Pure theatre | London International Mime Festival 2013

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This feature was written for Animations Online

The London International Mime Festival (LIMF) – a long running celebration of visual theatre – returns on the 10 January. Over 18 days, 16 different companies will perform at eight different venues, ranging from the Royal Opera House to the Roundhouse, via Jackson’s Lane and the Soho Theatre.

Forget January blues – the capital is set to blaze with experimental performances ranging from puppetry and object theatre, to acrobatics and animatronics. ‘Mime’ doesn’t come close to describing what’s on offer but it does highlight one important thing – this is about intense, distilled down theatre, often without words. Festival Directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig explain what it’s like to be in charge of such a beast.

“What we programme requires the audience’s participation, they have to lean forward into the performances” says Helen, acknowledging the fact that theatre without conventional dialogue often requires audiences to work a bit harder. “And by and large the audience who comes to this sort of thing is willing to do that, not just sit back and say ok, talk to me” adds Joseph. “They are people who are willing to take a risk. If you come to these things with an open mind and open spirit, you are affected intellectually and physically.”

What exactly is a mime festival?

For the uninitiated, the idea of a ‘mime festival’ may conjure up images of Marcel Marceau. “If that’s what people define mime as, that’s fine” says Joseph. “But what we are is a festival of visual theatre. Sometimes these things are more easily defined by what we don’t do. We don’t do dance, we don’t do plays and we don’t do shows which have a text – that’s what we think visual theatre is.”

Joseph has been involved since day one, setting up the festival in 1977 with Nola Rae, a mime / clown. They were motivated by the fact British performers were struggling to get work at home. The first London Mime Festival took place in a single venue – the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone.

“There were 12 companies, all British, and it was a huge success” says Joseph. “That first year we weren’t exactly selective, whoever wanted to be in it basically could be. The work was all silent, that was the idea. Thirty something years later, instead of being in one fringe theatre we’re in eight prestigious central London venues. The work is still marginalised – people don’t see it as mainstream, although in many ways it is. Our idea is that, if you put it in important venues, people will take it much more seriously.”

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Puppetry is an important part of what LIMF showcases, with about half the shows featuring it in some way. The directors argue that physical theatre and object theatre make sense together. “To give expression, life and emotion to something that you know logically is string or wood or latex is extraordinary” says Helen. “But you can’t give life to an inanimate object without understanding how the body works and moves. Animating a body and animating an object start from the same place for me.”

How do Helen and Joseph come up with the programme? They may start off with a long list of 200, which needs to be cut down massively. They pick what they think “is good, interesting and current” explains Joseph. “And what we think the audience – who are by and large intelligent – would like, not what they’ve already seen. There are shows we could have that we know would be a box office success but that’s not what we’re funded to do. Although we’re also not funded to go bankrupt, so we calculate risks.”

Helen adds that matching companies with the right venues is a consideration. “We actively collaborate with the venues. This year we needed an open space near central London for Ockham’s Razor (‘Not Until We Are Lost’) and so that’s on at the new Platform Theatre at Central Saint Martin’s in King’s Cross. And there’s also budget to think about. 50% of our income comes through the box office. We have to keep the programme appealing to the public and also take risks at the same time – it’s a juggling act of its very own.”

Animatronics and alter egos

So, what are the trends and highlights we should look out for at LIMF 2013? “Increasingly technology is playing a much greater part in what’s possible” says Helen. “Lighting, live video links, people performing with their alter ego. For instance in ‘Leo’ (by Circle of Eleven), which is going to be in the Purcell Room, the stage is divided in two. There’s live action on one side and the projected image on the other, which is spun through 90 degrees so you see the impossibility and the reality. It’s fascinating. You forget about the reality and start believing that the character really can stand on the wall.”

Joseph is excited by Amit Douri’s ‘Savanna: A Possible Landscape’, where robotic animals and moving sculptures will combine to create a fantastical paradise. “There is a story but it’s very much like standing in an exciting gallery, watching things leap off the wall and out of the frame. He’s quite a pioneer.”

‘Hand Stories’ by Yeung Fai is another performance he says all puppeteers should seek out. “What’s really interesting about Hand Stories is that it’s about a very traditional and classical Chinese puppetry skill but it’s done with smart new video and projection technology, so you’ve got both things. It’s very skilful and very beautifully designed.”

Although Joseph says visual theatre is marginalised, this Christmas mime featured on the Southbank (‘Imagine Toi’) and in the West End (‘The Boy with Tape on his Face’). So, is it actually becoming more mainstream? “People have seen the enormous commercial potential of certain aspects of the sort of work that we do” says Joseph. “It’s not the new rock and roll but visual theatre isn’t some dreadful fringe activity anymore.”

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