When most people hear the word mime, they think of Marcel Marceau (or some local facsimile on a street corner), white-face and soundless movement. But it hasn't always been that way.
"If you go back to ancient times, mime performances were always accompanied by some kind of text," explained Pennsylvania-born Thomas Leabhart. "In fact, the periods in history that mime has been silent have been small slivers. And now you have this whole new movement called post-modern mime; there are maybe eight, 10 companies scattered around the world. This is the next wave of mime performance--and it's not silent. Mime has found its voice."
And Leabhart, 42, has found his. The performer/lecturer/teacher/editor (of the Mime Journal) has returned Sundays to the Wallenboyd in downtown Los Angeles for an encore presentation of his "How I Was Perplexed and What I Did About It" and "Like, Is There a Difference Between Abstract and Bizarre?" (Gilberte Meunier's dance piece "Gargouillade" shares the bill.)
For Leabhart, who is on the drama faculty at Pomona College (teaching mime, theater literature, mask work and group-play creation), the wearing of many hats--and the inclusion of several artistic elements--is infinitely satisfying.
"When I was a child," he noted, "I painted, I sang, I danced around the living room with the radio. I wrote plays and performed them in (a friend's) father's funeral home. I did everything . Then all of a sudden you're an adult and people say 'Well, you're a painter,' or 'You're a writer.' And one lifetime really isn't enough to do all those things. So I decided I would specialize in movement, and I'm glad I did. Because now we can finally bring together all of those separate elements in performance."
Finding that unity has been a long process--especially for Leabhart, who began college as an art major. ("But my paintings kept getting more and more three-dimensional. After my last project, the teacher said, 'This isn't visual art anymore, it's theater.' ") Next was a postgraduate stint in drama. Then he came across a film of mime master Etienne Decroux, "and it was just the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."
Yet after four years of study and performance with Decroux in France, Leabhart returned home to find little interest in his work.
"If people could accept modern art, why not modern mime?" he reasoned. The result of that time was "Perplexed," which incorporates mime and an entertaining narration--which in this case is largely autobiographical.
"I love to work on abstract movement sequences," Leabhart offered. "And I love to tell stories. By profession I'm a teacher--have been for 15 years--and I tell stories in the classroom all day long. So it was natural for me to take certain stories and combine them with these movement sequences. It all comes from the same well."
The emotional/social impulses behind his "Abstract and Bizarre"?
"There are many possibilities; each one is as valid as the next," he said. "Primarily, it's a non-verbal experience; you really have to see it. Also, if I tell you what I think the piece is about, somebody can read it and say, 'Oh, I don't want to see that.' Or they can say 'I want to see that'--then they go, and it's not at all what it's about (for them)."
At its most basic level, he allowed, "it's a guided tour of two shopping malls near my home in Claremont, and what I see there. But when you see something, it makes resonances. So I don't just see a can of deodorant on the shelf; I see the years of animal-testing that went into it. And I ask myself, 'Why does a civilized country need 150 different kinds of deodorant?' The questions are so troubling, it's almost better not to talk about them at all. And, really, I can't. That's why I make these pieces.
"We're living in a world where nothing is clear-cut," he added. "I hope the piece evokes some of those ambiguities. But I don't have the answers. As a performer, I'm only a window through which those bigger ideas can shine. You know, acting can be a very intimidating job, like teaching. But when you realize that a lot of it is just allowing it to happen, you're released from responsibility--and the universe can work through you."
Leabhart smiled. "It really is much better that way. Because I don't always know what I'm supposed to do. But the universe does."