Wednesday, Sept. 20, the College of William and Mary’s Reves Center for International Studies welcomed Michael Pedretti, a seasoned performer and scholar with over 50 years of experience as a clown, to speak on the evolution of modern mime art and his contributions to the art form.
Pedretti, who initially worked as a theater professor, later founded and acted as the artistic director of the Philadelphia-based Movement Theater International until retiring in 2016. He has since settled in Williamsburg and authored nine books.
In the Reves Room, Pedretti initiated his 45-minute presentation by reading an excerpt from his 2022 book, “The Inside Story of Movement Theater International’s Mime and Clowns Festival.”
“Mime is the ultimate in simplicity, and the purest of art forms,” Pedretti said. “There’s no medium or material, just an actor and a bare stage. Mime is the art form underneath all other art forms.”
Pedretti acknowledged the complexity of his work as a clown, especially in regard to the performative arts.
For me, clowning is a verb. It is a series of attitudes and techniques that lead the performer into a relationship building rapport with the audience.
“I have been performing as a clown for almost 50 years, and I still don’t have a definition of what a clown is,” Pedretti said. “What clowning definitely is not is a costume and makeup. For me, clowning is a verb. It is a series of attitudes and techniques that lead the performer into a relationship building rapport with the audience.”
During the lecture, Pedretti first made a deliberate distinction between the formal artistic craft and the popularized birthday, circus or television acts, which he does not teach. He then discussed the historical significance of mime and clowning. These art forms, capable of conveying without spoken words, date back to ancient times when they served various initial purposes. According to Pedretti, appeasing the gods, imitating animals before a hunt, preparing for war or celebrating all benefited from a mime’s work.
As for modern times, Pedretti argued the boom of local theater during the 1960s, which brought professional theater to smaller cities, ushered in a golden era for clowning from 1962 until the end of the 20th century. Mime and clown artists transitioned from simple sketches to full-length shows that could carry a recurring theme.
“What happened here is that people began to say, ‘Why can’t we make a full-length show?’” Pedretti said. “So some people just took the sketches and put them together, but other people had created full-length shows and it made all the difference. Because as an audience member, you could engage. As an artist, you could carry a theme a long way so you could have a little theme and another theme and another theme. And that’s everything, can’t tell you how important that is.”
This phenomenon stirred Pedretti, who found the stagnant theater of the 1950s uninspiring. Pedretti was ultimately inspired to seriously pursue clowning and subsequently founded Movement Theater International to build a community of like-minded artists.
From 1979 to 1997, the Movement Theater International hosted international festivals, national conferences and six-week summer institutes featuring performances and master classes. These festivities gave the greater public, and scholars, an introduction to clowning as a genuine art form.
Pedretti showed audience members a three-minute clip from one of the international festivals featuring a Pedretti-produced clown, Avner Eisenberg, eating a stack of napkins in his act. A second video showcased Vietnamese water puppets, a part of Movement Theater International’s international art segment.
Pedretti concluded his presentation by contending that mimes’ and clowns’ continued relevance over a millennia is due to their ability to transcend cultural and national boundaries.
“Movement is a universal language,” Pedretti said. “Before everyone spoke, before the first language was invented. And in fact, a[n indiscernible] leader is the like to ask the question, ‘Who invented language?’ And his answer was a mime because everyone was a mime before there was language, there was no way you could communicate. So movement is the universal language and the mime are trying to find universal ways to speak.”
Kate Hoving, the associate director of international communications at the Reves Center, appreciated the transnational aspect of Pedretti’s talk.
“I had met Michael Pedretti. He lives in Williamsburg and he came to talk to me about his book and what he had done. It just struck me as so interesting. He’s talking about what it is to be human and just seemed like a natural fit to talk about how art can really transcend languages,” Hoving said.
She reflected on the mission of the Reves Center, acknowledging the importance of bridging gaps between cultures and ideas.
“A lot of what we do at the Reves Center is how we make connections across borders and meet other people of different cultures,” Hoving said. “So it is just like, here’s someone who can talk about this real basic art form that does all those things. And we sometimes let words get in the way.”
For many attendees, Pedretti gave them their first exposure to mime as a buildable art form outside of the circus or street performances.
Arya Shryock ’26, who attended the event, commented on Pedretti’s talk.
“I don’t think I would want to do it myself, but I would definitely want to see it in person. I’m already looking at these mime festivals, I didn’t know they were a thing,” Shryock said.
For attendees like Aaron Kopp ’26, the mime and clown motif brought back nostalgic memories from childhood.
I think there is something to be said for, like, whimsy and childlike joy in a very ‘Alice and Wonderland’ way. Like, you know, losing yourself in something silly is nice, even if that silliness conveys a deeper message that’s just a little out of focus.
“I think there is something to be said for, like, whimsy and childlike joy in a very ‘Alice and Wonderland’ way. Like, you know, losing yourself in something silly is nice, even if that silliness conveys a deeper message that’s just a little out of focus,” Kopp said.
Pedretti answered several audience questions after and autographed copies of his books, “The Inside Story of Movement Theater International’s Mime and Clowns Festival” available for sale.