Thursday, March 20, 2014

Channeling Marcel Marceau

While I enjoy all types of theater, mime has always kind of creeped me out. I think it's the white face.  What's that all about anyway?  While I understand that the make-up is just a type of costume, the immediate association is with clowns and, as I've said before, clowns are not my thing.

Bill Bowers
Despite this mindset, I was thrilled to be invited to a mime recital of sorts put on by the first and second year students at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory.  The students had been working for a week with Bill Bowers, a master of mime who studied with Marcel Marceau. (Bowers is also a traditional actor who appeared on Broadway in The Lion King, in film in Two Weeks Notice and in numerous TV shows including, of course, Law and Order.)  When asked how he came to work in mime, Bowers explained that he grew up in Montana, a place with open spaces and vast silences.  Telling stories without words seemed a natural form of communication to him.

Bowers started the presentation with the somewhat surprising information that mime and pantomime are two different things.  Really???  Pantomime is the art of telling silent stories for which Marcel Marceau is known. The classic example is the person trapped in an invisible box. In mime, on the other hand, actors can incorporate sounds and words as they use their bodies to create a shape, an image or an idea.  With this explanation, it was time for the students to show off what they had been working on all week.

"Eiffel left"
First up was some pantomime. The students started with some isolation exercises in which they "articulated" different parts of their bodies.  (People who watched this season's So You Think You Can Dance might remember Fik Shun's audition in which his head moved in ways that made it seem entirely separate from his body. It was astonishing, and it was fun to watch the actors work on this skill.)

Then the students were prompted to move their entire bodies as a single unit. This is called "Eiffeling" (yes, like the Tower -- Marceau was French after all). The students swayed to and fro as they reacted to a wind that the audience was unable to feel.  The "story telling" then progressed to bicycling and climbing ladders and pulling on ropes.  They ran in slow motion (with Bowers singing the theme from Chariots of Fire).  With that warm up, we were on to some mime.

Helicopter
The students began by miming different modes of transportation.  The audience was asked to close its eyes and count down from five as the actors got into place.  (Interestingly, I found that this process significantly enhanced my anticipation.)  In the skit pictured here, the transporation in question was a helicopter.  Andrea Adnoff, the pilot, welcomed her passengers and suggested they don their headsets because it might be a bit loud.  As the scene progressed, the helicopter's main and tail rotor blades (played, respectively, by Ally Farzetta's arms and Olivia Williamson's leg) began to spin.  The audience clapped appreciatively when Bowers called out, "End scene."

The students acted out forms of transportation as varied as a ski lift to a Prius to a hot air balloon.  One of my favorites was their creation of a space shuttle (with one student singing "Ground control to Major Tom" and another mimicking the rocket booster as it detached after lift-off).

Next up was the personification of household items.  The rendition of an old fashioned two bell alarm clock was one of the funniest things I have ever seen.  Trust me when I say that this was one snooze button you didn't want to hit.

From the myth of Icarus
The final portion of the presentation was the performance of three stories from mythology:  Icarus' flight too close to the sun, the opening of Pandora's box, and Narcissus' echo.  Each group of students had had less than 30 minutes to figure out how to present their assigned myth.  It is way too complicated to try to describe here how the stories unfolded, but each was wonderful and surprising and extremely well done.

When Bowers was asked about how the students would use their new skills, I anticipated that he would talk about the importance of body language and facial expressions in traditional theater.  Instead, he talked about productions with minimal -- or no -- sets in which the actors are required to use mime to create a sense of place.  One example he gave was Peter and the Starcatcher, a play that I saw in New York last year.  Interestingly, when I looked back at my post about the show, I had mentioned that Steven Hogett received a credit for "movement" in the playbill and had commented that "cast members use a rope to define both space and mood throughout the play."  Little did I realize that I was seeing mime in action -- and loving it!  Bowers also mentioned that the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night has been made into a play that will open on Broadway next fall.  Again, the actors will be called upon to create the set through their movement.  I hope I get a chance to see the show.

The afternoon was great fun, and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to see these young actors working on their craft.  I came away with both a better understanding of the art of mime and an appreciation of how powerful a tool it can be in an actor's arsenal.  I'll be on the look-out in future Conservatory productions to see how the students put their new skills to work.   I can't wait.

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