Sunday, September 23, 2007

Adieu Marcel Marceau

I awoke this morning to find that Marcel Marceau has died at age 84. While it is somewhat fashionable these days to put mimes down as annoying freaks of nature, I would beg to differ. The art of pantomime at its finest approaches the sublime, connecting artist with audiences via the use of invisible objects and circumstances. It is an art that makes great demands of both audience and performer, stimulating creative thought processes from both sides of the proscenium arch.

Artists like Marceau, Etienne Decroix, Jean-Louis Barrault, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton have left us a significant body of work that continues to inspire and entertain us.

My own involvement with the art of pantomime began as an undergraduate theatre student. At the time I knew nothing about the use of my body to express character, and admittedly began every acting role by seeking the voice rather than the walk, gesture and stance. I had never had any training that developed the mind-body connection -- until I came face to face with David Alberts who was hired to teach a one semester course on mime. (Alberts has written several books on the art of mime, the most recent one is called Talking about Mime - An Illustrated Guide).

Alberts was the first strict acting teacher I encountered. By strict, I mean there was no fooling around in his class and we were expected to master the pantomime skills he taught through endless repetitions. I had never encountered anything so demanding, and I knew that I was at the bottom of the class. It was painful to force my body into positions that had to be precise and achieved with apparent effortlessness.

Our final exam for that class was to create and perform a solo mime. I can't remember what I did, but I will never forget the nerves and chills involved with going in front of the class with only my body as a means of communication. Once we had all finished, Alberts (who had never displayed any emotion other than professional discipline in teaching the class), smiled at us and said that he didn't believe in grading art, so he was giving us each an A for the course! That also left a huge impression with me, and it is a policy I continue with my own students.

After college, I realized that I knew so little about the art of acting, that I needed to go elsewhere. I moved to the east coast and first took up with a method acting teacher. She did nothing for me other than make me doubt myself even more! I was then hired by a women's theatre company that was using Grotowski techniques. It was there that I began to understand the deep physical base of emotion and the connections between action and thought. When our company performed at the New Theatre Festival in Baltimore, I came face to face with Leonard Pitt, one of the earliest and greatest of the post-modern mime artists. I watched his one man show and immediately signed up for his workshop, and eventually left the east coast so I could spend a year at his school in Berkeley, CA.

Leonard had studied with Etienne Decroux in Paris, the great teacher of so many 20th century mimes, including Marcel Marceau. After years in Paris, Leonard turned to Bali and lived there for three years, studying with the great mask makers and performers. He then returned to the United States to begin a synthesis of what he had learned from the great eastern and western mime traditions.

Studying with Leonard took me back to those bottom of the class feelings once again. It was far harder than anything I'd attempted before. Leonard had a way of zooming in on each student's particular physical problems or "blocks" as he called them. These were places where internal tensions prevented the body from moving freely.

I remember one exercise that he made me do over and over in front of the class. It involved the upper torso balancing on the pelvic girdle then falling forward to hang between the legs. He wanted me to understand physically what I was doing wrong and I didn't get it. Finally, I realized I wasn't following the instructions which were that the entire spine and head must fall as one unit. I had been tilting my head back every time I launched into the movement. It sounds so simple and unimportant, but that day and that exercise taught me a powerful lesson about being centered within my body. My habit was to be disconnected from my body -- it did one thing while my head was elsewhere. You can't act with body and mind separated! It is a lesson I continue to teach every day in my acting classes.

These are the thoughts that came to mind this morning as I contemplate the loss of Marcel Marceau. I also remember the times I saw him in performance at E J Thomas, one small and extremely powerful and expressive body taking control of that enormous stage. I am glad I got to see him and even more happy that I found my way into the mime classes of David Alberts and the mime school of Leonard Pitt. Without them I would not be where I am today.


clawson said...

Hey there, Village Green thespian. The background you described on Leonard Pitt is so intriguing! It's incredibly interesting that one workshop could lead you to relocate from coast to coast in pursuit of your studies. The bit about Bali and the masks reminds me somewhat of Julie Taymor and the life experiences that shaped her to the point where she created the Lion King masks. I am looking forward to seeing her Across the Universe! Are you?

Kerry Clawson

Village Green said...

Thanks for writing, Kerry. Yes I am looking forward to Taymor's movie. Her success as a director brings hope to thousands of young women who may now step up to be directors (a job that unhappily is still dominated by men).

Leonard was an amazing man -- his body could do things I can't even describe! The show I saw was a solo piece called "2019 Blake" (after an address in Berkeley)with many memorable moments. In one section, he pulled off his sweater in such a way that it wrapped around his head and formed a mask, and then another and another as he rapidly changed his body into all these new sweater-driven characters. In another section, he stuffed paper into his mouth, which changed the shape of his face into more new masks. It was a non-linear show filled with startling transformations. He worked with George Coates, who had one of the most cutting edge companies in San Francisco called George Coates Performance Works

Sadly it looks like the company is no longer active. I've tried to find out what happened, but to no avail.

microdot said...

Here I am back at home for a few days because of the exceptional cold weather that is preventing the grapes from ripening...I go back for a five days starting Monday, but it's always a surprise to see what has happened in the world when you are "unplugged" for a few days.
I felt compelled to comment on this article because I am such a fan of the great silent movie comedians, Chaplin, of course, but I absolutely worship Buster Keaton.

I wonder if you are aware of the work of James Thieree, who is the grandson of Chaplin. He is around 30 now and absolutely brilliant.
He has inherited the looks and sheer grace of his grandfather and performs a lot in France, though he should be a star all over the owrld. I have seen him a few tiimes and he is one of the best mime/acrobat/comedians I have ever seen!

viola said...

Most warmhearted remembrances of Marcel Marceau.