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London International Mime Festival curators: “There’s a lot of prejudice against the word ‘mime’”

Do you think you know about mime? Are you imagining two French men in black and white outfits pressing their cheeks and hands against imaginary walls? Then you need to think again.

London International Mime Festival is celebrating an incredible 41 years this January, and to mark the occasion, decades-long Festival Directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig are keen to educate about the misconceptions surrounding mime.

“The illusionary style popularised by Marcel Marceau, one of the 20th century’s best known artists and entertainers, has fallen out of fashion,” they say. In place of simplistic comedic mime from the past is modern mime, which incorporates basically every physical theatre form except for sound.

“We simply say that LIMF promotes contemporary visual theatre,” the duo tell Run-Riot. “Visual theatre embraces a number of distinctive performance forms, including contemporary circus-theatre, object theatre and animation, mime, performance art - it’s all essentially wordless”.

Over a sprawling month-long festival, Joseph and Helen have curated an international line-up, with performances taking place at seminal London venues including Shoreditch Town Hall, Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican.

Alongside visual spectaculars, ‘silent’ shows tackling human issues such as ageing and dementia are increasingly prevalent on the scheduling. “Physical and visual theatre can deal powerfully with any and every topic,” they say.

Read Run Riot’s interview with the two directors below for more information around the unique festival, where sound is left at the door.

Adam Bloodworth: You've been praised for fusing theatrical forms at the festival. What makes you stick with the title 'Mime Festival,' rather than switching to, say, 'arts festival'?

Helen Lannaghan & Joseph Seelig: Despite any misunderstandings about the M word - which we take as a wonderfully concise, one word description of work which relies on physical and visual and non verbal means of expression - mime has become a fixture in our title. It distinguishes us from other festivals, and has made us known around the world.

Adam: Does the festival have a mission statement?

Helen & Joseph: We simply say that 'LIMF promotes contemporary visual theatre’. If pressed we’d say that visual theatre embraces a number of distinctive performance forms, including contemporary circus-theatre, object theatre and animation, mime, performance art - it’s all essentially wordless, and has international accessibility.
 
Adam: Is what you're doing essentially celebrating the underappreciated power of silence?

Helen & Joseph: To a very large extent that’s precisely what LIMF shows do. They celebrate and demonstrate the eloquence and power of silence, but also the force of physical and visual imagery in telling stories. If you look at the relative importance of each of the 5 senses, 82% goes to sight - we are hard-wired to give priority to the visual world.
 
Adam: You've both been in the job at the festival for decades - do you still find new challenges every year?

Helen & Joseph: Yes, absolutely! Nothing is ever the same from one year to the next: there are different challenges, discoveries, excitements. And different problems too, of course, but that’s where long experience comes in useful. We feel lucky to have this job, working in a very special area of theatre, having created an event from scratch and seeing it develop and flourish over many years to become the country’s longest running annual international theatre season.

Adam: Could you pinpoint any particular shows which showcase minority voices in interesting ways?

Helen & Joseph: The 'visual theatre’ world itself is marginalised! There’s a lot of prejudice against the word ‘mime’, but we have great venue partners who trust us and are prepared to programme work by artists they’ve never heard of, knowing that we will bring them work of quality that will have an audience. We have the satisfaction of knowing that a large number of today’s ‘minority voices’ (if indeed that’s what they are) will become part of the mainstream tomorrow.
 
Adam: The line-up is international, do you find attitudes to mime change around the world?

Helen & Joseph: The sort of visual theatre we promote is internationally accessible and programmed around the world. But like everything in theatre it’s always horses for courses and what works in some countries doesn’t in others, for whatever reasons: it might be too challenging, too edgy or too experimental, or simply offer a different sense of humour. LIMF audiences are especially curious and adventurous, but we try to cater for most tastes.
 
Adam: Over the years, have there been any definable trends in the style and form of physical theatre that you've particularly noticed?

Helen & Joseph: What most people think of if they think about mime - the illusionary style popularised by Marcel Marceau, one of the 20th century’s best known artists and entertainers - has fallen out of fashion. LIMF programmes have evolved over years to focus more on contemporary circus-theatre, puppetry/object theatre and animation and live art.

Audiences come primarily because a show sounds interesting rather than because of any particular performance form it represents. One of the festival’s greatest successes and most original shows in recent years was Paso Doble, at the Barbican, involving a dancer (Josef Nadj) and a painter/sculptor (Miquel Barceló) bashing the hell out of two tons of red clay and transforming it into fabulous, transient artworks. How does one describe that?

Adam: Which one piece of work were you surprised to nab for the festival this year?

Helen & Joseph: We were very pleased to be able to persuade Belgium’s Focus/Chaliwaté company to give us a few days of Backup from an extremely busy schedule, and delighted that our biggest venues, the Barbican and Sadler’s Wells, have offered their main stages to two British companies, Gecko and Gandini Juggling respectively.

Adam: Which work on the schedule is most innovative, would you say?

Helen & Joseph: Impossible to answer. But France’s Théâtre de l’Entrouvert with its main actor - a puppet made entirely of ice (and made anew for each performance) is breaking new ground, as is Gandini Juggling’s collaboration with contemporary dance star Alexander Whitley, an original look at modern urban life and alienation from Birmingham’s Stan’s Cafe, and the always astonishing style of dance-theatre in Father that is the hallmark of Belgium’s Peeping Tom.
 
Adam: Which work is going to pull in the biggest crowds?

Helen & Joseph: Quite a few shows are already sold out (check mimelondon.com) but the biggest crowds will certainly be at our biggest venues, for the wonderful Gecko with The Wedding, Peeping Tom’s Father and Gandini Juggling/Alexander Whitley with Spring.
 
Adam: There seems to be interesting issue-based work appearing. For instance, Peeping Tom tackles the requisite difficulties of ageing. Are there any topics you've yet to see, but would like to see, tackled by physical theatre?

Helen & Joseph: Physical and visual theatre can deal powerfully with any and every topic - dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, climate change, the problems of happiness. And LIMF shows have covered them all, interestingly and often very entertainingly!

 

London International Mime Festival
Various loactions
9 Jan - 3 Feb 2019
Tickets and more info: mimelondon.com