There was a time in the late 1980s when Winnipeg was a centre for mime and hosted the only North American festival dedicated to the wordless art form.
Those were the days when Giuseppe Condello lived here and ran his troupe 40 Below Mime and the six-day Winnipeg International Mime Festival that attracted performers from the United States and Europe. He even brought in Marcel Marceau -- the world's best known mime and, for many, the only mime they ever knew by name -- to perform at the Pantages Playhouse and talk.
When the Manitoba Arts Council cut the six-year-old festival's funding, Condello sold his St. Vital home and left town. The mime scene fell silent. Its popularity has not been much to speak of since.
Condello returns after a quarter-century absence to make his Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival debut with a double bill of two Etienne Decroux pieces, The Washing and The Carpenter.
"It's rather exciting but I'm a bit nervous," says Condello over the telephone recently. "I'm still amazed a lot of people remember what we used to do here."
The 66-year-old successfully entered his name in the fringe lottery at the urging of his son Anthony, who is a member of the festival's production staff. In Victoria and Toronto, Condello taught and performed corporeal mime to anyone interested in "making visible the invisible," as Decroux once described mime.
In Winnipeg, mime has retreated to the artistic sidelines after its brief blossoming here in the '80s, not much to the surprise of Condello.
"When we ran the company, it was known internationally as being the best mime festival in the world at the time," he says. "When we left, everything seemed to come with me and disappeared. On a commercial basis, perhaps it is a forgotten art."
Since then, mime has lost two giants: Decroux, the father of corporeal mime, who died in 1991, and Marceau, mime's most internationally acclaimed practitioner, in 2007. Worse, mime became the butt of jokes featuring a sad, white-faced man with walls closing in on him. If you see them at all today, it will be on street corners of big cities and tourist attractions, performing statuary mime.
"I think the stigma of mime did damage," says Condello, who once again will be making Winnipeg his home base. "Those who were pure of heart for this particular art shunned white-face. I feel a resurgence of mime because young people are hungry for a tangible physical discipline, whether they are actors or dancers."
Contemporary mime goes radically beyond the simple replacement of words with gestures. It can be an exciting cocktail of puppetry, circus arts and acrobatics.
The two pieces Condello is performing are ones he was commissioned to create for a performance about Parisian life for the Toronto Mask Theatre last February. He opted to revive The Carpenter, a work about planing a piece of wood that he learned from Decroux himself.
"If people think they are going to see me do white-face pantomime, that's not the case," he says. "They are going to see me do something beautiful. Both pieces are based on work."
Mime has sustained Condello all these years and expects both he and it have a future.
"It's been under-appreciated because it has been under-exposed," he says.