Marcel Marceau has a lot to say, actually
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor
With a French accent.
With formidable charm.
With candor, too.
Marceau, 78, who has made a lifelong career of saying nothing on stage, utilizes his body and his face to express his emotions of joy or sadness. He speaks volumes this way, without words. He tells stories; he creates a magical spell of his own.
But on the telephone, without the body language, he admits some uneasiness, not because of his accented English, not because he has some hearing problems, but because he knows he can better express himself without the words.
"Language is limited," Marceau said in a recent telephone conversation from Texas. "When you do mime, the language is universal, like dance. You 'speak' all or any language, any word. So the language of the mime belongs to all people: Japanese, Indian, European, American."
Marceau will appear Thursday at the Blaisdell Concert Hall as a highlight of the annual French Festival, now under way.
And he will show why and how his silence is so golden, so galvanized in the annals of theater arts. His distinct style is referred to as lyric mime, based on tales told in silence with eloquent movement. Surely, Marceau will introduce his signature character, Bip, the downtrodden Pierrot-like gem with a white face, a top hat with a flower sticking out, a winning smile.
He loves his craft and his audiences, the main reason he continues to perform and share his gift of laughter. It makes him happy to know his audience takes a bit of his wisdom home.
"The personal joy I have, after a performance, is that I have become part of the audience's life, part of their soul. Mime is the creation of body language, communicating the language of the soul, without words. Making the invisible visible, touching that silence that is inside every person. What I create on stage is my experiences in life. And I share."
This joie de vivre is detectable in our conversation. Listen up:
Q: You are the best in your field. Does it bother you that few others have emerged as true mime artists?
A: "No, on the contrary. My school (Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris) has young people creating their own numbers all the time; I study with them. Share technique. But nobody imitates Marcel Marceau, but my spirit is there (in the works created). You cannot imitate (Charlie) Chaplin, too. He influenced me, but I became Marcel. Through myth influence, there are a lot of young-generation mimes, at least in France."
Q: Mime requires concentration from an audience. As a performer, don't you often want to shout out a word?
A: "If I would speak, it would kill the show. It's been a wonderful 40 or so years for me, and nobody has ever said from the audience, 'Why don't you speak?' They are silent ... (because) I am silent. They want to see the invisible. Like magician David Copperfield or Michael Jackson, the people want to be inspired by what they see and experience. Watching means being visible ... and having great imagination."
Q: You have traveled all over the world. Inasmuch as your art "speaks" a universal language, do you get a universal response in different countries, or are spectators pretty much the same no matter where you respond?
A: "Let me tell you, in the beginning, playing Japan, the public was different. Not the same culture as Germany, Italy, France. In Japan, they have great respect for metaphors; but younger generation, with exposure on TV and in films, they understand more and appreciate what we do. This is why, in Japan today, it's the same reaction like America, like Europe. Sometimes when I perform now, I don't know what country I'm in."
Q: What is your earliest recollection of mime? You were involved in performing as a child of 7, but what about this area of the performing arts hooked you for life?
A: "I was born to be a mime. When I played with children, I imitated Chaplin because I was struck by this silent comedian. Also, a little Laurel & Hardy, though they spoke a little. And Buster Keaton. I was lucky to have a mom who helped prepare me and an aunt who took me to a mime show. By 15, I wanted to be a painter, so I painted. But in my 20s, during the war, I started to realize that I would be a mime."
Q: What attracted you to your early influences, including Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and Danny Kaye?
A: "The talent. They all had great talent, were very poetic, very stylized. I was happy to meet them, work with them. I worked with Red Skelton, too. Made me popular in America."
Q: You have had a life of trials and torment, fleeing Nazi influences as a child, changing your Jewish name for protection, serving in the French underground. Did this kind of living on the edge shape and mold some of the material you perform?
A: "When I was a child, it was a terrible time with the Nazis. We had to go underground to survive. I had to change my name; Mangel is my real name, a Jewish name. Marceau was a general in the French Revolution, in 1789, a general of Napoleon Bonaparte. I took the name. Of course, what you experience in life the good vs. the evil shows up in my performances."
Q: Because mime requires its own sense of body language, how do you keep in shape to maintain your stylized performance on stage?
A: "Well, I tell you, I'm very lucky to have a body that is still flexible, still looks young. This is my legacy. But I also perform a lot, I teach; this keeps me young. When you're before the public, when you have direct contact, you keep in shape. Also, I try to be deeper in the body language; experiences of life have helped in certain ways."
Q: How and where did you learn the languages you speak: French, English, German, Spanish, Italian? Considering you don't "speak" on stage, this multilingual capacity is remarkable.
A: "I speak very often in life, as you can see. But like a sportsman, a football player, a boxer ... maybe I do better next time. I learn many languages because I have to speak to explain my art form."
Q: Who, besides yourself, is in your show, and what can we expect?
A: "I have two assistants, a young lady and a young man, and they are a very important part of what I do. Sara Mangano is very Italian, graduated from my school in Paris, and a wonderful actress in her own right, creating her own style, influenced by our school. Pierre Massip, the man, graduated from my school, and he is a wonderful acrobat, too. I played Honolulu 20 years ago. If people have seen me before, there will be a few classic numbers, and it's worth seeing again. Lots of new things, too, Bip as a street musician, Bip and a dating service, but also Bip as the classic lion tamer."
Q: How often do you travel the way you're doing now? And certainly, world travel has taken on new challenges for those boarding planes, in light of the events of Sept. 11. How would Bip react to the terrorism that plagues us all today?
A: "This is difficult question to answer. Yes, life has changed since Sept. 11. Anything can happen. I hope we can make peace; we are not here to fight enemies but to create peace in the world. I am not a prophet, but I am happy to see people coming to my show to have a wonderful time, the Christians with the Jews with the Muslims and everyone else. I think Bip, in times like these, would play for peace, too. To create emotions, to feel the past, the present, the future. Art has to remain alive. When I play on stage, even with Bip, I don't think of terrorism. I think of love. Like the creation-of-the-world thing I do, hands struggling between good and evil, a metaphor for violence and peace. The planet is getting smaller and smaller; we all travel, so we are much more connected with the world now than before. Still, we have great problems. This is a terrible philosophy, but we need to do what we can do to maintain peace. That's the way to survive."