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“Forget the clichés!” - London’s International Mime Festival is so much more than you might think

[La Pendue: Tria Fata]

The London International Mime Festival (LIMF) has broken free of the Marcel Marceau stereotype, shed the chains from “the art of silence” and become an umbrella term for a truly extraordinary breadth of performance art. From humble beginnings as a small Fringe event held at The Cockpit in 1977 LIMF has become one of London’s most enduring festivals incorporating puppetry, clown, circus-theatre, live art and mask-theatre. From its 20th century single venue beginnings it now boasts London venues including the Barbican, Jacksons Lane, Sadler’s Wells, Shoreditch Town Hall, Soho Theatre and Wilton’s Music Hall.

With 10 overseas companies, 8 British groups and multiple workshops even a snapshot of the festival sees a huge breadth. From a show about Stan Laurel’s unreciperocated admiration of Charlie Chaplin (Told by an Idiot's 'The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel); a workshop focusing on performance for deaf artists/audiences (Brian Duffy’s ‘Understanding Visual Vernacular’); and queer culture continuing its longstanding seat at the LIMF table (Thick & Tight’s ‘Romancing the Apocalypse’). Also, for 2020, the 44th year of London’s annual festival of contemporary visual performance, LIMF has co-commissionedThis Time with aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor. The show encompasses a truly broad church of performers spread across the demographics from 13 - 60 year olds, breaking out of the narrowing pool of similar bodies and ages that populate contemporary circus. Opening the festival at the Shoreditch Town Hall, it's described as a show about the human condition combining physical theatre, acrobatics and original takes on the traditional trapeze and cradle (you can read Ockham’s Razor's Run-Riot interview here).  

To get some context on a truly striking lineup I asked festival founder Joseph Seelig and co-director Helen Lannaghan to depart with diplomacy and give us their highlights, shed some light on an interesting performance caveat and to tell us what it means to be over four decades young!

[Thick & Tight: A Romantic Apocalypse]

Jayson Mansaray: How does it feel to be in the 44th year LIMF?

Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig: It feels great! We feel privileged to be running a festival that has been in existence for so long. It’s the UK’s longest-running international theatre season. We’re lucky to work with such extraordinary artists from so many visual and physical theatre disciplines and we’ve come a long way since our beginnings at one small fringe venue, The Cockpit, in 1977. There’s so much innovative, unusual work out there that doesn’t rely too heavily on spoken text to carry its audience – and that connects so well with our followers, many of whom don’t have English as their first language, and that makes our festival unique. It’s worth all the effort involved in finding it.

Jayson: What made you choose Ockham’s Razor for a co-commission in the 2020 programme?

Helen and Joseph: We’ve been admirers of Ockham’s Razor for many years, presenting their first show at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre as long ago as 2007. We love its intelligent and creative take on circus, using original aerial equipment designed by themselves, and using faultless aerial skills to enhance their relevant, thoughtful stories.

This Time is a superb example of Ockham’s Razor’s work, this time with a four-strong cast ranging in age from 13 to 60.

[Ockham's Razor: This Time]

Jayson: What else have you co-commissioned?

Helen and Joseph: LIMF 2020 has co-commissioned two other UK companies: Told by an Idiot with The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, and full-mask maestros, Vamos Theatre, with Dead Good, another of its thoughtful, entertaining, issue-based shows, this one about the ultimate shared experience – sounds gloomy but really it’s dead good.

Jayson: Despite being called a ‘Mime’ festival it’s hugely broad range performance types, how diverse is it?

Helen and Joseph: Our title is historic. Trygve Wakenshaw’s style is probably the closest thing we have to mime this year, and that’s not very close if your idea is based on the Marceau stereotype. We use the M word as an umbrella term under which we take in very many different performance styles which involve telling stories and expressing ideas with little reliance on text, or ideally none at all; we’re talking (or rather not) about puppetry/object theatre, clown, circus-theatre, live art and mask-theatre.

Jayson: For those who don’t know, what is 'Coulrophobia'?

Helen and Joseph: Literally – fear of clowns. But don’t be! Opposable Thumb’s Coulrophobia is hilarious. Honestly! But beware – it contains ‘disappointing nudity’…

Jayson: Why the interesting caveat for ‘The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel’?

Helen and Joseph: You mean our stressing that the events of the story are purely fictional and the play is ‘certainly not endorsed by the estates of Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel or anyone else’? You have to see the show for yourself and draw your own conclusions, but it’s very curious that while Stan Laurel talked about Chaplin all his life, Chaplin’s detailed autobiography never mentions Laurel once.

[Opposable Thumb: Coulrophobia]

Jayson: Is there a chance for audience participation or for visitors to get involved?

Helen and Joseph: Not too much audience participation in the sense of members of the public being dragged up on stage, apart from Opposable Thumb’s show Coulrophobia, and Compagnie HMG’s show 3D which uses members of the audience to help create its soundscape. As always, each festival show will have a post-performance discussion/Q&A that gives people the opportunity to chat to the artists and ask those burning questions. These are invariably very well attended, interesting and enjoyable occasions.

Jayson: Tell me about Brian Duffy’s workshop ‘Understanding Visual Vernacular’?

Helen and Joseph: Visual Vernacular, or VV, is a relatively recent art-form that combines mime, facial expressions and sign languages (i.e. not just British Sign Language) to tell a story. It’s mostly performed by deaf artists, for a deaf audience, but absolutely not exclusively! We’re keen to see VV expand and we’re starting with a one-day workshop (Sun 2 Feb at Jacksons Lane) to help spread the word and encourage more people to have a go, led by one of its hottest exponents, Brian Duffy.

Jayson: How does queer culture fall into LIMF?

Helen and Joseph: LIMF has always provided a context for diverse cultures, and very importantly queer culture – we positively embrace ‘difference’. In recent years Euripides Laskaridis, Phia Menard (Compagnie Non Nova) and Olivier de Sagazan have all presented successful seasons, and if last year’s sold-out run by Thick & Tight is any indication, their new fabulous show Romancing the Apocalypse at the Lilian Baylis Studio is set to be a big hit.

[Compagnie HMG: 3D]

Jayson: I hope you won’t be afraid to say…what are you most excited about in 2020?

Helen and Joseph: We’re excited about everything in the programme, needless to say. But ok, four shows which we think are really special and which offer a flavour of the pleasures and mysteries of LIMF 2020:

Compagnie HMG (France)
A nail-biting piece of up-close-and-personal circus-theatre featuring a rolling, pivoting, three-dimensional structure ‘ridden’ by wire-walker, Jonathan Guichard, which produces an ever-changing musical soundscape, awe and astonishment.
Jacksons Lane Fri 10-Sun 12 Jan

Wes Peden (USA)
One of the world’s best jugglers, creating mind-boggling sequences of evolving shapes, constellations and waves of movement. Wes was the guest artist in Gandini Juggling’s Spring at Sadler’s Wells last January, and was part of cult juggling group Plastic Boom whose Water on Mars was a cult sell-out hit at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe. Watch out as he gives new life to vinyl records.
Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room Fri 24-Sun 26 Jan

Galactik Ensemble (France)
Five fantastic acrobats pit themselves against a hostile environment as walls wobble and slide, ceilings fall, and dangers come from every side. Survival depends on split-second timing. Its performers have worked with star contemporary circus creators Mathurin Bolze, Aurélien Bory and Yoann Bourgeois, all regulars of past LIMF editions. Thrills and spills guaranteed!
The Peacock (Sadler’s Wells) Wed 29 Jan-Sat 1 Feb

Kiss & Cry Collective (Belgium)
Cold Blood:
a big hit at the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival garnering a clutch of 5* reviews,Cold Blood is a gorgeous, image-rich story of seven surprising deaths, using intricate hand choreography, beautifully constructed miniature sets, and live-feed video  transforming its miniature actors into a big-screen movie stars. Music is by Ravel, David Bowie, Janis Joplin and a fabulous Fred and Ginger dance number for two pairs of hands.
Barbican Theatre Wed 29 Jan-Sat 1 Feb

[Fleur Elise Noble: ROOMAN]

Jayson: Where can we see LIMF events?

Helen and Joseph: At venues across London – Barbican Cinema, Theatre and The Pit; Jacksons Lane; Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells; Shoreditch Town Hall; Soho Theatre; Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, The Peacock and Wilton’s Music Hall. Full details and downloadable brochure at www.mimelondon.com

Jayson: In three words describe the following:

Helen and Joseph:
LIMF: Adventurous, innovative, unique
Mime: Forget the clichés
2020 programme: The best yet

LIMF | Facebook | Twitter

London International Mime Festival
8 Jan - 2 Feb 2020
Info and tickets: mimelondon.com

[Kiss & Cry Collective: Cold Blood]

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