Rick Wamer is not your stereotypical mime.
This became immediately clear as we met at a sunny outdoor café. With no white makeup or a beret in sight, Wamer was stylishly dressed, his silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. And he's not afraid to speak.
When I asked about the cliché of the mime, he laughed—half dismissive, half frustrated. He says that most Americans don't actually understand what mime is.
"The media reflects the common experience of mime, whether it's the street performer or the Sea World mime imitating the visitors. It's a commercialized version of mime."
Audiences can expect a more richly varied experience at this weekend's Elemental Stories III: An Evening of Silent Music, a return by the Theatrical Mime Theatre after a two year hiatus. Wamer co-directs the 8-year-old local troupe with Lorie Heald.
The nine short works on the program, ranging from four to 12 minutes long, are by turns serious and comic, narrative and symbolic; they include solos, duets, trios and ensemble pieces. "Old West," written and performed by Wamer and Heald, is a funny rendition of the escapades of the bandits of yesteryear. But "In the Sea of Emotions Springs Hope" is a "poetic moving sculpture" about resiliency, performed by Heald and members of the Theatrical Mime Theatre Studio Ensemble.
"Taken," one of Wamer's own works, is on the symbolic end of the spectrum. Performed by Wamer, Heald and the ensemble, it honors the countless people who have been "disappeared" by political regimes around the world.
It is not a literal depiction of events. Instead, it aims "to help audiences relate to what it must be like to wake up and find their neighbor is gone," Wamer says. It also looks at the experience of the abductees, asking whether they ever truly have a moment of liberation—even after they're released.
Not a single piece conjures up the stereotypical mime. "None of our work is done in white face," Wamer says, emphatically.
"Silent music" was how Marcel Marceau, one of Wamer's mentors, described their art form. But Wamer insists that "mime may be mute, but it is not silent." Performances in the show are underscored by music, or simply accompanied by the sound of the performers' bodies in action.
The performing ensemble has been developed through studio classes taught by Wamer and Heald. Four of the 10 performers had no mime experience before enrolling. Others are actors and dancers who wanted to expand their skills.
A few, like Grant Bashore, have previous mime training. As a child, Bashore studied and performed at Wisconsin Mime Theatre, a premier mime school. Now a criminal defense attorney here in Tucson, Bashore will be exercising his stage talents with a narrative work he has developed, an imaginative retelling—through movement—of Dracula.
Wamer says the power of mime comes from its ability to express abstracted ideas through concrete images, much like visual poetry. You may see a man walking, for example, but understand that you are seeing humanity progressing through life.
"If it is played and directed correctly," Wamer adds, "98 percent of the audience will follow that interpretation."
Wamer believes that mime expresses meaning in a clear, visceral way, because it is not filtered through language: "The drama that happens is in the very body of the actors. That creates an immediacy ... a kind of dialogue and connection with audiences."
Even the familiar mime routines of "invisible box" or "walking against the wind" tap into a deeper meaning; they're based on a single, simple conflict between a character and an obstacle.
"Americans love the realism of the illusions," says Wamer. "I think, like in any good theater, what probably happens for people is that they are transported to a new psychological, spiritual, emotional" plane.
Wamer says he was initially given a hard time for the apparent redundancy in the company's name, Theatrical Mime Theatre. He stuck with it, he says, because people hear the word "mime," and their minds close off. But they hear the phrase "theatrical mime," and they open up to the idea that this is something different.
He has spent much of his own career struggling to open American audiences to the beauty of his art form. However, he says, "In the U.S., there are pockets of communities where audiences have been cultivated to understand the full range of mime."
One of these pockets, surprisingly, is in Gambier, Ohio, where Kenyon College has had a mime school for three decades. Wamer first studied mime at the school and went on to study and work with Marceau, the most famous mime of all. Now he and Heald are artistic directors of the school in Gambier.
There is seemingly infinite variety to what audiences may see onstage. A mime performance may include a series of short works, or consist of a single extended piece.
Wamer foresees Theatrical Mime Theatre eventually moving on to more ambitious, longer works, such as adaptations of A Midsummer Night's Dream or Dante's Inferno. For his MFA concert at the UA School of Dance two years ago, Wamer orchestrated an evening-long multimedia piece that incorporated mime, dance, drumming and the stilt-walkers of Flam Chen.
After the three epic years of working on that, Wamer needed a break, he says, and Theatrical Mime Theatre went on hiatus. But he has continued to teach and tour.
Wamer hopes that, in time, Tucson will become a major hub of the mime arts. He envisions creating a performance center, with sister organizations in Ohio and Poland, where he's performed, and he'd like to establish an international festival here within the next five years.
The work of Wamer and Heald is already known and recognized in the international mime community. They've performed everywhere from China—where they brought several UA dance students to participate in an international festival a few years back—to Europe and the West Indies. Elemental Stories III gives the Tucson community another chance to see them in their hometown.
"I think audiences will actually experience something," Wamer says, "and they (will) walk away transformed in some fashion."