Art of Mime – True Experiences with the Masters of Mime: Paul J. Curtis
By Janet Carafa, Guest Blogger for the BodyMind Institute
Founder: Yoga of Mime
“OFF THE FLOOR!” his thunderous voice called me out.
I stopped short, glaring at him. Cigarette smoke burned my nostrils. “JANNY-–DEGREE OF TENSION!” Pulling my abdomen in as far as I could, holding my breath, I made an over-exaggerated chest tension and awkwardly slipped off the stage sitting down on the floor to watch the others. Stopped mid-motion, I was breathing fast as sweat dripped down my face, and my eyes teared. I gulped swallowing down a cough.
“NEVER cough during class! Swallow it!” he bellowed. I hugged my knees and imagined Juliet having a coughing fit as Romeo wooed her on the balcony . . .
“TECHNIQUE!” Paul’s next command shook me to my feet.
Absolutely uncompromising and concise, Paul J. Curtis undeniably watched my every move with eagle-eye focus. He critiqued each of us with unrelenting passion. He fine-tuned each student’s attempts at performance in class in his gruff voice--making most run out, never to return.
“Janny, get broken glass and tie it to your stomach. Get a REAL device! Hold Degree of Tension or bleed. That’s how you make that change.”
I found him enchanting in his boldness. I found his steadfast rejection of anything not within his high artistic standards gratifying. What seemed like madness and ultimate controlling nature to some, I saw as systematical and soulful technique by Paul to persuasively instill my own creative process--unconscious and dormant--now incited within me. Uncomfortable, yes. Terrifying at times . . . yet massively compelling. His wavy salt-and-pepper hair, strong features, and absolute confidence were definitely attractive.
But it was the man who lived moment to moment with unwavering, uncompromising, untamed deepness of heart that became my dearest, most trusted friend and mime mentor. Our friendship and mime mentorship began when I first visited NYC and watched a class at the American Mime Theatre. It was theatre that touched me more than anything I had ever seen. Beauty in simplicity. I wanted to be an American Mime.
Paul J. Curtis & Janet perform in “Six”
I felt exposed to the core. The first couple of years, I was a “Newie.” The term fitted me perfectly, as I was terribly awkward and shy in my black leotard and dance slippers.
“You need to MOVE your audience. Make a change . . . MAKE THEM PHEEEEL!” And he would spell it loudly, “P-H-E-E-L-L . . . pheeeeell!"
And there were times that I couldn’t take it. “I’m leaving!" I would say and stomp out. “See you next week, Janny,” he said, as I slammed the door behind me.
“MOVING TO WORDS - Relate to each other!" he called out. “Places, Warning . . .” I am beginning to get into the flow of class. The words he calls seem to dissolve in mid-air and wash over me and sink into my bones. I jump, pointing my toes and fall to the floor silently. I create a tension in position on the floor. I touch fingertips with another student. The touch becomes a lightning-bolt tension, causing me to spin away.
“TOO MUCH MOVEMENT! STOP ONCE IN A WHILE!” he explodes. He lets me continue.
- “CHARACTERIZATION,” he bellowed. We go into line along the back of the stage.
- "PLACES": Together We turn our backs to the audience to motivate our characters.
- “WARNING”: Still facing the back wall, we melt our bodies into line of the character.
- “POSITION”: Quickly in high speed, we turn to the audience in character. I am the innocent first. My shoulders lift, my heart sinks, my eyes open wide, and I hold my heart and tip toe . . .
- “TEAM – FASTER TURN! It’s a dynamic change.
- START AGAIN.” We all stop, go back to neutral and begin again.
At the beginning of class we do "the prep." We step on stage in form and assemble in a circle holding hands and having eye contact with each other. “This is how a bunch of crazies come together from the social state we live in and step into the creative state to perform together as a team,” he explained.
The prep continues--physical, mental, spiritual, emotional--in 18 minutes every aspect is worked out. The experience is energizing. It pulls us together, individually motivated and collectively motivated as we each move through the procedure.
At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) theater in New York City, the curtain is about to open again. Backstage three of us quickly get into position for the next play. I am downstage close to the audience. In place, I arch backwards on my knees with my head on the floor wearing a white mask that I hold with my teeth.
My heart is still pounding fast from performing in the last play called ‘Sludge’ where I jump on one leg through most of it. My lungs and chest pulsate, still breathing hard. I can hear the audience talking and moving. No music. I feel uneasy in my back arch as the curtain opens slowly, making loud mechanical crank noises revealing the three of us on stage in silence. The 300 person audience is rustling and shifting noisily. This play is called “The Lovers.” I hear a woman in the front row whisper to her friend, “What is she doing? She looks like a spacecreature.”
My heart is still beating hard; my chest is palpitating, and my breath is short. I hold my arch in upside down stillness for 3 minutes as the play begins. It’s an eternity in this posture, but I’ve rehearsed it over and over. Then, I begin to move -- in slow motion -- very, very slow motion.
The audience, uncomfortably moving in their chairs, is unused to the slowness and stillness and silence. I hear loud coughing, breathing, and paper rustling. I focus on my breath and the motion. Lifting up slowly in my back arch, my heart and chest open, leading my lift. My heartbeat slows down as I breathe and reach my arm out and around.
I am the lover reaching for her loved one. I am in the moment. I float up. I am in the most extreme posture, and I am calm. And then it happens. I hear absolute silence within me. The audience hushes as I fall more deeply into the silence . . . into timelessness. Deeper and deeper.
And there--in the depths of silence--I hear the heartbeats of the audience . . . synchronize with mine.
The silence is heightened and all encompassing. Unbounded silence. The audience is with me, and I am with the audience. Together we open our heart. Together we reach for our lover. Our heartbeats merge.
The audience can "pheeell" me, and I "pheeell" the audience. If Uncle Hayim is out there, maybe he will stay this time.
Paul passed away on April 28, 2012. The American Mime Theatre is now in transition.
How do I begin to share with you about a man so giving, focused, energetic, and profoundly brilliant as Paul J. Curtis? Paul J. Curtis, founder of the American Mime Theatre, master of mime, and creator of the medium American Mime -- one of my closest friends, my inspiration and touchstone for the art of mime . . . and the art of life.
Paul J Curtis as a young man
Paul J. Curtis teaches American Mime in Paris and Janet demonstrates.