EssaysWeekend

Don’t Send in the Clowns: Mime Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Quiet

Richmond Shepard and his mime company with Diana Ross (courtesy Richmond Shepard) (click to enlarge)

On 52nd Street, not far from the Neil Simon Theater, where Broadway’s high-tech magic act, The Illusionists, was selling out shows, there lives a more natural illusionist. His name is Richmond Shepard, and he’s an 86-year-old mime. Shepard operates his own unofficial mime studio from his 400-square-foot apartment, layered in dusty area rugs and cluttered with photographs and trinkets from his long career. On Saturday mornings, Shepard clears the three chairs from his living/bed/dining room to teach a mime class.

When I attended my first session last month, my two classmates were Michael, a doctor, and Bruce, a lawyer. They’ve been regular students for the past six years. After an hour attempting to follow the group’s movement exercises like a clunky robot dancing ballet, it was time for all of us to perform. When I enrolled, I didn’t foresee this unfortunate possibility. I considered sneaking into the bathroom to avoid embarrassment, but Bruce pulled me down next to him on the couch and the show began.

Michael went first: he hoisted a large sack over his shoulder; he walked upwards, constantly slipping; he vomited; he pulled things out from the sack and set them neatly on top of the vomit; he wiped his mouth, then trudged onward with his sack.

Shepard, his wispy gray hair leaving much of his skull exposed, asked us to describe Michael’s performance. I looked at Bruce, sagging on the sproingy couch, then back to Shepard. I guessed, “Santa?” Shepard’s eyes widened in recognition. Michael, who otherwise appeared discontent and severe like a true ac-tor, finally let a smile slip out. “Drunken Santa,” he said.

When it came to be my turn, I tried explaining to Shepard that I didn’t have anything prepared; he gave me five minutes to go into the kitchen and create a routine. Somehow, I was supposed to top drunken Santa.

In the United States, mime is generally understood as a gimmick. Even mocking it seems outdated. But mime is an art, with its own dedicated performers and teachers. Mime shows appear occasionally on small stages across the country and in alternative theater festivals.Thankfully, Shepard, the oldest American mime, still performs his show You Want to be a What?!?, but there’s also new blood carrying on the art. Broken Box Mime Theater is one of two active mime companies in New York City, and its founder is not yet thirty years old. The American Mime Theatre, NYC’s other mime company, has been active since 1952. Most of its members are the same age as those in Broken Box.

American Mime Theatre (Photo by Tom Lee. Courtesy TAMT)

Of course, it’s not easier being a mime today than it was in the 1970s or 80s, when the art form was more popular on TV and in the streets. No mimes in the U.S. make a living strictly from performing. The more established supplement their incomes by teaching, while newbies support themselves with day jobs like any other actor seekinga big break. “There’s only one thing that pays less than mime,” Shepard said. “That’s poetry.”

During his peak, Shepard performed mime on The Jeffersons and The Today Show, but he was never as famous as Marcel Marceau. Gregg Goldston, who performed with Marceau for the last twenty-one years of that quintessentially French mime’s life, is currently the most well-known American mime, although his name is bigger in France and Poland than it is in the U.S. Goldston regularly develops new material and tours the world. “It’s stunning what people are doing now,” Goldston told me. “If the public ever finds out where we’re at now, they’ll flip. Because what they thought it was, was amazing enough to them twenty years ago. The future’s not bleak. The future for the art form is more promising than ever.”

***

To do mime is essentially to express an idea or story through physical movement, without words. Mime exists between acting and dance, which it is often compared to. Yet mime, like acting and dance, has distinct schools and vocabularies. It isn’t a mixture of the two, but its own distinct medium. If the performance seeks to create an illusion, such as a group of mimes becoming a car in a high-speed chase, or a single mime creating a wall, it can be called pantomime. When mimes want to convey more emotion, they still use their body as a tool, but they employ different techniques. These are not about transforming the body into something it’s not, but transmitting its human interior to the exterior. Whatever the story, if an actor can act it or a dancer can dance it, a mime can mime it. As Bill Bowers, an actor, mime, and teacher at New York University said, “You can say anything in mime.”

Goldston gave me a tour of his Harlem apartment, which, unlike Shepard’s, is furnished with the tidy sparseness of a frequent traveler. His bare living room serves as a practice space, and one wall of his kitchen is decorated with photographs of himself and other mimes throughout his forty-year career. In the bedroom he keeps the few props and souvenirs, including a beaten-up pair of Marceau’s white dance shoes. Among mimes, shoes are treasured mementos: they’re the one real item that exhibits the most wear over time.

During our conversation, Goldston frequently walked around, providing demonstrations. He put on neckties, opened doors, and transformed his kitchen into a bar full of strangers and acquaintances, of which I felt a part. But our most powerful moment occurred while we were seated at his slim table. “Dig this,” he said, straightening his back. “Here’s what we can do.” For the next twenty seconds — a long twenty seconds — Goldston looked at me in silence. I expected part of him to move, to exhibit some kind of pantomime, but he kept me drawn to his firmly defined face and long nose.

Then I noticed some activity. His left cheek bounced. His lips puckered forward, then back. His brow began to softly wriggle beneath his slightly curly hair, but it stopped as soon as I focused on it. In actuality, his face might not have been moving at all. I might have been hallucinating.

When he finally pulled us out of it, he explained his mime demonstration as more of a game than illusion. “I’m putting one thought out that I’m about to resolve,” he said. “But I don’t, and the public keeps waiting for me to resolve it.” Like acting, a strong mime performance requires emotional work, mental preparation, and an exacting imagination. “It’s not about the wall,” Goldston said. “It’s about the person doing the wall.”

A mime walking against a windstorm or stealing a heavy safe must employ a set of straightforward, immediately understandable actions, but physical precision is more of a tool for telling stories and expressing emotions. “If you don’t have words and you don’t have real things, you have to be very clear,” said Bowers. “It’s a communication. You take an audience with you where you want them to go. I think that’s what actors are trying to do too.” Professional mimes understand the importance of connecting with their audiences. That’s how Goldston develops hourlong performances, and why larger mime companies can adapt Shakespeare plays. A mime show is not an extended circus act. It’s closer to theater, and as such, is best seen onstage.

Gregg Goldston (photo by Kasia Chmura-Cegielkowsk)

Actors also recognize the benefits of practicing mime. Since mime is largely silent, physical acting, it requires a heightened dexterity and body awareness. Those skills, which can be the most elusive aspects of an actor’s performance, often distinguish mediocre actors from great ones. Most of the students taught by Shepard, Goldston, and Bowers are actors seeking to improve their physicality onstage or on camera. Bowers’ role at the Bill Esper and Stella Adler acting conservatories is professor of creative movement. Goldston has coached actors such as Julia Harris and Anne Hathaway.

The biggest concern Goldston and Bowers have for beginner mimes is that they overlook the necessity of refining the many techniques required to inhabit an invisible universe. “Every semester I have a few that have a spark for it,” Bowers said of his students. “I try to hone that. I want to make sure people understand the level of training that’s required. I want to make sure I’m teaching a technique they can build on.” Goldston recognizes that the expansiveness and applicability of mime is frequently misunderstood, as untrained, clownish mimes influence public perception. “We try to teach that we’re not trying to be a mime,” said Goldston. “We are using mime as our medium to say what we want to say.”

The stereotypical street mime hangs heavily over the art form. These entertainers, who often offer illusions but not emotional conflicts or rich stories, present only snippets of all that mime can do. Goldston, who performed onstage for large audiences early in his career, saw this issue play out in New York City, where street mimes were once more prevalent: “The public sees all these mimes on the street and they think, ‘Why would I go into a theater to see you do this rope pull for two hours?’”

Of course, for street mimes to attract audiences today, they too must be more than clichés. Margot Carr, a.k.a. Pearl the Mime, is a young performer who moved to New York City a few years ago to pursue acting. “I didn’t see any white-face mimes in New York,” Carr said. “So why don’t I try it?”

In her whitely painted face, bright red gown, and tiny, white fairy wings, Carr began doing mime in parks, plazas, and subways. Although she didn’t seek formal training, she practiced diligently, sometimes to a fault. “I was so disciplined I would not speak,” she said. “Even when I was mugged once. I didn’t tell the officer, I mimed it. They got away.”

Margot Star a.k.a Pearl the Mime (photo by Geo Geller)

Carr enjoys toying with the bubbles of personal space that busy pedestrians erect. Once she persuades someone to pay attention to her — mimes have such a bad rap, Carr notices that people are embarrassed even to be seen watching one — she entertains them through interaction. Sometimes she convinces a crowd of children to mime a baseball game. More often, she puts herself in comically absurd situations, then connects with onlookers individually.

Over time, she discovered a purpose to breaking the tension on the street. She began making paper hearts with messages like, ‘Love is in you,’ written inside, and sneaking them into people’s hands when she bid them goodbye. “I was terrified at first, but I knew the power of a stranger’s smile. It can lift the heart of unsuspecting passersby.” Waiting for the subway one day, not dressed in her mime outfit, Carr noticed a man looking at her from the end of the platform. “I told myself, I’m not going to smile at that guy,” Carr said. “I didn’t know why he was staring at me, but it wasn’t a nice stare. I turned away, and the next thing I knew, he was on the front of the train.” The man had committed suicide. “Maybe if I had just smiled at him, his heart would have lifted for a moment, and whatever was bothering him would have subsided.”

***

Mime has existed in some fashion since the fifth century B.C. in Greece and Rome. It was used then to communicate to the gods and to depict religious and mythical scenes at temples, as well as at wealthy homes for weddings and other ceremonies. Yet earlier forms of mime hardly resemble the mime we think of today. Modern mime is only seventy-five years old.

Developed by French actor Etienne Decroux, who wanted actors to develop more discrete and expressive roles in theater, rather than simply functioning as characters or props for playwrights and directors. Goldston described Decroux’s work as highly purposeful. “Decroux basically reinvented mime like a scientist. “The world started looking at it, going, ‘This is completely new.’ It’s not Greek and Roman mime. It’s not all the stuff people up until then could say mime was.”

As Decroux continued this modern style of mime, others influenced it and helped bring it to prominence. Jean-Louis Barrault studied, then performed, with Decroux, bringing an ethereality to Decroux’s strictly earthbound movements. Jacques Lecoq, a physiotherapist and gymnast, came to mime from a theoretical interest in the human body and movement. He later practiced and taught mime techniques as foundations for theater, dance, and other performing arts.

Marceau, the only mime most people have ever heard of, also studied with Decroux. While Decroux, Barrault, and Lecoq all used mime to heighten an actor’s presence and demonstrate the value of his movements, Marceau dedicated himself to performing mime as its own art form. “Marceau was the first guy to write a bunch of [mime] plays and tour the world,” Goldston said. “And he toured sixty years, three hundred days a year.”

Like Charlie Chaplain’s Little Tramp, Marceau’s Bip — in a navy-and-white striped t-shirt, white bellbottoms, gray overshirt with a low-hung crew neck, and crushed top hat with spongy red flower — became an internationally recognizable icon. Although Marceau’s outfit — the striped shirt — shared one aspect with cliché mime (striped shirt, black pants, white gloves, and suspenders), that image’s origin is unknown. Goldston said of it, “I really think some guy drew a cartoon, and somehow people started copying that. I’ve never met that mime.”

Either directly (through his school and traveling workshops) or indirectly, Marceau has influenced every generation of mimes. Shepard, one of the earliest American mimes, and Paul Curtis, an American director and actor, both separately studied with Decroux and Marceau in France in the late 1940s. In the early 1950s, Shepard and Curtis opened the first mime companies in the U.S. Shepard operated the Richmond Shepard Mime Studio in Los Angeles through the 1970s, and Curtis’ American Mime Theatre, as mentioned above, continues in New York City to this day under the direction of Curtis’ successor, Jean Barbour.

Marceau’s constant touring, together with his television appearances from the 1950s through the 70s on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, helped develop a U.S. audience for mime. During the 1960s, Marceau occasionally performed mime with the host of the long-running variety hour, The Red Skelton Show. In 1977, a mime couplewho also performed on The Red Skelton Show, Robert Shields and Lorene Yarnell, had the first mime sketch comedyprogram on TV. The Shields and Yarnell Show lasted only one season, but nothing like it has come since.

Before television, Shields did mime in Union Square in San Francisco, an activity that prompted many would be actors, comedians and performers in the 1980s to start doing mime on the street. However, few of them ever trained in mime schools. They merely attempted to imitate the catchiest bits from television. This included moving robotically, which Shields and Yarnell did in many of their skits. Ultimately, the overabundance of subpar street mimes diminished mime’s popularity and respect in the U.S.

Richmond Shepard and Dick Van Dyke (courtesy Richmond Shepard) (click to enlarge)

Shepard lived in New York City then and remembers, with some resentment, seeing the effect of street performers on mime’s reputation. “People got tired of being pestered on the street. All they did was make a wall then ask for money.” In 1974, Robin Williams painted his face white, snapped on suspenders, and acted like a mime in Central Park. Ten years later, he was on Saturday Night Live as a French mime who is so annoying, his roommate shoots him. When neighbors barge in, the roommate says, “I killed a mime.” Everyone shares a look of shock, then bursts into cheers.

By the 1990s, amateur performers were practicing mime in experimental theater. Audiences quickly lost interest. Since then, mime has concentrated into small communities and intermittent festivals around the country. As Goldston said, “It only died because it became popular, and there weren’t enough people developed enough to follow up.”

While Goldston nurtures more disciplined students into understanding the subtleties and expansive reach of the form, he remains vigilant about eliminating the clichéd mimes still floating around. “I cannot kill them,” Goldston jokes. “I can only, like the mafia, kill the person who taught them. Unfortunately, I can’t find them.”

***

Back in Shepard’s narrow kitchen, I was distracted by the bachelor debris on the counter: a small pile of orange pill containers; a tall, steely can of Raid; and an open bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. He wasn’t kidding about mime salaries.

Taped over the yellowedcabinets are photographs from Shepard’s life. The largest one is of Bob Dylan standing inside a doorway, his nose pressed against the glass. Dylan is peaking out between a poster of Shepard and lettering on the door that reads “Richmond Shepard Mime Studio.” Shepard and most other American mimes may never achieve that sort of notoriety again, but that’s no reason to stop.

From the other room, Shepard called me for showtime.

My mime performance of a potbellied man drinking sour milk received mixed reviews. Shepard acknowledged that he understoodit, and Bruce the lawyer complemented my apparent focus. Michael the doctor didn’t care to watch. I might have nixed my mime career prematurely, but during the moments I was performing, I felt some of its power.

Bill Bowers (photo by Benjamin Heller)

My reaction was not atypical of audiences at mime shows today. Bowers, who has created several solo pieces, said, “If I do my show on the road, the first night there’s twenty people there. The next night it will be sold out. People see that they can be moved, that they can understand it. It’s not some French thing in white face.” Bowers has been performing mime for three decades, but he doesn’t confine himself to all its conventions. He doesn’t wear makeup or stylized outfits. One of his most popular shows, It Goes Without Saying, contains extensive monologues. In that, mime is central, but not the centerpiece. “I’m a pretty naturalistic mime,” Bowers said of himself. “I’m a storyteller, with and without words.”

For young mimes, Broken Box Mime Theater is becoming a noteworthy home base. In clearly defined white-face, black eye makeup, and black lipstick, their appearance is a modern adaptation of a classic look. “Broken Box is not technique-focused,” said Becky Baumwoll, Broken Box’s founder and artistic director. “Some more traditional mimes would prefer we were, but we’re narrative-focused.”

Although the loose treatment of technique by Carr and Broken Box might not align with Goldston’s and Shepard’s inclinations, it’s a reminder that mime has always changed with incoming talent.

Bowers described Goldston as “the keeper of the flame of pure mime,” but Goldston isn’t stodgy.His performances include occasional props and background music, and when he wears white face, it’s more like light makeup than a mask. He has also made numerous technical contributions, including inventing a new vocabulary called ‘ballet mime acting.’ While creating his most recent show, Weeping in Silence, which premiered this summer at the fifteenth annual Mime Art Festival in Warsaw, Poland, Goldston discovered another development. In his show, he moved through scenes with a fullness and brevity evocative not of theater, but movies. “I guess the truth is I’m not doing mime anymore,” he said. “I’m making film, just on stage. I’ve figured out how to take mime far enough.”

Members of the Broken Box Mime Theater company (photo by Bjorn Bolinder)

***

Perhaps mime’s biggest challenge to being widely appreciated is convincing producers to put it in theaters. “It’s not that we don’t have the public,” Goldston said. “It’s just harder to get the theater people to take the chance.”With their experience of running companies and producing shows, Baumwoll and Barbour understand the difficulties of marketing mime. “We’ve had company members who think we should take ‘mime’ out of our title,” Baumwoll said. “When we advertise, we balance the imagery with language that gives off an idea that we’re accessible.” The poster for their most recent show, Above Below, is a company member in a white t-shirt underwater, swimming toward an angelically lit surface. “I want mime to gain back some of its respect,” Baumwoll said. “It needs to be on a stage and it needs to be live.”

A mime show off-Broadway, or even off-off-Broadway, would be a win. Goldston and Barbour also agree that a proper mime festival would promote the art and improve performers’ networks. “Mimes never come together,” Barbour said. “In Europe and Asia, they’re having mime festivals, so they get to know each other. We don’t have that here.”

Fortunately, the American Mime Theatre may be moving soon to a location in the West Village. The new theater has separate dressing and restrooms for men and women, a stage, and one hundred seats. It dwarfs their current setup, above a vacant storefront on 4th Avenue. “If we had a real theater,” Barbour said, “we’d always have a place to perform. And we would have a festival. I’d love to have a mime festival in New York City and let American audiences know that there really are all kinds of mime. It’s not a lost art.”

However, as Goldston acknowledges, mime’s lingering obscurity has the benefit of ensuring that mimes today do it out of genuine passion and curiosity. Referring to the disappearance of street mimes after the 1980s, Goldston said,“That basically cleared our art from all the hacks. They’re serving us coffee at Starbucks. Now the people who are in, are deep in. This is all we can do. We can’t think of anything else.”

comments (0)