How to write a mime play

In the early 1930s, Irene Mawer wrote a book called ‘The Art of Mime’ in which she explained the history and the technique of mime. A section of the book is devoted on how to write mime plays and although Miss Mawer’s language and terminology is considered very old fashioned in our modern age, the ideas are still sound, even today.

Miss Mawer’s chapter is split into four sections, and in today’s blog post, I will look at the first three: “In considering the composition of mime plays for teaching we will approach the subject under these headings: choice of subject matter; development of plot and construction of scenes; choice of music…”

Subject Matter:
The list of possible subjects for a mime play is endless. Although Miss Mawer warns that mime exerts its own limits on what can and can’t be mimed, she then goes on to say that you needn’t be worried about it as “the limits are so wide as to be almost negligible. Broadly speaking, any subject with dramatic significance can be made into a wordless play.”

For children, fairy tales and nursery rhymes still hold attraction, also modern TV characters or legends of ‘long ago’ : “All legends make good mimes, for they are simple and full of dramatic power.” No matter whether the subject is old fashioned, modern, or futuristic, the important point is that it should capture the imagination. Of course, as well as fantasy, every period from real-life history can also make a good basis for a play. “Any of these sources will yield you an almost inexhaustible supply of material.” Most of all, choose a subject which is suitable to the needs and abilities of the children who will be taking part.

At the same time as you are choosing your source material, you will also need to bear in mind how many children will be in your play. If you have a cast of thousands, you will need material which can include crowd scenes. Not everyone can have a starring role, but crowd scenes ensure everyone will get a chance to take part, and for the less experienced child, being part of a crowd will offer support without the fear of exposure to ridicule. In addition, if one of the lead players needs to drop out for any reason, it is a relatively easy matter to bring someone forward if you already have a crowd to choose from.

If you are stuck for a subject then Miss Mawer suggests looking to the stories of the Harlequinade characters…we are always safe in using them. However, I would question how appropriate these are for younger children? Miss Mawer explains that each character is a particular type of personality: “Harlequin, the successful lover; Pierrot, the poetic lover doomed to disappointment; Columbine, half-butterfly, half-mortal girl, the eternal type of heroine; Pantaloon, the old man; Polchinelle and Scaramouche – all the family of them” (though to the modern eye, there is a definite lack of ethnic and gender diversity!). While the original characters are dressed in their distinctive costumes, today’s playwright can take the characters out of their showy spangles and place them into modern-day situations, the clothes change but the personalities stay the same. They can be modern people, with modern names and modern lifestyles – and the traditional characteristics will still shine through. As Miss Mawer puts it “Their stories may, of course, be adapted to our own tastes and needs, provided we keep within the conventions of each character”.

Any proposed use of the Harlequinade brings us nicely on to the subject of whether or not to use stylised gestures. If your play is set in Seventeenth Century Italy, and your characters are dressed in the costumes of Pierrot and Harlequin, then yes, by all means use the traditional Commedia gestures. However, if your play is set in the Stone Age, or on a modern, gritty, housing estate, then the stylised gestures would be completely out of place. It is perfectly possible, though, to invent your own gestures, for example, if the play was set on an alien world, then you are completely free to design whatever language you wish. By ‘becoming’ the aliens, the children could devise their own language, possibly starting with the Commedia gestures as a basis and building from there.

Miss Mawer gives a word of warning in relation to movement: “Never mix your mediums”. By this, she means that regardless of which period in time is chosen, decide which type of movement you want, and then stick to it – and remember, it is not a dance! Miss Mawer clarifies that a mime play and a ballet are two completely different things; although it is possible to insert a dance sequence into a mime play, “the play itself must rely for its medium upon the technique of mime.” So the mime play should not be danced.

Plot Development:
Having discussed subject matter, Irene Mawer then goes on to talk about the development of the plot and what consideration should be given to the construction of scenes. Miss Mawer acknowledges that inexperience in these matters is likely to cause difficulties, so bear in mind that the play should have a beginning, a middle and an end; try and keep the action in the centre of the performance space; the audience is (usually)watching from the front; don’t have more than one important thing happening at a time, otherwise the audience are likely to miss what is going on; whatever actions the crowd are doing should fit in with whatever is happening in general in that particular scene. The following is a guide:

“A mime play should be short.
– Any changes of scene should be varied and each should be interesting in its own right.
– There should be clearly defined (a) the opening, (b) the climax of dramatic intensity, and (c) the conclusion.
– The interest should be very definitely centralized: literally as far as possible in the centre of the stage.
– It must be borne in mind that the point of view of the audience is pictorial, and that it is impossible to take in more than one thing at a time by means of sight. Consequently, no two important events must occur simultaneously, and all by-play in crowd-scenes must lead to the central action.”

Irene Mawer gives the following hints:
– The opening should set the scene with an unmistakable atmosphere, period and place.
– In order to involve the whole group, from time to time during rehearsal, everyone can have a chance to practice all of the different parts. This can be done as group work.
– It is useful if there is a climatic scene which gives opportunity for crowd work, this not only allows many of the cast to be involved, but also has the powerful effect of a stage full of people all working together.
– Developing the ending can be the most difficult aspect – it needs to leave the audience in no doubt as to the conclusion of events and works best with a ‘feeling of pictorial satisfaction’ (basically the cast move and stand in places that look good to the audience).
– Within the play, contrast is required. Even a comedy can not sustain humour for the whole length of the play. Indeed, emotions are better understood when highlighted against each other. In the same way, characteristics of individuals show more clearly when they are contrasted.
– Movement across the stage is important, eg, “don’t let everybody come on and go off in the same place”. This tactic is called the ‘ground plan’. As the plot develops, aim to use different areas of the stage from time to time. The ground plan should remain the same each performance, in the same way that the ‘track’ of a dance repeats itself for each show.

How to begin and end a mime play?
Irene Mawer has two suggestions:

The first option is to start with a ‘picture’ which is arresting in itself. By this I think she is imagining the raising of the curtain to show a stage already filled with actors, all of whom are as still as statues. This makes a great ‘picture’ which is then brought to life as the action begins.

The second option is to start with the building of a picture at the beginning and the unbuilding of a picture as an ending. By this I think she means that the actors begin the play by filling the stage incrementally, through making entrances from the wings. The reverse happens at the end of the play, with the actors gradually leaving that stage by different routes and in different rhythms. The danger of this last method being that it may mean a tailing away of interest. Some means of keeping the attention of the audience to the very fall of the curtain must be found.

Choice of Music:
If music is to be used, then it would be lovely to have it composed especially for the play, giving individual attention to each scene. However, Miss Mawer realised that this was not always possible. In addition, in the Twenty First Century, mime is viewed more as performance art and is very different to the style taught by Irene Mawer in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, so today ‘sound’ is as likely to be used as well as, or even instead, of music.

Even so, I still agree with Miss Mawer’s sentiment: “…the music must not be an extraneous accompaniment. The aim is for the player to interpret every note and phrase of the music, as well as the atmosphere of the music as a whole.” So music (or sound) should not simply be a background effect, it should have a point and ‘speak’ in rhythm with the play. Miss Mawer does not look ahead to our modern times, and does not foresee the use of ‘sound’ instead of ‘music’. Even so, I think her assertion that each note and phrase, plus the atmosphere as a whole, all need to be interpreted still holds good.

If music is to be used, then Miss Mawer gives the following pointer: consider the period in which the play is set and where possible use music of the time. (From my own point of view, I think this distinguishes a mime play from a modern ‘pantomime’, such as we see in Britain at Christmas time. In a panto, music tends to be pop songs which fit the scene and are a method for inserting a dance routine into the story, as opposed to using music of the original period or location.)

So far, I have given an indication of what Irene Mawer advised regarding the writing of a mime play. In a future blog post, I will address her thoughts on how to use the teaching of a mime play as an educational tool.

Author: Janet Fizz Curtis

Janet Fizz Curtis is trained in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement and is now writing a book about the life of Irene Mawer.

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