- Liz Publika
Interview With the Mathematical Mime Tim Chartier: Proof that math and performance art add up
There’s a pretty good chance that you will never come across another interview with a mathematical mime. But, that’s just one aspect of who Tim Chartier is. The Professor of Mathematics at Davidson College is also an accomplished puppeteer, successful author, award-winning educator, and a renowned analytics expert — who creates models using bracketology and ranking to predict winners for professional sports teams involved with the NBA, NHL, ESPN's Sport Science, NASCAR, and fantasy sports sites. Seriously, to say that this man marches to the beat of his own drum is an understatement.
Chartier obtained his B.S. and M.S. from Western Michigan University. He also trained at Colorado’s Le Centre du Silence Mime School and California’s Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater. And, before entering the University of Colorado to obtain his P.h.D., Chartier somehow managed to squeeze in a few master classes with Marcel Marceau (1923 - 2007), who was quite fond of the phrase: “Mime makes the invisible, visible and the visible, invisible.” It’s true that mathematicians live in a largely unseen world. It’s also true that the job of a mime is to make the invisible perceivable, and that is where the disciplines converge.
What makes Chartier’s success that much more remarkable is the fact that he "had a very serious illness" when he was young: "When I was eleven, I had three flus at the same time, and that affected my vestibular nerve. I was paralyzed from the waist down for about six months,” he explained to ARTpublika Magazine, “then, I was functionally paralyzed from the neck down and hospitalized for almost two months. I was on a cane and a walker throughout seventh grade. While I recovered, I was so incredibly weak that I was at home all the time. Being trapped inside forced me to be creative.”
Mimematics — as the new art form was dubbed by Chartier and his wife Tanya, who is also his collaborator — aims to contextualize certain mathematical ideas within a story, so as to help the audience better understand an abstract concept. At this point you may be wondering how this works — mime, after all, is a silent art form. Although most of the sketches are performed without uttering a word, there is a bit of talking in between. And, in an even further break with traditional mime, the Chartiers don’t use whiteface for their routines; but, props and masks make up for that, helping make for an interactive viewer experience.
Interestingly, the idea for mimematics did not come from Tim Chartier. It was actually pitched to him by a librarian in Boulder, Colorado, where he put on a non-mathematical show at an earlier time. Turns out, the library got a mathematical grant and the librarian was hoping the mime would return to perform on the subject at their location. Skeptical about what he could offer, Chartier turned to Tanya for advice. “Oh yeah, there’s a lot of mathematics in what you do,” she told him, before proceeding to layout the details to the stunned performer. So, he “agreed to do the show and developed two new sketches specifically about mathematical content.”
One thing led to another, and the Chartiers eventually developed a full-fledged math and mime show that can now be performed for youngsters, college students, and general audiences — who may or may not be aware of the math angle. At the same time, Chartier takes his responsibility as a math teacher very seriously. His work on sports tournament matchups is done via bracketology and ranking, which Chartier teaches to, and engaged in with his students, even though the system has applications in many other fields. Together, they also supply analytics to Davidson College’s sports teams.
ARTpublika Magazine had the distinct pleasure of speaking to Tim Chartier about his work, including his love of mime, puppetry, and the creative aspects of math that drew him in.
How did you get interested in performing?
Probably the biggest thing that made me who I am artistically is becoming very involved in puppetry at the age of nine or ten. In the fifth grade, every time we had to do any kind of report in class, I would do a puppet show. Even in middle school. I look at my children and what middle school is like now, and I don’t know where I was or what was I doing. But I did it anyway, and my mother actually helped me make the puppets.
Sometimes, because I needed to get the grade, the puppet show was kind of dry on the content. I mean, I made sure to cover what I needed to, but then I would have a commercial break, which is what everyone looked forward to because it was usually funny and had absolutely nothing to do with what we were learning. That was kind of my hook — I would do puppetry because it was fun and easy for me.
In the ninth grade, my parents took me to a national puppetry conference, where I saw a style of puppetry which was not muppety — meaning Jim Henson (1936 - 1990) created The Muppets for television, but in theater you can do other things. Anyway, I was already performing puppetry widely by the time I graduated from high school; and, in college, I was performing puppetry in both national and international settings.
When did you get introduced to mime?
I was a senior in high school when I began to study mime as well. My high school graduation gift was an international performance arts conference that I actually went to with my parents. I thought I was going there to learn all of these different art forms, but I took mime the whole week I was there. Within a year, I was in college and performing around the state of Michigan, where I would do one or two shows a month.
These shows didn’t have anything to do with math yet, did they?
Math played a role in all of this only in that I was good at it. I tended to not see myself as a mathematician — I was just somebody who was good at math. That was true for a long time. That was even true in college. I took math so that I could be a high school math teacher, and so that I could teach performing arts or theater. I thought that I could get the high school job because I taught math. Then, I got to college and I really liked computer science.
Sounds like it took you a bit of time to warm up to the idea of math. Is there a moment when it finally clicked for you?
We were working through proofs in class. When I learned that there is more than one size of infinity, that’s when I went: Woah! Wait a minute! This is something I can’t comprehend, how math and proofs can be artistic and elegant and minimalistic. I began to move more heavily towards math, with a computer science minor. By then, I was able to let go of the theater major. I was performing so widely in puppetry and mime that when I looked at what was involved in getting a theater major, I wasn’t interested in any of that anymore.
During college, I met my wife Tanya. I taught her to perform and in grad school, we actually did a performance tour together that paid for our wedding. So, we very much could have been full time performers, but it wasn’t the kind of lifestyle where we could have a home and be part of a community; and if we wanted to have children — which we have had — we wanted them to have a sense of home. Luckily, I found a way to integrate mathematics with the mime.
How did that process go?
I’ve learned that it’s hard to create something that my artistic friends would get and that the mathematical community wouldn’t feel like I’m taking creative license with. I created this show mainly as a local school outreach program, but within a year and half I was no longer performing locally.
I was very ill from the sixth grade on for a number of years. So, I knew I couldn’t be a traveling performer, the rigor of it would just be too hard on me. Part of the reason I went into math and computer science was because I knew I could telecommute if I had to. So, that all played a role. I am very pleased with what I do, it’s its own journey.
What appealed to you about computer science?
In college, what I didn’t like about math was that it sometimes felt like I was solving problems to solve problems. When I was in calculus, which was created out of application — out of need — just didn’t feel that way to me. What I liked about computer science was that it was very, very clear that you could create something with what you were learning and the creative aspect of that was always interesting to me. And that was apart from my illness — that attraction to computer science was not related to my health.
So, the creative artist in you sniffed out the creative potential of computer science?
But it was the creative aspect of math that finally moved me toward it — the idea of multi-sized infinity. I always remember exactly where I learned that. It was at Western Michigan University, and my professor was literally like: “Now that’s an elegant proof.” He didn’t talk like that in his general communications, but he admired it for what it was. That’s when I realized that a mathematical proof could be art, there was an aestheticism to it.
What really attracted me to math is the fact that it reminded me of my finite understanding of the world — and math is a lot more orderly than our world — which gave me a certain humility to my understanding of anything. I realized what the dissertation meant: You create something new in the field, it’s not just some big report. Math isn’t a done thing. You really do sense that you can discover something new, and I liked, and like now, that there are no limits.
What sparked your interest in mime?
That actually is connected to my illness. When I was in high school and unable to perform — I had already seen mime at the puppetry conferences that I had gone to — I trained from a mime book that I actually bought there. It turns out that my mom had taken a really advanced mime class that she was totally lost in. So, when I didn’t understand what this book was saying, I was like: ”You can’t do that with your body.” And my mom would go: “Oh, you know, I remember that. You actually can, so you do this…” And so with that understanding, I would train.
I had trained for a year and a half before I went to that international performance art conference that was my high school graduation gift. And when I went there, I realized that I already was a mime, because I had done the hardest part, which was to train my body. Now, I can do things with my body that silences an audience.
How do you test ideas for a show?
I have a really good friend who is a mime, his name is Doug. One day, Doug came over and I opened the trunk that holds my props and shared with him how I was developing my sketches, but I didn’t perform for him. At one point he said that I should do so and so. I thought it was a riot, but I couldn’t do that, because that would be mathematically wrong. But “it’s art,” he said.
And that is what’s always going on in terms of developing ideas: You think of something that you can mime and you go: OK, cool! Does that have any connection to math at all? Or, sometimes have a math idea and you just keep trying to think about how to mime it.
On average, how long does it take to work out the details for a sketch?
It probably takes a month or two on average. If we’re performing soon, I know I can’t do a new sketch, because I can’t refine the mime, and we can’t have new material that’s weaker than the other. Mime is really hard; because you are silent, you can lose an audience very, very quickly. It’s part of the reason you train so hard; you try to make your movements have a simplicity to them, because any extra movement can be like extra words, they can be misunderstood, and so you really have to wean it down to what’s clear. It needs to be entertaining, too, otherwise people won’t care.
My mime colleagues point out that a lot of what I do, I can do because of my understanding of what I look like and how I can make my body look the way I want it to look. In terms of the content that's being introduced, mime is best when it’s set within a storyline. In mime, you’re pushing or getting pulled, you’re struggling against the world itself. So, you have to create the belief and the storyline.
The main thing about mimematics is that someone who really loves math can be with someone who hasn’t had positive experiences with it, and they can sit side by side and enjoy it, even if their experiences with math are different.
How did you get involved in sports analytics?
It’s funny that my Twitter account has people who follow me because I’m a mathematical mime, and people who follow me because I’m a sports analyst.
My main area of academic research, while not initially, became ranking methods. Like with Google, when you put a query into the search engine, the order of the webpages you see are listed according to their ranking. Working with my main collaborator Amy Langville, we made changes to existing sports ranking methods. We were just doing it to see if they would work, but it suddenly hit Amy that we could make March Madness brackets out of our ranking methods very easily.
["Every year around the beginning of March, students and faculty at 65 schools along with a large portion of the United States get excited about the prospects of March Madness, the Division I NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. At the start of the tournament each of the 65 teams has a chance of ending the season crowned the champion. With the excitement of watching basketball comes the adventure of attempting to predict the outcome of the tournament by ﬁlling out a bracket. The NCAA estimates that 10% of the nation will ﬁll out a bracket.”]
In early February in 2009, Amy and I worked up what we would do and submitted 8 brackets to this ESPN’s Tournament Challenge where a total of 4.5 million brackets were submitted. Our best one was better than 97% of the brackets, all of them were 80% or above.
Within a year, I was teaching bracket work to my class, and one of my students beat the 99.99 percent in over five million brackets submitted that year. So, each year my students would create brackets. Then, in 2014, three of my students came in and asked to submit analytics for the school’s male basketball team. We met once a week for two months to develop what we would offer to the team. Soon, we became a central part of game development for every game of the season.
So, that’s kind of how the analytics thing came about. To most people, I’m one or the other — a mime or a mathematician — I don’t know what they’ll think when I pull out the puppets next.