Michel Saint-Denis

Michel Saint-Denis

Today’s blog post information came not from a book, but rather from a podcast, which is a relaxing-on-the-eyes way to learn the history of the British drama school, and in particular the history of actor training in British drama schools.  

Robert Price’s podcast,

episode 16 of Season One, 2nd January 2021 https://www.buzzsprout.com/1393114/7102135-michel-saint-denis-susanne-bing-and-jacque-copeau-is-the-british-drama-school-really-french?play=true

was the first source of information where I came across Michel Saint-Denis.  When I later discovered that Irene Mawer had invited Michel Saint-Denis to give a lecture-demonstration at the Institute of Mime, I decided to re-listen to the podcasts and find out more.  Thank you to Robert Price for much of the information in this post.

According to Wikipedia, Michel Saint-Denis (1897-1971) was a French actor, theatre director and drama theorist whose ideas on actor training have had a profound influence on the development of European theatre from the 1930s onwards.

Saint-Denis was the nephew of another famous French teacher of acting, Jacques Copeau who worked with Susanne Bing.  Copeau and Bing’s approach included training the actor as well as interpreting the play on the stage.

In 1929, Saint-Denis set up the Compagnie des Quinze (Company of Fifteen) in Paris, based on Copeau’s teaching methods.  On moving to London in 1935, Saint-Denis opened up a school for actors: the London Theatre Studio.

Saint-Denis became a renowned director and worked with Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier.  Later, he co-directed the Royal Shakespeare Company and after WW2 he founded a new theatre school at the Old Vic (1947-1952).

Robert Price places a lot of emphasis on Michel Saint-Denis as having a great deal of influence on the way the drama schools of today teach acting and feels that much of the tradition and innovation of the British drama school is actually French in essence.  I was particularly interested to learn about Michel Saint-Denis’ involvement with mime, which stems from Jaques Copeau and Susanne Bing.  

According to Robert, when today’s drama students are doing improvisation or animal studies or mask work, this is a direct legacy of Jacques Copeau and Susanne Bing, passed down to Michel Saint-Denis who brought the innovations to Great Britain.  From my own three-year training in the Irene Mawer Method of Mime and Movement, I can say that I didn’t do any animal studies or any mask work.  Improvisation however, I think, would be part of any method of mime training, though there wasn’t any particular emphasis on it in my own studies.

I do know that the students of the Ginner-Mawer School took part in a play about Noah’s Ark, in which they had to play the animals (but this doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a focus on studying animal behaviour).  The play was Noah by Andre Obey, and was a favourite of Miss Mawer, who produced it several times with her students.  I was very surprised to read on Wikipedia that the play was published in 1931, and was on Broadway in 1935 as I had not expected Irene Mawer to be so fond of such a modern play.  I had an image of her being immersed in Ancient Greek drama, and Shakespeare, and in character plays from centuries past, and biblical stories (which, of course, Noah is) but I hadn’t previously seen evidence of contact with her contemporaries.  

According to Robert Price, Obey worked with the Compagnie de Quinze and the published version of Noah, mentioned in the podcast as being in the 1930s, is the English Translation for a production with John Geilgud as Noah, and this had an introduction written by Michel Saint-Denis.  And so the Irene Mawer link comes full circle.  

What was the relationship between Irene Mawer and Michel-Saint Denis?  I don’t know – but these are the clues:  

  • 1929 Saint-Denis founded the Compagnie des Quinze in Paris
  • 1931 Albert Obey published Noah and Saint-Denis wrote the introduction (both Obey and Saint-Denis were French).  Irene Mawer enjoyed this play and regularly produced it at the Ginner-Mawer School (sometimes Ruby Ginner would play Noah.  I don’t know when she first produced it for Ginner-Mawer, but Ann Cornford was in it circa 1940 and Susan Mitchell-Smith was in it circa 1953. I don’t know if these were full productions, or whether they were shortened versions.  Also, I don’t know if they were mimes or spoken dramas.  I have never heard an account of Ruby Ginner miming, so I am guessing it would have been spoken word if Ginner was taking the lead.  That is just my guess.  There is also a stunning photo of Miss Mawer in theatrical make-up portraying Noah – so perhaps this would have been a mimed version, though she could equally have spoken the role.
  • 1933 Miss Mawer opened the Institute of Mime  
  • 1935 Saint-Denis arrived in England from France and set up the London Theatre Studio
  • 1938 Michel Saint-Denis gave a lecture-demonstration at the (fifth?) Annual General Meeting of the Institute of Mime.  The title of this was ‘Mime and the Drama’
  • 1947-1952 Saint-Denis opened a theatre school at the Old Vic in London
  • 1952 Saint-Denis moved back to France and later to NewYork
  • 1961 Saint-Denis became an advisor to the Royal Shakespeare Compay
  • 1971 died in London aged 73 

It is my intention to further explore the relationship between Irene Mawer and Michel Saint-Denis through their shared interest in mime.  What did each think about the mime style of the other?  Did they swap ideas?  Were their two styles compatible?  Why did Irene Mawer invite Michel Saint-Denis to give a demonstration of mime for the Institute of Mime?  Why did he accept?  The Institute of Mime aimed to ensure high standards of mime throughout the country – how did this link in with Saint-Denis’ aims?  Irene Mawer-trained teachers were employed at Central School, LRAM, RADA, Douglas-Weber, plus Rose Bruford herself attained mime qualifications through the Institute of Mime – how does all of this link in with Michel Saint-Denis?  A lot to think about, and if anyone reading this would like to chip in with ideas please contact me either via the comments on this page, or through Messenger or email.  Thank you.

The results of this research will hopefully further unlock the secrets of how Miss Mawer’s Method of Mime was used in the training of actors in British theatre.

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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