Arts & Culture » Arts

Joe Long is one of Oklahoma's last mimes

by

comment
Joe Long demonstrates corporeal mime at District House in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Joe Long demonstrates corporeal mime at District House in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.

Joe Long stood on the steps of his rental property, waiting, looking into the street from his front doorstep. His eyes smiled though his face remained relaxed. His physicality was purposeful, attuned, thoughtful. There was an attention in the motion, a communication between his arms and legs. He must have been an actor.

Long was showing one of the apartment properties he keeps up.

“I used to be a mime,” he said.

Later, at District House in the Plaza District, his conversation traced a recursive web of ideas — line, dynamic quality, profoundness, thoughtfulness — ebbing between past, present and uncertain future in looping spurts. Long stood to demonstrate the movements he described.

“Like so,” he said, his body extending, his hand accepting an invisible flower.

Joe Long was raised in Ardmore. He went to college in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for a psychology degree. What he left with was decidedly different.

“The goal of my life from the time I was 12 was to be free from self- consciousness without having to put on a personality,” Long said. “Personality is the shell that surrounds us. I wanted to learn to do something physical ... [work] toward the extinction of personality ... become a portrait of a man.”

When most people think of mime, they see white-painted faces bemoaning invisible walls. They hear the name Marcel Marceau. In mime circles, this style is called illusionary pantomime and was popularized in pre-20th-century France. Though mostly unnoticed by the mainstream world, the death of pantomime has come and gone and has been replaced by a new technique. The king has died.

Long live

The new persuasion, corporeal mime, arose from a paradigm shift in the 1900s that focalized the physicality of the actor, said Thomas Leabhart, professor of theater at Pomona College and pupil of the inventor of corporeal mime, Étienne Decroux.

Mime before the 20th century was all about the “what” — the narrative and story — Leabhart said. This new form was about the heightened awareness of self and motion. A handful of influential shakers, including Jacques Copeau, a French dramatist, and Paul Bellugue, an anatomy professor at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, began drawing insight from dance and sport, noting the musculature and tensions of the athletes’ bodies.

“The culture of the dancer and of the athlete rest on the same principles, simplifying, purifying and ordering gestures,” Leabhart quotes Bellugue in his book Modern and Post-Modern Mime.

Joe Long demonstrates corporeal mime at District House in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Joe Long demonstrates corporeal mime at District House in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.

Concerning corporeal mime, Decroux is the name to know. The son of working-class parents, he dropped out of school and worked construction for 10 years. It was this early physical practice he would combine with insights from Bellegue, Copeau and his own research in the mid-1900s to create corporeal mime.

In his second year at college, Long stumbled into Leabhart in a 5 p.m. movement class.

“When I saw him perform the first time, just him walking onto the stage with the consciousness [of a corporeal mime], it blew my mind,” Long said. “I’m in love with this art form. I’m in love with this teacher. It shook me to the core; I wanted to have that.”

Long finished school and shipped off to The Valley Studio, an artists’ haven in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He studied mime, found his life partner and began teaching with Leabhart.

After the studio closed in 1979, he left and moved to Norman. Over the next 27 years, he married, worked with Oklahoma Arts Council and taught until, Long said, “it just gradually ... slipped away.”

He slowly fell out of contact with Leabhart as well, who, while teaching the past 40 years, watched corporeal mime soar at the same time Oklahoma mime was expending its best talent.

According to mime.info, 15 countries house mime theatre schools and private instructional institutions. Two major mime festivals are held yearly: the London International Mime Festival and the Festival International des Arts du Mime et du Geste in Périgueux, France.

“The best performances in mime from all over the world are given at these two places,” Leabhart said, “and there hasn’t been a pantomime performer. Some of the work might look like devised theater, collective creation or performance art, but these are all things that have grown out of Decroux’s research.”

Worldwide

Corporeal mime is taught in one form or another in Paris, France; Singapore; Denmark; South America; Barcelona, Spain; Ecuador; and at American universities such as Pomona College and the University of Tennessee.

Long is one of the last few Oklahoma mimes, but throughout his teaching and acting career, he has done his part to plant the seeds of corporeal mime for the next generation.

Long taught at elementary schools with his performance groups Zap! Zany Arts Players and the Prime Time Mime Players and gave workshops as part of Oklahoma Arts Council’s artists in residence program.

In sessions, Long would engage students in a handful of games that taught the fundamentals of corporeal mime: line, dynamic quality and thought. He developed toys, such a long, self-enclosed, circular tubes with a ball inside. Up to 30 children would stand along the outside, holding it up, and would be directed to roll the ball around the tube by lifting or lowering the tube in synchronicity.

“From the beginning, you have yourself and the other,” Long said. “Mime teaches us a simultaneous awareness of yourself and the other. Even though your eyes are open, looking out, your consciousness is in. If you are overly enthusiastic in your own desires and ignore the response of the other, it won’t [work].”

With this awareness of self and other, corporeal technique has become an important quality of nearly any type of modern performance, ingrained into the muscles and minds of performers. It’s in this way that the practice of corporeal mime thrives around us.

“Decroux used to say there was a secret society in medieval France and their motto was, ‘Always present but invisible,’” Leabhart said. “Actors in American theater ... you won’t know they studied corporeal because you don’t see it.”

Print headline: Invisible presence, One of the last Oklahoma mimes opens the door to a world unseen.

Latest in Arts

Add a comment