Physical Discipline in the Theater: Mime

This is part of an ongoing series of posts that address the use of various physical techniques in a performance context as they relate to Synetic’s work. This is not meant to be instructional, but rather an exploration of how movement technique can be used to create theatrical or cinematic moments, moods, atmospheres, and ultimately tell stories. As with everything on this blog, discussion is welcome and the author makes no claim to be an absolute authority on these disciplines – this is meant to address the application of physicality to the theatrical experience as it applies to Synetic.

One of the foundations of Synetic’s training is extensive practice in pantomime technique. Mime is one of the most basic disciplines in the theater, though it is often given no more than passing attention in modern actor-training. Mime is, at its essence, about telling stories with the human body, creating a theatrical world that is larger than the physical body that portrays it, and guiding emotion and plot through attitudes of the body.

The history of mime goes back to the very origins of theater itself, and to go into it here would require more room than this blogger has, though wikipedia does a fair job of summing it up.

Etienne Decroux (a student of Mr. Jacques Copeau, who we referenced in the Fitness entry a while back) was called the “father of modern mime,” and thought the discipline so significant that he called for a 30 year period in which no words would ever be used on the stage, as well as no “alien artists” (actors only folks! no musicians, dancers, or singers). A bit extreme, but his point was that the theater in the early 20th century had swollen to such a complex state that actors were unable to fulfill the basic physical demands of storytelling with the body — tradition had mired the actor in the declamation of speeches everyone already knew, standing in front of kicklines, and getting stuffed into restricting costumes.

Ensemble Mime at its best -- the Banquet scene from "Macbeth" (photo credit Raymond Gniewek)

Ensemble Mime at its best -- the Banquet scene from "Macbeth" (photo credit Raymond Gniewek)

Synetic’s history is intimately tied to the tradition of Mime and its relationship to physical theater. Before coming to the United States, Synetic’s artistic director, Paata Tsikurishvili, toured Europe in a professional mime troupe based in Germany, Mimodrama. Upon coming to the States, Paata and Irina used mime shows to introduce themselves to audiences before they were even able to speak English (a skill which many attest they have grown significantly in). Synetic’s work is still based in physical improvisation and storytelling, only using text when it is necessary.

As it relates to training, mime is a discipline all on its own. The actor must continually practice to remind his or her body how to create the invisible world with the body. One of the basic principles of mime, for example, is a “deadpoint.” This the creation of a point in space which is immovable — i.e. an actor places his hands on a “wall”, while touching the wall, the hands stay in the same “deadpoint” in space, while the body of the actor moves around the space, creating the illusion of a wall. To keep the hand shape of the wall and train the nerves to move the body around the hand, not the hand around the body, takes continuous practice.

The most important lesson I always take away from mime, whether performing in a children’s show or practicing in training, is the importance of physical specificity. The technique of creating a weight, a flying umbrella, or a rope, requires specificity in every part of the body, from the hands to the heels — and mixing creations, telling two stories at once, generally leads to confusion. The body must fully commit to one “beat” of the story before moving on to the other. We can’t say to the audience “I’m now pulling on a rope”. We must see the rope, grasp the rope, feel its weight, then begin to pull it, as we do in life, but in such an amplified way that the illusion is no longer illusion but story.

In the creation of scenes in Synetic, this approach is applied on both small and large scales. The details of each particular movement that Dracula takes in a small scene are all worth spending time on — the vampire enters a room, smells the blood in Jonathan Harker’s veins, sees him cut himself, reacts to the blood, then moves, then speaks. The breakdown of cause-and-effect that is so essential in mime carries over into the spoken scene — if Mr. Istrate were to simply charge into the room and start speaking, we would lose the sense of story in that moment — of the words coming from a physical event.

Alex Mills, Ben Cunis in "Dante" (photo credit Raymond Gniewek)

The spiders in Dante did some extensive mime-web work -- in addition to jumping on people

This same approach applies on the large scale as well — just as the mime must establish each piece of the world around him in a series of causes and effects, so must the playwright and adaptor establish each character and piece of the story in order to have an effective narrative flow — and it all must be accompanied by the attitudes and emotions that make a story worth following.


~ by synetictheater on September 9, 2009.

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