Every July, when the French Institute/Alliance Française (FIAF) holds a Bastille Day celebration on East Sixtieth Street in Manhattan, festival goers are likely to see a cute whiteface mime posing for pictures and occasionally contorting her face into mask-like expressions. But for Catherine Gasta, the Prospect Heights woman behind the whiteface, the traditional French mime act is only one example of a misunderstood art. She came to New York after eight years with a Washington, D.C. theater company devoted to telling stories without words.
"It's a very powerful thing," Gasta says. "It really strengthens your acting ability when you can exist on stage in character for more than several minutes without saying anything."
Gasta has explored movement to show how mime can convey different stories and emotions, tragic and comic. A theater graduate of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, the Media, Pennsylvania native had been drawn to wordless expression since playing charades with her family every Christmas as a girl. While Gasta continued her studies at the National Theater Institute in Connecticut in 1997, it was a return trip to Connecticut the following year that set her on a course to explore mime in greater depth.
"Because I'd gone to the program at the National Theater Institute, I was notified about a conference on the Michael Chekhov technique," Gasta says, referring to the acting technique perfected by the nephew of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, "and that's where I met one of the directors from a company I worked with in D.C."
From there, Gasta co-founded Synetic Theater, a Washington physical theater company led by the husband-and-wife team of director Paata and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili from the Transcaucasian country of Georgia. Gasta worked with the Tsikurishvilis and honed her skills in using her body to convey stories, performing with an ensemble, and connecting with an audience. The Tsikurishvilis' approach, with its slow-motion sequences and subtle costuming, was different from Marcel Marceau's style. "No mime makeup," Gasta explains. "We just had mime elements in the shows, everybody pretending to push something together, pull a rope, or fighting in slow motion, things like that."
Typical of Synetic's fixation with telling dark stories through physicality was a wordless production of, incredibly, a classic Shakespeare drama; Hamlet . . . The Rest Is Silence, which won a Helen Hayes Award for the company (one of many Helen Hayes Awards Synetic has won) and in which Gasta played the role of Gertrude. It was a daring move to act out in gesture a play known for its vital employment of language, but it was par for the course for the Tsikurishvilis. Gasta played Gertrude as a woman enjoying a sense of re-awakening as Claudius's wife (and Hamlet's mother). "She's very vivacious and exciting and just taking full advantage of the situation," Gasta says, "and not evil, but definitely not too remorseful. It was great to be in that production because it was the heaviest amount of silent acting I did with that company."
She moved to New York to explore other possibilities in physical theater, and while she has done several theatrical productions involving dialogue, she has continued to focus primarily on mime. Though she hoped to, in her own words, "change the common perception of mime" for audiences - and she has made vigorous efforts at that - Gasta has found her French Mime character at FIAF's annual Bastille Day fair to be her steadiest gig. Nevertheless, she feels it's helped her promote her art.
"A lot of people are really wonderful at that event because they want to take my picture," she says. "That says that the costume is working, they're not afraid of me. And it's an interesting challenge to be entertaining and show them something unique in a short amount of time. People are walking by. They are not standing around a lot and watching a performance." She's used the character to expose people to basic mime elements like "the mask" - contorting her facial muscles in a silly expression while pretending to don a mask - a common technique in projecting an aspect of a character's personality. She's pleased to be able to put across an interesting persona, especially as a woman in a theatrical medium dominated by male performers. "It's a nice accomplishment to have."
Gasta has a lot of projects to keep herself busy. In addition to entertaining at other events, she teaches mime and physical acting workshops for adults. She's also done sketch work with various repertory companies, such as the all-female comedy troupe Pirate Sugar (formerly Chloroform Babiez) and the group Odyssey Ensemble; one such example with the latter group was a ten-minute adaptation of Ghostbusters that captured the essence of the 1984 movie by focusing on its most central scenes. "We all brought to the table what we thought what's important for the audience to see, it would be like, "That's right, I remember that scene, that is absolutely Ghostbusters!'" she says. "You get a sense of the whole film in ten minutes, [and to convey that] was a great challenge. That's the kind of thing I like."
She's especially in her element with children. Gasta has brought mime to All-Stars, a volunteer program that instructs New York's inner-city children in the performing arts; she mixes mime with hip-hop elements to demonstrate silent acting to the kids. Having performed children's shows while with Synetic, she parlayed her experience into an ongoing show at the Toy Museum of New York, where, appearing opposite Toy Museum curator Marlene Hochman, she plays a mischievous rag doll that plays with and carelessly breaks toys. The museum itself is in a small second-floor room of a downtown Brooklyn church, allowing Gasta to interact one-on-one with the children. "With the way the show ends, they want to see me again. They want to talk to me. So many children want to play with me, they want to take me home," she says with a laugh. "I definitely focus on having real, childlike thoughts and mannerisms, so I think that's why they relate so much."
For all of her different projects, Gasta's ambition hasn't slowed down. In 2009, she produced and choreographed A Piece of Humanity, a nine-person ensemble mime act that presents vignettes of life's different stages in the abstract, from children in school to adults in the workplace and, ominously, on the battlefield . . . and restarting the action from the beginning. She has also made a video with a mining company that needing a mime to be the character for their finger and hand safety videos for their miners; it has 350 mines across America. "It was a great video shoot," Catherine says of the "miming for mining" gig, "and the people were very nice to work with."
Gasta and her roommate, another Synetic alumna, both hope to produce it again, and they're even hoping to bring actors from Synetic to New York to train with them and join Synetic for tours, as well as have Synetic members work with actors in New York. And while you won't hear Catherine utter a word of French or English at the annual Bastille Day Fair, don't be surprised to see her performing with words as well as movement. New York, she says, has exposed her to different types of performance beyond physical theater.
"I want to see how I fit in as an actor in the gigantic population of actors in this city," she says. " I am very interested in doing sketch or being on a comedy television show, that would be very fun. I have to take that step by step."
Visit Gasta's Web site at http://catgasta.wix.com/mime-time.