NEW! Check out this National Public Radio piece by Ari Shapiro about Tim and Tanya called, “Loving Math and Mime.”
MM: Whenever I tell anyone about your work, their first reactions are surprise and curiosity. Math and miming?! What could that possibly be? It’s a very creative combination. How did you come upon the idea of making a show that combines math and miming?
Tanya: Tim came up with the idea when we moved to Davidson. It was a natural bridge, really. We both highly believe in the arts as a medium for content and learning. Interdisciplinary in nature, arts pull people in by aiding visualization or simply changing one’s frame of reference for a topic. During our Masters degree work I took a course on using drama as a tool for teaching. This gave additional structure to the types of interactive teaching and learning which we’d been doing in various ways as we taught performing arts workshops to kids across the east coast.
Tim: It all began with a meeting with an education professor at Davidson. Tanya dropped me off at his office. An hour later, I got back in the car and said, “He’s really excited. He’s helping me with seed money to get things ready to begin performing as soon as possible.” Tanya said, “Great!” Her response sounded like she expected such a story. I said, “I was thinking this would begin 2-3 years from now. I was just meeting to see if he is interested.” Tanya laughed and said, “I could have told you folks would be interested! They just needed to hear you talk about it.” I then went into a six month development of the show. The first show received a very positive response and I could sense it was going to be something we did more than locally. Soon, we were performing nationally. There are two versions of the show — one with Tanya and one that I perform solo. I prefer the one with Tanya! 🙂 Kids do too. When Tanya is in the show, folks get to see the huge slinky/tube.
Mime and math are a natural combination. Many mathematical ideas fold into the arts like shape and space. Further, other ideas in math are abstract themselves. Mime visualizes the invisible world of math which is why I think math professor can sit next to a child and both get excited!
MM: One of my favorites of your sketches is the Infinite Rope. Infinity can be very difficult to understand and, in particular, to visualize. Why did you choose infinity as one of your subjects, and how did you come up with the story of that sketch?
Tim: The infinite rope was created for my college class. Tanya and I talked about the sketch a lot as I developed it. I wanted a sketch that introduces ideas about the infinite and shows that through the lens of mathematics we can see that which can be beyond comprehension. Math allows us to see such ideas. The infinite rope allows children and adults to see the infinite. The sketch was a fun one to develop as I didn’t, up to that time, have a sketch that used the rope illusions.
MM: What is your favorite sketch to perform?
Tanya: The tube is one of my favorites. With Tim inside the 25 ft slinky-like full-body mask, his character’s smallest move can capture the imagination of the audience. It is a fun challenge for me to contrast my nuanced movement in ways that demonstrate non-verbal communication between my playful character and his.
Tim: Yes, the tube is a wonderful sketch. Audiences simply laugh with such freedom. They become a group. Usually, they also try to figure out where I am in the tube. We’ve spent 20-30 minutes with audiences just talking about that and trying to visualize the shape. It’s like math class but where we visualized Slink’s movement rather than a 2D or 3D shape created from a math formula.
MM: What is something you’ve learned through performing about math with mime that has surprised you?
Tanya: For me it is how just one hour of positive experiences with math, playing with abstract concepts, or seeing real live application of math in our world (like Google, soccer, music, NASCAR, or the movies) can change the attitude of an audience member who previously identified him/herself as a “math-hater.”
Tim: Tanya and I work to keep our performing very, very simple. This allows the simply profound ideas to sink and crystalize. Yet, performing is a conversation and an audience’s laughter, silence, and comments inform us what they enjoy. I really find the excitement in audiences very meaningful. Math professors from prestigious colleges and children in lower elementary have all come up and begun talking math, with some adding, “I never really liked math before….” That’s very meaningful to us both.
MM: What is an experience that you feel has shaped you as a mathematician or a mathematical performer?
Tanya: I taught at a wonderful private school in Seattle, Washington in which I learned from masterful educators who crafted an environment in which children could explore and question mathematical concepts with manipulatives. My colleagues intentionally presented questions that were just beyond the student’s current thinking and enabled him/her to consider a concept with a slightly different perspective which lead to moments of inquiry and discovery. It was humbling and exhilarating.
Tim: I remember sitting in math class in college and studying the infinite in a math proof class. To be able to study the infinite and prove things about it was when I knew I wanted more. Formulas and algorithms were fine but I tended to prefer computer programming until I hit that stage of math. Then, I saw how creative and open-ended it could be.
It took awhile to figure out I’d be a math prof. We had several stages where we thought we’d move into professional performing. But, we really wanted to settle into a home, with neighbors and friends. We love performing and enjoy travel. Yet, we find deep meaning in family time and friends. When our home is full of our kids playing with friends and we are chatting with our friends — those are special times. That type of family life is easier to build when you aren’t traveling all over performing all the time.
MM: When did you know that you wanted to be a mathematician? What drew you to mathematics?
Tim: The math proof class was a big moment for me. Yet, I found in graduate school that math had so much to offer. It makes cars more efficient, gives us the power of Google, and lies at the core of many games we play. I love studying and learning math. I love digging into new and unknown ideas and then trying to adapt them either to share in performing, in writing, or in teaching.
MM: Are there any parting words that you’d like to share with our younger readers?
Tanya: Read The Math Curse and give it a try…learning is all around us and it is quite fun!
Tim: For us, mime and math was a natural combination. What do you love? We had a number of people doubt a mime and math show could even be interesting. We listened to our inner voices and went with our belief. What do you hear? What do you envision? Create…refine and have fun.