Language without words

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 July, 1996, 12:00am

Listening to Gregg Goldston and C Nicholas Johnson talk about the image problem that plagues their art form you would be forgiven for thinking they worked in the murky world of 'glamour' photography.

But think not of busty women in silk stockings and suspenders and instead of the common trappings that are the image of their craft - white face, white gloves, blue striped shirt, black pants and black upturned hat - and you realise we are discussing the far less risque world of mime. So why is there an image problem? 'Everyone thinks mime is the act on the street corner,' says Johnson, who is part of a five-man company from the United States, the Invisible People Mime Theatre, performing at the International Arts Carnival. 'Modern mime is a very new art form. People haven't seen enough to know there is great mime and when they see it in the streets, they think that's what it is.

'Most of those acts are buskers or students trying to learn mime. It goes a lot further than that.' The mention of mime conjures up the image of its most famous living artist, Marcel Marceau, who, aged 73, has been artistic advisor to the Ohio-based company for four years.

'Marcel made mime so popular. In some ways the art was stifled because he made it look so easy everyone did it but no one trained hard at it. Everyone thought it was a solo art and audiences got tired of it because it was so over-exposed,' says Goldston.

Now, a resurgence of mime has taken it beyond the level reached at its most popular in the 1970s.

While Marceau has been mime's greatest exponent in the late 20th century, it was his mentor, Frenchman Etienne Decroux, 'the father of modern mime', who developed the concept of the invisible world and the stylised art of gesture.

It is the illusions that everyone knows - the leans, the walls, the robotic walking - that first attracts people to mime, but the illusion is secondary, says Johnson.

'The real art of mime is to strip away as much movement as you can and leave pure feeling, to get to the essence of what you are saying.

'It is a sort of visual poetry. We find that without words our work can bypass the mind and go straight to the heart.' Mime, which comes from the Greek word for imitation, has forms which can be traced back to the ancient Greek amphitheatres, but has its modern roots in the theatre, not dance. Though it is a physical art form, it is less interpretive than dance and is about telling a story and moving the audience, says Goldston.

'Mime compresses a great deal of information into a very short space of time. In a certain way it is a cameo art, about isolating a certain event or certain theme in a very short space of time, which makes it more potent than theatre.' Cautious of talking about its image, Goldston and Johnson, who have run a mime summer school in Ohio since 1980, are eager to emphasise the fun and exciting nature of mime, which is not all 'long, sad faces'.

Some of the earliest mime artists were the greatest comedians of this century, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin - who influenced and inspired Marceau's early work. Clowns and circuses, too, have also been a potent influence in mime, as has vaudeville.

The company choreographs shows for a particular audience.

'We have made a show for Hong Kong that has a lot of comedy that children will enjoy, but adults will appreciate it, too,' says Goldston.

'That is one of the great things about mime. It is like cartoons. They are often devised for adults, not children, but people of all ages enjoy them, seeing in them what they will.

'We know we can do comedy, be funny and creative. It's important to get the audience laughing, but we also want to deal with social statements, political or intellectual. As a company we don't want to be all one or the other.' Seeing the Invisible includes The Derby, a mystic act on a magic hat; the romance Fanny in the Park; the nostalgic Marionette and Life Song, on the joys and fears of parents watching children grow up.

Johnson choreographed Angel's Rising, about human beings' behaviour from the beginning of time, from the amoeba, the first cell of life, to a final nuclear holocaust; it compares competition and vanity and how they can be destructive forces.

In one part there are two apes; one finds a rock, the other a stick, and they want to find which is the more powerful, so a fight begins.

'The ape with the rock throws it at the one with the stick, who swings the stick and bang, baseball is born,' says Johnson.

'Children find it very funny but adults see other things in it. It is full of colour, light and movement.

'For me, there wasn't enough theatre in dance or movement in acting. Mime is a bridge between the two art forms. We isolate thoughts and feelings and separate them. We are sculpting.' Forget the standard mime tricks, walking the dog or pulling a rope. Mime has come of age.

Seeing the Invisible, Cultural Centre Studio Theatre, July 26-28, $50-$180. Tickets from Urbtix