Features NYC Features Published 3 October 2014

Mime Games

Becky Baumwoll, Artistic Director of Broken Box Mime Theater, broke her silence to talk to us about making mime for the 21st century.
Jordan G. Teicher

Broken Box Mime Theater (BKBX) wants to change the way we think about mime.  Today’s mime, BKBX contends, is not a gimmick or a sideshow. Rather, it’s theater pared down to its most essential and powerful elements (of which dialogue, it goes without saying, is not one). But because it relies on physical gestures and typically simple stories, mime has the reputation of being spoken theater’s less erudite cousin.

Mime is practically as old as humankind, reaching back to the pantomimes of ancient Greece and Rome, India and China, but it evolved over the centuries, into Commedia dell’arte in Italy, English pantomime, and even influenced the stylized gestures of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Modern mime really developed in France, however, in the mid 20th century.  Etienne Decroux formalized the language we understand as mime and trained its greatest practitioner, Marcel Marceau. His character, Bip, in whiteface with a crushed top hat and red flower, is certainly mime’s most iconic persona, and certain of his silent skits, or “mimodramas” such as The Cage, are still instantly recognizable.  Paris remains the headquarters of modern mime and its offshoots, hosting both Marcel Marceau’s Ecole internationale de mimodrame, and the Ecole internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq, with a unique training in physical play that spawned Britain’s Complicite.

Mime has found a home in the USA with companies like American Mime Theater in New York and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. A young addition is BKBX, created in 2011 and incorporating a dozen artists, whose purpose is to “make original stories through mime technique” for the stage without props, sets, or costumes (aside from a simple black uniform and white face paint).

BKBX’s newest work, Topography, premiers at the Wild Project on September 25. Expect a selection of short pieces varying in tone, style and theme, including a cinematic drama set at an Idaho carnival in the 1930’s and a bizarre foray into one man’s fantasy of an anthropomorphized cup of Jello.

Tell me about how new works are created for Broken Box. How collaborative is it?

Oh, so collaborative. This is the beauty and the challenge of the company: a dozen cooks in the kitchen. We are incredibly proud of our ensemble ethos and we believe it’s why our work is so effective. At the beginning of our season we train new members and play a bunch of games, heating up the room with positive energy and imaginative thinking. Then we start to get into our writing, or “Development Period.” We share ideas with each other, develop some as a group through various games and exercises we’ve developed over the years, and then formally pitch ideas on what we call Proposal Days.

For those who have limited or no experience with mime before seeing you guys, what’s important for them to know about what you do?

First of all, it’s totally accessible. Mime can seem a little antiquated, or give the impression of taking itself too seriously. We do neither. We are telling stories in the universal language of body language: it needs no translation, it’s completely inclusive, it’s fun to watch and it’s relatable. Secondly, it’s contemporary. BKBX is comprised of a group of interesting, committed, passionate, grounded young actors who write works that inspire them. We have a modern sense of humor and a great vibe in the theater. Plus, the music is always awesome. You’ll leave wanting the playlist.

Silent disco. Photos by Bjorn Bolinder.

Silent disco. Photos by Bjorn Bolinder.

Who are your mime influences? 

Our definition of mime is simply theater with an extremely limited palette. We all are constantly reporting back to rehearsal with “I just saw this show..” or “Did you hear that song..” or “Have you watched that video I sent you..” because all kinds of art that hit home, that move us, inspire the work that we do.

How’d you get into mime? 

I had the pleasure of being a part of HYPE! Mime Troupe, a student club at Tufts University where I went to undergrad beginning in 2006.  When I was a freshman I saw them perform, and my friend Brendan Shea encouraged me to audition. I got in the second semester of my freshman year and worked with them until graduation. HYPE!’s work inspired BKBX and allowed me to connect all these parts of my art: directing, acting, writing, and collaboration.

Tell me about the history of the company. How did it form?

After graduating from Tufts and moving to NYC to be an actor, many people gave me the advice to “make your own work.” I liked this idea: creating a home base for my art so that I could pursue my career with a support system, an oasis that was within my own control. At Tufts, Tasha Milkman and I had mused about starting a mime company in NYC fashioned after HYPE!, and after a few months in NYC that “own work” became clear: I would start a mime company. I got together with some HYPE! alums in the city, Molly O’Neill, Will Shaw, Armen Nercessian and Brian Smith, and we had our first meeting in the back of a consignment shop on 43rd and 9th. (I had answered a Craigslist ad to hand out flyers on the street dressed as a mime for this woman’s shop – oh, the humanity – and she kindly volunteered her back room for our first meeting.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-3hXpWZZOM

Part of your mission is to “contemporize the art of mime.” What defines contemporary mime for you? What makes it different from classic mime?

Our work reflects our artists: We’re young, we’re curious, we’re connected with our community and engaged in the theater scene in NYC. We’re teachers and artists and husbands and wives, and we bring all of that “real life” into the stories we write. Second, our technique is based in reality. We don’t have a stylized way of moving – rather, we perform as any natural actor would, just without the props in front of us. Of course there’s mime technique that we practice and apply to make those invisible props and sets clear, but in general we would be doing the same movements if we had the props as we do without them; there’s no extra style put on top. Consequently, the acting is not particularly presentational. It’s just like any other play… just with white paint on our faces!

We live in a world of CGI and shrinking live arts audiences. Why should people experience “simple storytelling?”

Because it’s beautiful! Just as there is a place for screens and special effects, there is a place for the simplest, most limited palette. It’s efficient, it’s striking and it will remind you that your imagination is fiercely powerful and deeply valuable. After all, efficiency, as in engineering or economics or design, is just as valuable in theater. It strips away the excess and leaves you with only one thing: the story. Take a break from a screen and come check it out. We promise you’ll leave with a smile on your face.

Broken Box Mime Theater’s Topography is at The Wild Project, New York, from 25th September – 19th October 2014

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Jordan G. Teicher is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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