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Friends of American Mime are people who have
been moved by this medium and who contribute their,
time, skills, and money to achieve the further
recognition of American Mime. Contributions are
tax-deductible to the extent of current laws, and
should be made payable to:
York, NY 10003
This year the American Mime Theatre—a Manhattan-based professional performing company and
school—is celebrating the 55th anniversary of its founding in 1952 by Paul J.
Curtis, who invented the artistic medium that has come to be called American
Mime. But what exactly is American Mime? And why, as a professional actor or
dancer, should you consider studying it, even if you have no intention of becoming
a mime, at least not of the traditional Marcel Marceau ilk?
American mime is a unique combination of playwriting, acting, and moving
that is quite different from the familiar French school of mime exemplified by
Marceau. "He is a pantomimist," Curtis explains, "and pantomime and mime are
not the same thing. Pantomime is the handling of imaginary objects or situations.
Mime encompasses any form of silent performance. It's a broader term.
When a pantomimist is performing, you don't have to believe it or empathize the
way you do with speaking theatre. You just see it and are entertained by it. But American
mime is more like a play, in that if you don't believe the characters up there, then
it's nothing. In American mime, everything has to be motivated; it has to be
me. And of course we don't wear white face." American mime actors perform
symbolic acdons and express the feelings of their characters honestly through motivated
movement they call "form."
Actors interested in honing their movement skills and dancers interested in
improving their acting ability may find the study of American mime unusually beneficial
and creatively gratifying. "Most of the people who study with us have no
intention of being American mimes," Curtis says. "It's too 1imited.You couldn't
possibly get enough work. But all kinds of performers study with us. For example,
we've had a great many magicians study here simply to improve their performing
skills. We've also had clowns and circus performers. We've even had singers."
Curtis stresses that the study of American mime is for serious performers interested
in deepening their understanding of acting and moving and really embodying
what it means to be a professional performer. It is not for those looking for a
quick, easy workshop that will help them secure a job. Courses in American mime
have been offered at more than 20 colleges and universities, including Cornell,
Brown, and Sarah Lawrence, and at professional training academies such as rhe
American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Circle in the Square Theatre
School. Open classes are offered continually at the company's New York studio
and in Paris.
Creating a New Art Form
In honor of the anniversary, a documentary
is being produced about the creation and practice of this unique art form.
“I never set out to create a new art form. It just grew out of my need to train performers
to do the kind of theatre I was interested in producing after I got out of
school," says Curtis, who was trained by Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic workshop
of the New School for Social Research. "That was a wondeerful training operation
they had going on there. Marlon Brando was an acting student there; Tennessee
Williams was a playwriting student. And the school had two theatres that presented
public performances almost every night of the week. It was a truly exceptional arena
in which to train. I studied directing under Piscator, who took a liking to me,
and I was fully trained by him."
While at the school, Curtis got involved with a small group of students
who considered themselves artists of the theatre. “We weren't really interested in
the commercial theatre," he explains. '"We were interested in the traditions of theatre
and the development of it as an art form. And one of the big things our little group
of theatricians was always trying to do was put together the ideas of acting and moving.
We explored work from the Bauhaus and from Brecht's early theater—Piscator
was Brecht's early director, by the way—and we went out and saw everything
we could. We looked at the Noh drama, the Kabuki, and the French and
Italian pantomime. I was trying to put them all together in different projects."
Upon graduating in 1949, Curtis realized that as a young unknown director he
was not going to be given a job of any importance. "So I decided I'd put together
a presentation of a new kind of mime," he says. "I went to Equity, explained my
idea, and asked to use a group of professional actors and dancers to mount a performance
at the 92nd Street Y, which was really a dance house at the time. And even
though I told them I couldn't pay the performers, Equity gave me permission to do
it anyway. So to make a long story short, we put together a series of seven plays and
performed them for an audience that was mostly dance-oriented. And we got a very
strong response. I was told that we had shocked them, because what we did was
much more direct than what they were used to seeing."
It so happened that one of the people in the audience was the renowned
modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, who came backstage afterward and invited Curtis to
work at his dance colony in Massachusetts, Jacob's Pillow. "I was unsure of how
to respond to his invitation, because I had been planning to move to California to
try to make films," Curtis says. "But my performers all wanted to continue with
the work, so we decided to go on with what we were doing." He quickly discovered,
however, that there weren't many performers around capable of doing the
type of work he wanted to create. He would have to offer training, but there
wasn't any training system in existence that he could call upon to develop the
kind of performers he wanted.
"Mv problem was that most actors couldn't dance, most dancers
couldn't act, and none of them could do both at the same time,
which was really what we needed,” Curtis says. "If you force a dancer to relate as
directly to other performers as we need them to, in order to create empathy,
then they feel as though they can't move anymore. And if you ask an actor to pick up
his form really high, then someone who has spent years learning to motivate feels
as though he can't act anymore. Both groups of performers were stcuggling very
hard. So we started to make up what we call 'procedures,' exercises that would
produce a kind of performer who had the ability to act and move at the same time."
Over time, Curtis and his company developed the syllabus of procedures that
is currently used in American mime training. One of the main procedures is
called "preparation" and is done together by the whole company. "The goal is to
produce individually and collectively a creative state," Curtis explains. "It lasts 15
minutes and is done together silently.... We're on our 24th version of it. But now
there exists a definitive textbook of the procedures."
Curtis' company eventually did accept Shawn's offer to work at the Pillow and
wound up performing and teaching there for many years. The work continued
to grow in popularity, and soon the company shifted from performing adaptations
of previously written works to creating original plays. The American Mime
Theatre is now believed to be the oldest professional mime troupe in the world.
The company once did a show for the illustrious French director and mime
artist Jean-Louis Barrault, who asked Curtis, 'What do you call your work?"
When Curtis responded, "Mime," Barrault decreed that it was most definitely
not mime but suggested that it could be called "American mime." "And that's
how we got our name," Curtis says.
Words: Deda Kavanagh in foreground; Jean Barbour, Dale
Fuller, Arthur Yorinks.