Mime draws big audiences but few Hong Kong locals learn how to do it.

Written for the South China Morning Post in one of my fortnightly columns on the Hong Kong arts scene

Mime draws big audiences but few Hong Kong locals learn how to do it.

By Deborah Singerman

These days it seems that one of the best ways for the Arts Centre and the Urban Council to guarantee a sell-out is to invite over a mime artist.

Whether it’s to see the white-faced mime-legend, Marcel Marceau, or Japanese motion-man, Yass Hakoshima, the audience comes in droves. Ever since the two organisations cottoned on to mime’s popularity, there have been few seasons which have not featured the art

Marcuse has just been; Hakoshima is here this month for the second visit to Hong Kong; expressive mime talent American Adam Darius and his partner Kazimir Kolesnik were here in the summer, as were the energetic British group, the Moving Picture Mime Show, their third time here   a

The Arts Centre staged a full week of mime in February for this year’s Arts Festival. Featuring the non-white-faced mime-father, Jacques Le Coq, Swiss clown Dimitri, the innovative British group, Theatre Whispers and the more risqué Belgian quartet, Radeis, it was a veritable feast of silent – almost silent – entertainment.

As such it attracts both Chinese and Western audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Marcel Marceau was so moved by his enthusiastic reception that he commented: “The Asian public is a wonderful public. They have always had a tradition of theatre. Thirty years ago, they were far more advanced in the art of mime than the West. But today the Western world too has come to understand it.

“If he cared to search for a performing mime grouped based here though, he would have a virtual blank.  For nowhere is the dichotomy between the popularity of overseas performers and the dearth of local activity more apparent that in this very art form.

Not only is mime difficult to sustain in Hong Kong, most performers shy away from even attempting it.

Says the Arts Centre’s programme manager, Flora Chan: “Although there are now a few local people experimenting with mime and beginning to accept silence as a vehicle for expression, they are very insecure in what is for them a very new art form. You need a lot of confidence to put on an art show.”

Of the numerous Cantonese theatre groups – amateur and professional – that have sprung up over the last few years, only three, Zuni Icosohedron, Mask and Totem, have incorporated mime elements into their work.

And none of them is prepared to stick its neck out and concentrate on mime. They all still prefer to work in the spoken word, be it an original Cantonese production or a translation from a Western play.

Totem’s tentative steps in the mime direction consisted of a sketch, The Dentist’s Shop which was devised for demonstration purposes only.

So far they’ve shown it to pupils and teachers in various schools, but have not yet tried it out on the general public. It described the unfortunate and often hilarious experiences of a street urchin attending the surgery of an incompetent dentist.

“We chose mime because we thought it would be interesting to try and because we felt it would appeal to all ages,” explains Totem member Ernest Tsang.

The amateur group Mask were similarly motivated for their recent mime-orientated production at the Arts Centre’ Studio Theatre.

Called In and Out, it related the stress of urban life – travel to and from work, the work itself and personal and professional interrelationships.

As director Leung Wai-man explains: “It is about a group of ordinary people who work in Central. They are bound by city rules, and have lost their own territorial rights and individual characteristics. We wanted to show the routine of their lives from getting up in the morning to going to bed, from watching television to going to the toilet.”

Although not mime in the strictest sense of the word – the group sometimes used a “mumbo jumbo” language and would be classified by some as “physical theatre” – Mask’s efforts are noteworthy, if only for that rarity value.

“We always want to be sure that our audience understands us and we felt that in this instance the spoken word was unnecessary for them to understand our meaning,” says actor Danial Chan.

The impetus behind both Totem’s and Mask’s utilisation of mime then appears to have been its suitability for the particular messages they wanted to get across.

They have seen it as a good vehicle for socially aware theatre. So does that mean they have no regard for mime per se? Will they use mime again in future productions?

“We found it very interesting but very hard to perform mime,” Daniel admits. “We spent hours rehearsing group movements which had to be standardised and synchronised.”

“It therefore took as much more time to get this production together than to produce others.”

That’s one of the reasons, he feels, that mime is not produced more often in Hong Kong. After all, time is of the essence here. The length of time it took Mask to rehearse In and Out though may be partly due to their own lack of training in this art form.

A few of their members belong to the Seals Theatre Club and as such attended one of the club’s six-month drama courses which included some mime training. But the others came to mime completely fresh. Their technique, they admit, did need polishing and they had to work very hard at it.

And if they want to perfect it where can they go in Hong Kong?

Certainly there are no regular courses. But wherever possible, the Arts Centre book their visiting mime artist to give workshops. These, however, are too sporadic to count as proper training.

They are usually packed out though more users are people already involved in theatre or dance that are looking to the workshops to give them a different perspective only.

For anyone really determined to come to grips with mime, these workshops would have limited value. As with any discipline, it requires more than three or four days to grasp its potential and the likelihood of doing well in it.

Part of the problem of boosting mime in Hong Kong, Ms Cah feels is that few of the Chinese students who go overseas to study drama specialise in mime and even if they do, when they return they stick to more conventional drama

This view is echoed by the Dean of Drama at the Academy of Performing arts, Mr Chung King-fai. “Mime is a very important aspect of drama but very few Chinese have so far learnt how to do it. We’re thinking of having a mime course at the APA but we’re only at the planning stage at present.”
In an attempt to break out of the Catch 22 situation further workshops and courses are planned but only if more interest is shown; more interest arising only if there are further workshop courses (a privately run workshop was set up this spring).

Impromime is organised by Sheila Self and Georges Beau.

Inspired by workshop they had completed in the UK and France plus Yass Hakoshima’s one in Hong Kong where they, in fact, met, the duo felt that there must be people in Hong Kong who wanted to learn, and ideally perform mime.

“Learning mime can add a dimension to your life,” Georges says.

Sheila remembers: “When I did a workshop at Esmond Jones’s School of Mime in London, it took me a long time to get used to the physicality of it all.

“Besides the fact that mime is strenuous, you to lose your face. You have to let your body do all the talking.”

All-round communication and an awareness of other people are other aspects of the mime course, Georges recalls.

Mime workshops generally include warm-up exercises, specific mime exercises, mime games and improvisations based on everyday situations and abstract themes, like loneliness and silence itself.

You have to go into yourself and also be prepared to take criticism from others,” he said.

They advertised the workshop – Thursday evenings at the Ebenezer School for the Blind – but only in the English-language press.

Eight regulars came before the summer break, and four afterwards. George and Sheila are disappointed by the lack of numbers and feel they’ve been hit by the common Hong Kong problem – everyone is busy doing something else.

However, they could be criticised for not making greater efforts to attract Chinese participants. Mime is, after all, the communication-bridger. But in a move that may have lasting repercussions on the local mime scene, Impromime decided to take to the streets recently – Lan Kawi Fong to be exact.

Decked out in traditional white face and black tights, they gave an impromptu performance which drew quite an enthusiastic crowd. The mime group gave out cards and hope they have attracted future customers.

Even if they haven’t then they should think about repeating the exercise. Mime is the perfect medium for street theatre. And with the Fringe Festival on the horizon, it is interesting to speculate how many others may join them.