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A West Virginia town is a mecca of mime

By Jack WaughSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 1982

Elkins, W.Va.

Deep in the Alleghenies an old and hallowed form of theater is being reborn every summer - and this summer more than ever.

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Mime is one of the most ancient of arts. It harks back to prehistoric times when it was a basic - perhaps first - form of human communication. It evolved later as comic relief for Greek drama. And later still it reached a zenith in popularity as the centerpost of the famous commedia dell'arte of Italy. It ultimately influenced such antic film figures as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Red Skelton. But for most of the last two centuries mime has slipped into eclipse as a separate art form.

Now, masters of mime insist, it is in a renaissance. And a world center of its rebirth is here in Elkins, a culturally supercharged town on West Virginia's Potomac Highland, 200 miles west of Washington, D.C. For the past three years the summer-long School for Movement Theater (SMT) at Davis & Elkins College has turned the town into the new American mecca for mime. And this summer, to reinforce that budding reputation, SMT is hosting the International Mime and Movement Festival, only the second such world event ever held in the United States.

For eight days - July 3-10 - leading mimes, clowns, jugglers, dancers, and masters of the gestural arts will converge on Elkins from six nations.

Tony Montanaro, perhaps the foremost American mime, who rarely attends such festivals, will be here. He hails it as ''a major event in the world of mime. All mimes know of it and many are coming.''

Among those who indicated they would attend are several of the brightest stars in the mime-dance-clown constellation:

The US mime delegation will be made up of world-acclaimed artists and troupes , including Lotte Goslar and her madcap Pantomime Circus; Ronlin Foreman, one of mime's most eloquent young interpreters; Julie Portman, a leading link between classical Eastern and Western theater; Avner the Eccentric, a young Old World clown; Thomas Leabhart, the modern master of corporeal mime; and Dancers for Isadora, the foremost inheritors of the Isadora Duncan tradition. Joining them will be Mamako Yoneyama, Japan's foremost mime; Sigfrido Aguilar, Mexico's premier mime-clown, and his Comediantes Pantomima; India's renowned classical Kalamandalam Kathakali Theater troupe; Mime Omnibus, Canada's highly acclaimed mime troupe; and Yves Lebreton, a French clown-mime who hails from the rich Franco tradition of Jacques Tati and Marcel Marceau.

The eight-day festival will be bracketed by the seven-week School for Movement Theater, which is now in its third summer. SMT offers an intensive round of master classes in mime, juggling, masks, clowning, and dance representing the variegated world of modern mime.

The festival itself will concentrate an array of master classes, workshops, demonstrations, panel discussions, showcases, street performances, and stage appearances. All of the master performers teaching at SMT will be on hand for the festival, which will be open to the public and to students of mime from all over the country.

Michael Pedretti is the driving force behind both SMT and the festival. Under his direction the theater department at Davis & Elkins College has emerged in the past decade as one of the leading drama schools in the country. He originated the School for Movement Theater in 1980 as a summer program. He now sees it and its offshoot, the international festival, as major links in reclaiming for mime its once hallowed role in world theater.

From his unpretentious and cluttered office in the theater building on the tree-studded D&E campus, Mr. Pedretti surveys the world of mime and tries to put it into perspective: ''It is definitely in a renaissance. Last year there were four or more New York productions that featured mime in some form. Two years ago there were none. Moreover, mimes now are being seen in TV commercials. That is a relatively new phenomenon.''