (yes, I dare admit my tainted past) has become so integrated into other skills that for many years I have taken it for granted. That is until last summer, when I learned that Etienne Decroux sometimes called the father of modern mime, had died.

Upon reading the announcement in the New York Times, March 22, 1991, I was flooded with memories of my earlier days as an aspiring mime, I remembered countless hours dedicated to learning what seemed an infinite language of movement. I recalled the great debates among my colleagues regarding Decroux and his work, versus the work of Montanaro. Kipnis, Avital or Lecoq. The debates were always heated and often confusing. But regardless of one's point of view, one think was certainly clear: Decroux's work had a level of sophistication by which all other styles were measured.

In those days, mime (in the generic sense of the word) was taught in nearly every theatre school around. It was considered an essential ingredient in the formation of a successful actor. Today, it gas dramatically faded from the scene. Why? Why has mime gone underground? Why do many performers whom once proudly called themselves mime artist, currently disavow any knowledge of their previous lives, preferring instead to work as clowns, puppeteers, storytellers, movement theatre actors, jugglers, comics - anything but mimes?

In my view, the obvious answer is that the art of mime had unwittingly created an archetype that became an object of public derision. Unlike the romantic ballet dancer or the loveable circus clown or the heroic martial artists, the skinny, white faced, stripped-shirted, bell-bottomed, pixie-like creature that began appearing in parks, malls, and on street corners, was not the archetype destined to stand the test of time.

At first, the public was impressed with the novelty of people who did robotic movement, imitated walks, or created some basic illusions. Shields and Yarnell launched their own television show. Marcel Marceau was touring (as always). David Bowie incorporated mime into his act. (Michael Jackson incorporated the 'moon walk' into his act). And there was indeed, a small flock genuinely matured the form and content of their performances. But it wasn't long before the novelty wore off and the public began rejecting the entire archetype of mime

Purists, usually spawned from Decroux's school, bravely reacted against the developing archetype. They eschewed traditional whiteface and exaggerated anecdotal elements of early mime and formulated something entirely different: Corporeal Mime. This new thrust, although interesting, never quite evolved beyond esoteric abstractions; and in some cases, confirming criticism of the art as cold as elitist.

Most damaging, of course, was the fact that anyone with make-up, slippers, and a knack of annoying people could hit the streets and claim to be a mime. Once this began, the art form spurned and diminished with startling swiftness.
'Not every white face in Town Square is a mime.
Not every guitar scratcher is a musician.
Not every house painter is a Picasso.
Not every menu writer is a poet.'
From Mime WorkBook by Samuel Avital.

While accepting, even supporting this collective rejection of the mime archetype, we must be careful not the throw out the baby with the bath waters. Perhaps, as Decroux's often intimated, mime is an art of research and training that is too pure and personal for public consumption.

At any rate, stirred by Decroux's passing and my convictions regarding the precious gifts mime has to offer, I hope, in some small way, to revitalize interest in the art (reclaim the baby, so to speak) by providing insight into how learning the fundamentals of mime can, according to my experience, be superb preparation for the mastery of stage combat.

I will try to present my descriptions in a manner, which avoids, as much as possible, specific jargons and clinical demands of both crafts. Instead, I'll concentrate on terminology, which is generic enough to exist within both worlds.

The first such term is isolation: the ability to isolate one single muscle, or group of muscles, and move it without engaging other muscle groups. Mime training concentrates a great deal on this ability to isolate specific areas of the body. Once isolated, the area is subjected to a wide variety of movement commands.

Isolations are especially valuable in executing clean, distinct stage combat reactions. The ability to precisely localize an injury, deliver a perfect strike, or to play a clean readable reaction that directs the attention of the audience, is due to largely to the art of isolation.

Since mime works with space as an integral part of the discipline, students are taught to be extremely sensitive to the emotional, psychological, and theatrical uses of space. They are taught ways of compressing space cutting space, creating or shattering atmospheres, expanding, exploring and composing all manners of visceral relationships to space.

The student of stage combat must also be extremely sensitive to various qualities of space. Distance is a continual factor in both safety and dramatic concerns. It is equally important to be able to create, sense, and maintain a specific theatrical atmosphere with regard to a particular fight. It is important to be able to 'see' with my inner eye how the body is cutting space and how certain stage pictures look in terms of masking and theatrical effectiveness. Mime training is ideal for acquiring all these attributes.

Mime training also incorporates direct, rhythmic communication, whether in solo, team, or group situations. In a very short time, even beginning mime students develop the ability to synchronize their kinetic systems with others, playing in harmony or in counterpoint to them.

Stage combat is a rhythm-based art form as well. Combatants must often perform complex rhythmic phrases demanding the execution of several rhythms simultaneously.

Mime training, with all of its emphasis on rhythm, would provide a definite edge in stage combat.

Both comic and serious theatrical exaggeration is often employed by mimes; a quality that is undeniably one of the hallmarks of Fight Master Patrick Creans's excellent work.

Both art forms are also concerned with the magic of creating illusions. The combatant like the mime artist is directing the audience attention away from the mechanics of the craft and into the reality of the scene. Both performers must act am illusion, must execute the movements with enough energy to carry the house, and must themselves believe in the action.

Very often the combatant must give the illusion that a weapon is heavier or lighter that it really is. And all combatants must give the illusion that their weapons are sharper and more deadly than they really are. A combatant must also give the illusion of strength, weakness or injury where none exists.

Ultimately, both stage combatants and mimes are actors and must have the ability to be convincing, authentic, and powerful. Good mime training results in full body acting, crisp attention, and the ability to fill moments on stage with choices that are engaging and strong. In good mime training, acting values are constantly integrated into the technique.

Considering all it has to offer, mime is undeniably a good, if not one of the best, preparation for stage combat. Sharing in this, of course, are all manners of martial arts, some sports, some dance, and obviously fencing. But none of those forms employ the powers of imagination.
Characterization and illusion that mime does. And none of them speaks as directly to the actor.

I've been fortunate enough to study with no less than five of the great mime teachers in the world. I have worked and studied with first generation instructors from at least four other master mime teachers. All of these teachers are unique and have their individual tastes and perspectives. All are honorable, dedicated, and inspired artists who have admirable courage and vision. None of them however, fit the image of the typical mime that has become the unfortunate modern archetype.

Good mime teachers today are closer to the archetype of ancient tribal keepers of the flame. Decroux, who remained unmoved by the whims of fashion, worked steadily throughout his life, passing his flame to several generations of artists, who in turn nurtured it and now continue to pass it on to others. And his only light among many that still illuminates the arts.

The glow of the art is occluded at present, hidden in the shadow of fashion, yet, as these things go, it will no doubt resurface. Until then, it can serve to enhance related fields as they evolve and grow. From the ashes of the fallen archetype, mime emerges like an invisible phoenix that embraces all movement arts.

I hope this article can serve to encourage anyone who wishes to prepare for, improve, or extend the range of possibilities in the realm of stage combat, to seek out a good mime teacher and acquire the edge which can lead to greater and greater levels of excellence.


Editor's note:

Mark Olsen is a professional actor, teacher, author, and director. Associate Professor, Penn State School of Theatre, University Park, PA. As an actor, Mark has performed leading roles with the Cincinnati Ensemble Theatre, The Human Race Theatre, and the international touring cast of MUMMENSCHANZ.

He recently played the title character in an independent film entitled Rocky Road. As a movement specialist, Mark previously ought at Carnegie Mellon University, Ryerson Theatre School in Toronto, Wright State University and the University of Houston. Mark is currently an associate professor of movement at Penn State University, where he teaches Tai Chi, Mask work, Organic Physical Acting, State Combat, Ritual Theatre, and Mime.

Mark has also served as secretary of the Secretary of American Fight Director and vice-president of the Association for Theatre Movement Educators. He has directed over 30 productions and choreographed fights for over 60 productions in a variety of professional venues which recently included the Dallas Theatre Center's production of Angels in America, The Alley Theatre's productions of Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar (with Vanessa and Corin Redgrave), Romeo and Juliet at the Houston Grand Opera, and Pericles and As You Like It at the Houston Shakespeare Festival. His new book, the first in a two-volume set, The Actor with a Thousand Faces, is due out next fall from Applause Books in New York. He is the author of the Golden Buddha Changing Masks. A series of essays on the spiritual dimension of acting.

Note: This article is a condensed version of Mark's article especially for the MovingEdge© newsletter. The original full-length article was published in spring '92 issue of Fight Master magazine. I will welcome your responses and experiences for this article.

"Samuel brings awareness to the soul of people and gives the artists who work under his direction the need, dedication, and love for the world of silence and the beautiful art of movement."


- Marcel Marceau, BIP 1961

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LCDS is an independent school for self-discovery through the human Arts.  The school offers seminars and workshops teaching the concepts of Theater, Mime, and Movement.