Discovering Space as Substance and a New Reality[i]
I started my performing career as a mime. Mimes in the mid 1970′s and 80′s were synonymous with corny uninspired white faced buskers who went around mimicking passers-by and asking for money. I became a mime at the age of thirteen in 1964. In the 60′s it was still an art.
I copied other performers I admired including Red Skelton, Dick Van Dyke, Danny Kaye and Jackie Gleason. I also got a chance to see the great Marcel Marceau.
I studied dance and mime for a year in college and developed my skill at the National Mime Theater in Boston. When I headed out to California in late 1975 I was already an accomplished mime.
I performed mime on street corners and in cafes and because it was LA and not Schenectady, New York (where I’m from), I met a lot of performers who told me to study with Richmond Shepard, a well-known mime teacher in LA at the time. I did. And although he did not teach me anything about mime I didn’t already know, he did invite me into his troupe and I began making a living as a mime.
I was making an income from mime, performing on the Queen Mary in Long Beach California when I got hired to teach mime at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in Pasadena, CA.
I had been in Viola Spolin’s class for about a year. We worked on space substance a good deal of the time. I had very little trouble visualizing the where and handling basic space, and Viola knew it. And although I had difficulty with many areas of her work at the time, SPACE was not one of them – or so I thought.
With mime, it’s about having a clever idea and then rehearsing it and executing it to perfection. By the time I was 26 I had had enough of this. I was getting bored by my own mime performances. It was another reason I began taking acting and improv.
I wanted my work in Viola’s class to be good! I wanted her to like me and have her approve of me, and so I felt I had to know what to do in a scene before I got up to do it. I realize now that was not the point – at all! I knew it too, but could not help myself. I feared that my getting it wrong or looking stupid for not understanding what she wanted would disappoint her. I was caught in what Viola called the Approval/Disapproval Syndrome.
In class, Viola would set up a game, describe the focus and then sit down and ask, “OK who wants to go first?”
I never went first. I wanted to see what the game looked like before I would try it. I had to watch while others worked. I watched and tried to understand what the game was and what it did for other players first. I was interested in Viola’s comments too. That would give me more to work with.
While watching, I began to think “Ok, I could be a doctor and Susan my patient…” or “I could come on and say… and then he might answer…X.’ or “I’ll come on with a horse to trade…’. I was trying to write the beginnings of a scene so I wouldn’t go up ‘empty’ and look like an idiot without an idea.
“No playwriting!” Viola would shout from the sidelines. She’d see others playwriting an improv when all I could see was a passable scene.
“There are wonderful writers in their garrets with their typewriters and quills – writing things a lot better than you!”
If the playwriting continued she would shout “Show us! Don’t tell us!”
Some players could not help just talking through the whole scene. They were not able to show the where. Many players would not understand the difference – they would talk about where they were or what they were looking at instead of using the where and handling objects. Viola would get cranky.
“What are you DOING!!!?” she would yell.
“You’re just talking and telling us! If you can’t show us – don’t keep talking!!! Use your where! If you can’t see it, look for it!” She then would either launch into a lecture or just stop the scene and try something else.
Sometimes she would just ask the two talkers to sit down and ask for two more. “The Where will support you! You cannot just talk about it!” She would holler.
“Were you able to achieve the focus? No. Sit down.” No analyses, no explanation, just “NEXT!”
Some players couldn’t take it.
Although she raised her voice, many of us understood it was her frustration at not being able to get the game to work. Some took it personally and would leave the workshop, stung by her anger.
They heard her raised voice to mean she was telling them they were a failure – that they were no good, even though she never ever used words like good or bad when discussing our work.
Viola’s shouting always showed me her passion and I never took her raised voice personally. Still I was not going to go first and frustrate her. Me? I wanted to do well. I’d be up in the last row knowing I shouldn’t playwright, but I would do it anyway.
By now I knew enough about improvisation to realize intellectually, that it is a good thing to go up without a thought. Just go! Trust that something would happen, but I couldn’t. My mind was constantly feeding me with ideas – I couldn’t stop it. I was like a harried and desperate writer pitching ideas to a producer who did not want to listen.
Every time I caught myself thinking up an opening or a good line or a situation I could use, I would slap my face just a little, to remind myself to ‘stop it! Stop thinking ahead!’ I slapped myself a lot in the early days.
I wanted to improvise, but I also wanted to be good at it – right now. I had no idea that my all my clever ideas where things Viola had seen countless times before – I never realized it until I began to teach the work.
I tried to be original, funny and clever. And sometimes, in spite of myself, my trite scene premise worked only because Viola would call out some coach that would let me out of my fear and connect me some way to the scene, the other player or the where and I would get out of my head and something new would happen. With her sidecoaching, you often couldn’t help but do wonderful work.
I would get up time after time and try to erase all my pre-planning, often to no avail.
My first epiphany
One day we did an exercise called “Begin and End”.
It was a solo exercise – my favorite kind. We were to handle an object, then break it down into ‘beginning and ending’ sub-movements calling out loud “Begin!” and “End!” then re-do the handling of the object to see if it made more of an ‘appearance’ in space. To me this was mime – my meat!
Viola developed this kind of an exercise to help people really see space physically and have it be a reality for you rather than pretending.
“Out of your head and into the space!” she kept reminding us.
Being in your head in this exercise, means that an object is referenced rather than actually handling it as a space object. This leads to telling and not showing: Using a pointed finger for a gun, or index and middle finger opening and closing for a pair of scissors or a thumb and pinky being spread apart and held to the ear to represent a phone.
Begin and End would break your movements down into ‘beats’ to allow time to see the various parts of the action. Once broken down and then reassembled, an object would appear in the space and be seen by the audience. So many players would use space badly and when they did use an object, we often would have no clue as to what it was. Space is tricky.
The undisputed master of this kind of space work was Richard Schaal, a member of Paul Sills’ company and an original Second City cast member. He had the ability as Viola would say ‘to make the invisible, visible’. (More on him later).
“We’re going to do an exercise called Begin / End.” She announced.
Again I did not go first, hoping to see what she was after, knowing I could do this, but wanting to make sure. Sure enough, a student came onstage and quickly and clumsily unwrapped a stick of gum. We had no idea what he was doing until he put something in his mouth and started chewing. He then broke it down into Begin – End and then re-did it a third time. The third time we could see clearly the pack of gum, the wrapper and the single stick of gum he popped into his mouth.
“I get it” I thought to myself, feeling very cocky. I decided on pantomiming a cigarette pack and getting one out of the pack and lighting up.
I did it just as I had many times before in mime scenes. I then broke it down using Begin/End and then did it normally the third time.
In my evaluation, after the third time, Viola asked the class “Did you notice any difference from the first to the last time he did it?”
“No.” said the class. “It was just as clear as the first time.”
I beamed, feeling very pleased with myself. Little did I realize that Viola was not after a mime performance. She got up and came over to the stool I sat on onstage.
“Let me ask you a question.” she said.
“Were you actually handling that object or were you drawing us a picture?”
My stomach sank.
“I was drawing you a picture.”
“And it was a very nice picture. We all saw it. But did you really see it?”
“No. You saw an outline of it.” She said. “You made us see what you wanted us to see without seeing it yourself. You were playwriting!”
She caught me.
“I’m going to ask you to do it again. And this time I’m going to ask you to break it down many more times than you think. I’m also going to ask you breathe out fully on the ‘End’ part. Expel all your breath and shout very loudly on the ‘begin’.”
I had no time to think of what to do. I had to pick a new object and start right away. No forethought. That was good, but that was only part of it.
By asking me to break it down even further, she meant to go beyond my outline. Beyond the gestures that would say just enough about an object so the audience would understand what it was. That was what my mime training had taught me. She also had me focus on breath and volume. I had a multiplicity of focuses, to occupy me and keep me from my old well-trained habits – to shut off my head.
I decided to peel an orange. I dug my thumbnail in and peeled the rind, piece by piece, putting the pieces on my lap.
“Now do it with Be-INNNNN!” she loudly emphasized “and ENNNNDDDDDuh -!” she demonstrated emptying her lungs of air.
I found it was not difficult to break the movements into smaller parts.
I began by seeing an orange on the table. Seeing was a BEGIN!
Deciding to pick it up, an ENNNDDDuh!
“BEGIN!” I placed my hand on the orange.
“ENND!” – expelling all my breath, I let my hand rest on the orange.
“BEGIN!” I raised the orange.
“ENNNDDDuh!” I brought it in front of me.
I got occupied with that glistening rind. I saw it.
A shiny orange with a pebbled skin – a large juicy navel orange. I even noticed the ‘navel’ part.
“BEGIN!” I dug my nail into the orange. I thought to myself, it’s a real oily, ripe orange, this one.
I pried open the first part where I could see the orange section like a whitish placenta-like embryo with veins and shreds of pulp.
I lost track of how many times I did it, I do remember my voice was wearing thin with all the volume and my breathing was getting me very energized. I gulped in air for ‘begin’ and expelled it all on ‘end’. It was just me and this particular orange. Not a generic orange, but a unique one. I even remember recalling it had a blue stamp on it like some oranges have when picked and labeled by a grower.
“Now go back and peel it again, without Begin / End.” Viola instructed.
This is where I have to say, it really happened folks, because it really did. It might sound like some grandiose recollection, but I promise you this is no overstatement or exaggeration. I peeled the orange again. When I stuck my thumbnail into it, I saw, as clearly as I see this computer screen I’m writing on, the spray of orange oil come out of that very ripe orange. The entire class gasped. They saw it too! I continued to peel that orange and I can still see it vividly to this very day.
“There.” Viola said. “You saw it and we saw it.” She smiled very broadly. “Whoooo! That was something!”
She then turned to the class. “I don’t care how skilled you are – if you see it then we will see it. If you don’t see it, you’re cheating yourself!” she hollered with emphasis.
She turned back to me. “I’m going to ask you whenever you do this exercise, Gary, to do that – break it down as much as possible and breathe! – This is a breathing exercise. And then, in your case, I’ll ask the class not only if they saw it, but what color or texture it was.”
Later when we did this exercise again, I tied a tie. When I was done Viola asked the group what color it was and what material. The majority of the class said it was a knit tie, maroon or red.
Bingo! It was a maroon, fuzzy knit tie. That’s what I saw. I saw it- Really saw it. And they did too.
This was my epiphany. I had to get out of my head in order to generate energy and true spontaneity. Breaking it down so many times, combined with the breathing and the loud voice put my focus on the object and not the audience or myself (who was still obsessed with how the audience was seeing me).
I had produced, in space, a real orange and a real tie. It was real to everyone who saw it. Invisible space made visible.
I now saw mime as a tired and boring way of moving your body to describe objects – it was just another way of telling and not showing. I immediately began teaching space object work to my mime class at the American Academy, totally doing away with rote exercises in rotations, inclinations, illusions and the like.
I was fired.
So be it. I was on the path to something much bigger.