Teaching Mime Play

In last week’s post, I spoke about Irene Mawer’s approach to creating a mime play for children (Chapter 3 of The Art of Mime). This week I look at the final segment of that chapter, which focuses on how to use a mime play as a teaching tool. This mainly assumes that the play is already written and that the teacher is taking the class through the play bit by bit over the length of a term.

According to Miss Mawer, teaching and producing are two different arts. To produce a play, you need to consider the whole construction of the play, whereas in teaching, the play can be used as the medium to teach the class as a whole, and also to teach the student as an individual. Both aspects need to be thought about by the teacher.

Irene Mawer recommends that each individual scene be used for work by the whole class – even by those students who are not in that particular scene. A skilful teacher will be able to use different scenes to teach some particular point in acting technique. So long as as the play is well constructed, a whole term’s worth of work can come from it. Towards the end of term, each scene can be put together to form a complete whole.

During the term, each scene can provide practice in:
– Stage movement – entrances, exits, walking, running, turning, stage direction.
– Gesture.
– Double scenes where two characters can work together.
– Crowd-work.
– Examples of pace and force.
– Character study.

Irene discusses where the rehearsals should take place and concludes that it is not usual for class work to take place on the stage. (In the rest of this article, for ‘stage’ please read ‘performance space’ as the mime play, particularly in modern times, need not be performed on a stage. A wide variety of spaces can be used.)

Any practice space can be utilised for class work and for rehearsals. Over the years, in Irene’s career, she had to deal with some extremely small rehearsal spaces as well as tiny stages. Two particular examples are the Boscastle years and the Cheltenham years. It is a tribute to Irene as a producer that she was able to arrange the stage work so that it never appeared cramped, even though the stages were each the size of a postage stamp. Students would clear the auditorium of chairs so that rehearsals and class work could take place on the floor of the auditorium, as the stages were just too tiny for the class to work as a whole.

However, Miss Mawer is clear that while the teaching is done away from the stage, the teacher must aid the students to bear in mind that they will at a future time be performing on a stage and the teacher must help the students to develop a keen sense of how the play will eventually fit onto the stage.

Miss Mawer goes on to say that once the date of the performance is close at hand, it is almost essential that the final rehearsals take place on the stage itself: it is otherwise almost impossible to make quite clear and natural a sense of stage-construction, exits, entrances and a sense of ‘giving out’.

Irene Mawer uses the following analogy: “Rehearsing a play in a room is like printing separate pages of type. Performing on a stage is like binding these loose pages into book form.” There will always be something missing in everyone’s minds until they have actually rehearsed or performed in the actual setting.

The same sentiment is true for the use of costume. Miss Mawer states that whenever possible, at least one rehearsal should be performed in costume. Although I have stated that a performance can be without costume, Miss Mawer takes the view that “The pictorial value cannot be completed without costume, which is a most important part of a mime.” However, from personal experience, I have given a three-minute solo performance of ‘Pierrot and the Goldfish Bowl’ without wearing Pierrot’s traditional baggy, white ‘suit’, or any stage make-up. I wore black leotard and black footless tights, and bare feet. I won my class plus the over-all trophy. So costume is not always required, unless one counts performance clothes such as I wore, as ‘costume’. I do agree, though, that costume could add a great deal to the performance by adding visual interest and also assisting the audience to visualise what is happening on stage.

Miss Mawer gives me the impression that some of her students didn’t enjoy the costume and make-up side of things as she is keen to point out that “we should teach the wearing of costume and make-up, not as certain rather stagy affectations to be overlooked as long as possible and then left unfinished and ragged, but as definite and most interesting parts of dramatic technique.” I find this an unusual angle to have taken, as in my (admittedly, very limited) amateur dramatic experience, the actors are mad keen to get into costume and make-up! However, in an email from Eileen (Varley) Stewart, a Ginner-Mawer of 1953/54, I learned that “there was a product that people used to use when they were bare-legged that was a light tan colour – a bit like camomile lotion and it was used in stage make up for legs and arms too. I don’t know what it was made of but at least it washed off, unlike the fake tan that replaced it.” So, I could imagine that if the students were required to cover all of their bare limbs in something similar to calamine lotion, then it is not difficult to imagine a certain reticence (especially bearing in mind we are discussing days long before the power shower)! Or perhaps Miss Mawer was warning against the teacher who was either lazy or fearful of taking on the teaching of costume and make-up and was guilty of leaving that side of things until the last minute, resulting in a rushed and unfinished effect.

I doubt, though, that Miss Mawer’s mime students really wore much make-up. The Ginner-Mawer ‘Old Girl’, Eileen (Varley) Stewart who mentioned the calamine-like lotion was mainly referring to the Classical Greek Dancers, rather than the mimes, and none of the five ‘Old Girls’ that I spoke to mentioned wearing make-up, though they didn’t specifically say that they didn’t wear it. The Greek Dancers showed a lot of flesh, whereas I assume the mime plays were done in costume, therefore necessitating a lot less make-up, possibly just face and hands.

Eileen (Varley) Stewart goes on to state that there are photos of Irene Mawer and Ruby Ginner in mime costume, and both are wearing ‘traditional French blanco’. I have tried to research what traditional French blanco is – but have drawn a blank. If you know, please do let me know, too. Thanks.

Irene Mawer is almost scathing in her remarks about actors who do not pay attention to costume and make-up and obviously expected her students to pay absolute attention to detail “Bad make-up and costume are quite as serious faults in performance of dance or mime as wrongly-executed steps. They show an ignorance of the historical aspects of characterization…Let us be sure, if we attempt one of the dramatic forms, that we complete our work in every detail.”

There is rather a ‘telling’ sentence in this chapter of The Art of Mime, which I feel gives us a great insight into Miss Mawer’s personality “There is no more enthralling branch of historical research than that of the study of the history of costume.” During my own mime training, I was very much made aware of historical clothing and I was required to study period costume extensively. The reason for this was that I needed to understand the particular effects of clothing on the movement of the human body (for both men and women).

Irene places much emphasis on the talent and competence of the person who is producing the play “The play will ultimately depend upon the personality of the producer finding expression through the personality of the performers. Neither should be lost in the final result.”

Discipline is a big part of Miss Mawer’s view of play production, “The producer must have complete control of every member of the caste.” (sic) Irene believed that self-discipline could be taught and it was the job of the teacher to instill it. Individual self-discipline is required “for the good of the greater number, who are in turn welded into one coherent whole”.

So, this blog post describes what Miss Mawer wrote about the method of how to teach a mime play. I have to admit, it does not seem to be very comprehensive. I have yet to study the rest of the book – in which I may find much more information. I will let you know!

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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