THEO PANAYIDES meets a mime expert on the island to give a course in devised theatre and a man about as abstract as you can get
For a person who works with the body – actor, director, magician and mime – Guillaume Pigé is very verbal, though also very careful to ensure that he’s not just talking to himself. “Does that make sense?” he asks, with a kind of ardent entreaty. “Does that make sense, or is it very abstract?” Engagement is important to him, especially in his work. He loves the process of theatre, but it also needs to click with an audience. He wouldn’t just do it in his basement for his own private pleasure, “that would be a little bit like – like – how to put it in a nice way?…”
It’s OK, I assure him, I think I know what kind of metaphor he has in mind.
When he says “very abstract”, by the way, the word ‘abstract’ is accented on the second syllable. His French accent, not quite smoothed away by nearly a decade in London, has stood him in good stead over the years, one of his many rent-paying jobs having been as a cheese vendor in Portobello Market (he didn’t actually make the cheeses; the producer just reckoned that a French-sounding bloke might sell them more effectively). He’s done other little jobs, including usher, dishwasher and barista, and also hires himself out as a ‘close-up magician’ – doing card tricks and other such legerdemain – at corporate parties. On the one hand, it’s fair to say his finances have always been a bit precarious. On the other, he’s quite successful: he’s an Associate Teacher at RADA, the legendary drama school, and – most importantly – he’s the founder of Theatre Re, a seven-year-old theatre company that now merits funding (albeit on a project basis) from the Arts Council of England.
What he and his team do at Theatre Re is known as ‘devised theatre’, defined as “a form of theatre where the script originates not from a writer but from collaborative, usually improvisatory, work by a group of people”. Everything is invented from scratch, which of course takes time: rehearsals for Theatre Re’s latest project, a piece called The Nature of Forgetting, kicked off in September 2015, yet the show is due to premiere in early 2017. What they do is also a form of mime called ‘corporeal mime’, developed by Etienne Decroux in the mid-20th century – which is where things start to get a little abstract, though Guillaume assures me it would all become clear if I were to see one of their shows.
When people hear the word ‘mime’, he admits, “everyone imagines someone with white gloves, and very Marcel Marceau-like – when in fact I would call that whiteface pantomime, where the emphasis is put on the hands, what the hands are doing” – he illustrates with the cliché gesture of a mime running his hands up an invisible wall – “and the facial expressions. But the corporeal mime of Etienne Decroux, which I am passing on, is much more focused on the expression of the body, on the core of the body”. The point, adds Wikipedia, is “to place drama inside the moving human body, rather than substituting gesture for speech as in pantomime”, thereby allowing the actor “to show thought through movement”.
It sounds a bit vague – but a few Theatre Re clips on YouTube help, revealing a fluid kind of ballet where emotional states (nervousness, anger, etc) are externalised through physical movement. The style is often metaphorical, he says, giving the example of a mime physically pushing away an unwelcome idea as if pushing away a plate of food (it’s not ‘realistic’, but it makes sense anyway). Watching Guillaume do his “scales” also helps clarify what he’s talking about – the daily training he does as a mime, exactly like a musician playing scales. First he moves his head back and forth, then the head and neck together, then head, neck and chest, then the latter two move while the head stays steady, and so on. It’s a form of mastery over each separate ‘note’, just as though the body were a musical instrument – and “out of this very concrete, rigorous, specific and precise vocabulary you can recreate the world. And that’s what’s exciting”.
Exciting, yes, but also quite detached, breaking down the body into its constituent parts. Theatre Re’s performances require a certain distance from the audience (“so that the elements can breathe, if you like”) – and Guillaume also seems a little detached, carrying himself with the poise of the professional magician. Questions about his personality are smoothly deflected (would it be correct to call him restless? “I don’t know. What does restless mean, exactly?”), the conversation politely manipulated. His face is thin and handsome, his nose ridged as if it were broken. He stretches his back at intervals, like someone who’s unused to sitting in one place for too long. The eyes are large and soulful – yet also quite opaque, not really changing after the first friendly note of expressive candour. It’s a face that’s instantly likeable, then remains simply likeable. A performer’s face.
He’s always done this, or something like it. He was born in Lyon 31 years ago, to what he calls “a very simple background”. His dad has a small factory making bags for the packaging industry, his mum is an ophthalmologist; there’s an older brother and a younger sister, engineer and trainee vet respectively. Not an especially artistic background – yet his family were always supportive, and he never had to ‘sell’ the idea of theatre to his parents. “I’ve never had to fight against anyone to do it. That’s a big help, I think.” Presumably, his talent – or at least his creative bent – was always evident. He studied acting at the Conservatory of Villeurbanne then moved beyond it, finishing up in London at the International School of Corporeal Mime. “I rarely describe myself as an actor: I make theatre. And I happen to be onstage as well, because I love it.”
His lifestyle is very specific, centred around work and projects. He’s travelled widely, having lived in Spain and America before the UK, and tends to have friends in many different places rather than a group of friends in one place (that slight detachment again) – though he is getting married next month, to a French dancer and choreographer. How did they meet? “She saw me onstage, and picked me up after the show! No, that’s not exactly what happened”. (She’d just moved to London, and a mutual friend asked him to show her around.) His fiancée is very health-conscious, which is useful since Guillaume – despite working with the body – isn’t always kind to his own body. “I’m what the French call a bon vivant,” he claims, rather surprisingly given his physical shape. He likes his food and drink – yet his lifestyle in general, he insists, is very boring. Would he say it’s the typical life of a young artistic type in London?
“Yes, because I’m very poor!” he replies, laughing merrily, then thinks about it. “I don’t know if I have a typical London artistic life. I’m not a hipster – at least, I hope I’m not.”
Why does he say he’s not a hipster?
“Because I am not a graphic designer,” he replies, deadpan.
But surely corporeal mime is hip?
“No, I don’t think corporeal mime is hip. I don’t think it’s trendy. I wish it was, but it’s not.” Even in the rarefied world of mime, Decroux’s tradition is “extremely niche,” he muses; most of the big companies work in the rival Lecoq tradition. Maybe that’s why there seems to be an unspoken solidarity among its practitioners. Guillaume never does auditions, for instance, working with people he’s trained or who’ve trained in the same milieu, and rejects the stereotype of the actor as prima donna. “I don’t think it’s true, especially for the sort of theatre that I’m making. You know, we’re not doing mainstream West End musicals here – we’re doing experimental, bordering-on-fringe theatre… Things are so tough in our world that you don’t have time to have an ego, I suspect.”
Admittedly, his cheese-selling days are behind him. The magic shows bring in money – he’s a self-taught magician, though the shows are equally about interacting with the audience as an entertainer – and Theatre Re also “acts as a business card”, opening the doors to other opportunities: we speak on Day One of a five-day sojourn in Cyprus, leading a workshop called ‘From Actor to Mime’ at THOC in Nicosia.
Most importantly, the work is taking off. Blind Man’s Song, the most recent Theatre Re project, was acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe – “We’re not sure what we’re watching but we know it is unique,” goes a quote from the British Theatre Guide – and the clip on YouTube is spectacular. The actors wear veils that fully cover their faces (a visual nod to The Lovers by Magritte), and the vivid use of light and colour is even more impressive than the mime techniques. When it comes to shows, “I use everything I know,” says Guillaume, “I’m not a purist. I’m here to make a piece of work, I’m here to explore a theme, I’m here to move people. I’ll use everything”. Once again, it’s about engagement. He even claims to love the process of applying for funding – he does the pitching himself; “No-one else is going to do it for me” – precisely because he can see whether his ideas are connecting with an audience, even if it’s just an audience of Arts Council bureaucrats.
“I don’t think I’m any more extraordinary than anyone else,” claims Guillaume Pigé at one point. “I think what I’ve done so far, pretty much anyone could do. If I do it, I think anyone can do it”. Is that true, or just false modesty? On the one hand, it’s true he’s had it relatively easy – or maybe it’s better to say that he’s been the beneficiary of every advantage that progressive Western society now affords its creative young people: a sympathetic family, years of study, the possibility of being subsidised so you can spend 18 months devising a play from scratch. On the other – even leaving aside the thorny question of talent – not everyone could be so persistent. He’s had to work all the time, from those daily “scales” to the research and patient accretion of detail that goes into a production. He compares himself to an archaeologist, digging away till he finds something wonderful to reveal to the world – but not everyone has the stamina to be an archaeologist.
Guillaume isn’t angry, or especially political. He loves theatre for its own sake, the theatricality of movement and performance and the way it can shake up an audience; above all, it seems, he loves the process. It’s a rather hilarious irony – given how much he likes to talk – that one of his favourite quotes comes from his namesake Guillaume le Taciturne, aka William the Silent, a 16th-century prince who (when he wasn’t being silent) offered the following: “Il n’est pas nécessaire d’espérer pour entreprendre, ni de réussir pour persévérer”. In other words: ‘It is not necessary to have hope in order to undertake [projects], nor to succeed in order to persevere’.
It’s a fitting motto for a disciplined, rather detached French expat who keeps plugging away in the esoteric world of corporeal mime. Does he worry – now that he’s turned 30, and may even be about to start a family – about Time passing, and the risk that he may still be plugging away in 10 years’ time? Yes and no, he replies. “You need to feel like you’re progressing, absolutely” – but you can’t plan the future, and theatre is its own unruly beast. “Some people might do exactly what needs to happen to make it work, and yet the mayonnaise won’t take, as we say – it’s a French expression – the magic won’t happen. It doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong”.
Success, in other words, isn’t the only criterion; as William the Silent advised, you just have to go for it. Is the mayonnaise – that elusive magic – in Guillaume’s control? “I don’t think so,” he admits without sadness, then adds a caveat: “What’s in my control is to make extraordinary shows”. Sounds like a pretty good life-plan.