Words, words, words… and some silence

Geoffrey Stevenson, researcher on the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts Project, reports on at an international conference.

An international conference of academics interested in media, religion and culture was, I thought, the perfect place to perform a piece of silent mime  – I mean, at least no translators would be necessary. The mime was part of a paper I was giving, and to give it I had to travel for close to 24 hours, by plane, train, bus & taxi, from Edinburgh to the centre of Turkey, to Anadolu University in Eskisehir.  For five days at the eighth, biennial Media Religion and Culture conference, a huge range of papers were presented, in four parallel streams, on subjects as diverse as Young Muslim Women Blogging, Ritualising Death in the Media, The Cyborg & the Sacred in Popular Culture, as well as my own, entitled ‘Wordless Rhetoric: Mime Theatre and Religious Education’.

The paper hinged on the live performance of a 8 minute piece of mime, a work I had created in the late 80’s for TEAR Fund, the UK relief and development charity. In free and fast flowing physical theatre ‘The Poverty Chain’ traced links between a couple on one side of the globe deciding on (yet another) fitted kitchen and a rice farmer on the other side watching in despair as his crops are washed away, the result of deforestation, the result of demand for hardwoods, the result of? well, you get the picture. But in my paper I ask, what does it take to ‘get the picture’, and at what level of response can we honestly say that we ‘got it’? I can give you the link to the YouTube version, which was also properly footnoted in the paper of course*, so you can see what I am on about, but would that be the same? In important ways the affective power of live theatre is sui generis – unlike anything else. In the same room as the performer the stakes are high, as any audience member attending a fringe show at the Edinburgh Festival can testify. You want to know, am I trapped with a madman for the next hour? Will I laugh, or cry, or just be bored to tears?

In the case of physical theatre, when words are mostly set aside so that the body’s language can be fluent, many audience members will be anxious that they are not even going to get what is going on. But when they do, the impact can be almost visceral. Humour plays its part, helping to establish the shared ethos that binds a speaker / performer to the listener / viewer. And when humour provokes audience laughter, there is a subtle binding together of the audience. This too contributes to the affective power of the event. Audience members from American, Iran, Norway, etc. were brought together for a moment and invited to consider not just shared humour but shared ethics. I would observe that theatre such as ‘The Poverty Chain’ has the potential, given its aim and its genesis, to act also as a minor rite of shared remembrance, a reminder of values required and desired by a community assembled, and that this is a fundamental aspect of establishing justice and building peace. Laughter, shared ethos, a community event, the power of gesture and the engagement of enacted story-telling, these were the elements of a unique performance. Yet for all my words in this little blog, you may still be in the dark. I hate to say this, but it really is a case of ‘you had to be there’.

The link to a video version of the mime (if by chance it goes viral, I hope to present a paper at the next conference on “digital recycling of mime theatre”):

Watch the video

By Geoffrey Stevenson, researcher on the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts Project, July 2012.