Being a Mime

As a kid, I used to watch a mime on tv. His name was Robert Shields. It must have been re-runs of the variety show he had with his wife in the 1970s. The show was called Shields & Yarnell. They were mimes, and played a range of characters, including a couple of robots who went about trying to do the normal things a human married couple would do. Usually, and comically, without success.

Both were talented, but it was the guy who held my interest most. I’d watch the way he did not blink. The way his eyes would not be looking at anything, as if they were made of glass. I’d study the way he isolated different parts of his body to produce the effect that he was mechanical instead of human. When he did straight-up mime, I’d memorize each move and then stand in front of the mirror and copy what he did. I practiced not blinking. I imitated the robotic movements. I climbed a ladder. Pulled a rope. Did whatever he did. I had no conscious plan behind this, it was just something I found fascinating, and I enjoyed discovering that I could do some of these things.

I remember seeing Bill Irwin for the first time. Also on tv. He did a trick where he climbed into a trunk and walked down a flight of stairs. Disappearing into the trunk. It was brilliant. I immediately began to practice that. I had no idea, at the time, that one day I would become a performer myself, and that having certain mime skills would come in handy in the search for work.

When I look at my years of doing theatre in New York, then later working parties and large scale corporate events, and now tv and film here in Los Angeles, I can see that I owe a lot to Robert Shields, and the tricks I picked up by studying him. I can also see I was blessed with particular physical characteristics which lend themselves well to being a mime. I’m built like a mime. Slender, with long arms and expressive hands. A classical face, with eyes that telegraph my thoughts without effort beyond the thinking.

Years before I considered becoming an actor, I began performing as a clown. I learned how to do that from a nun. No kidding. A nun. She was teaching a course in clown ministry. My mom, my sisters, and I joined up, and then became part of a troupe. We would perform in full white face, and without words. It was just for fun, but again, it was a skill I would come to use a great deal in my career.

While I was attending an acting academy in Manhattan, I fell in love with Commedia dell’Arte. The teacher of my theatre styles class wisely gave me the character of Pedrolino to play with. (The ancestor of the white-faced Pierrot clown that often appears in paintings.) It was a role that required strong physical comedy, which gave me the chance to pull from the bag of tricks I’d been accumulating since childhood.

When I began working as an actor, I figured the miming and clowning would fall off to the wayside, along with my unicycle, my stilts, my highwire, and the rest of the things I did just for fun as a kid. Of course, I was happy to summon a bit of schtick here or there, as I gradually built up a theatrical resume.

For example, when I was cast as the second gravedigger in a production of Hamlet, I used the Bill Irwin staircase-in-a-trunk routine. The theatre did not have a trap door in the stage, so we set the grave off stage left, on the floor of the house. When I climbed from the stage, I kept descending as if the pit was deeper than it looked. It always got a laugh.

Then, while playing the Ghost of Hamlet in the same production, I noticed that the fantastic black cloak I was given to wear could easily conceal my feet. By bending my knees slightly, and transferring my weight carefully while moving forward in a smooth even motion, I could make myself appear to float across the stage. When I was not moving, I would straighten my knees and lift up on the balls of my feet, then hover slowly up and down, creating the illusion that I was levitating.

Aside from the occasional piece of business I would work in for an extra laugh, or a neat effect, I thought of myself as simply an actor. It took a few years before I was cast in my first role as a traditional, white faced mime.

I remember the audition well. It was for an Off-Broadway play. A real life, honest to goodness professional contract in an Off-Broadway theatre. The Actors’ Playhouse. They were seeking a mime who was also an actor, since the mime had a comic monologue in the final scene. The acting part I was not worried about. It was the mime part that left me unsure. I didn’t think I was a real mime. I had no formal training in mime. I’d only learned bits and pieces from watching other mimes on tv. Fooling around as a kid. For fun. This was different. This was Off-Broadway.

They asked me do some standard mime stuff, like leaning on an imaginary shelf. Getting trapped in a box. Sitting on a chair that isn’t there. Then they called out suggestions, and I did my best to act out whatever they said. They were laughing, which was encouraging.

Then the director asked if I could do any gymnastics. Before she finished her sentence, I threw a back handspring.

“Oh my god! You’re hired!”

During rehearsals, I was pretty much given free reign to come up with any funny little routine I thought might work in a given scene. The director would say yes to things she liked, and no to things she did not. It was all fine with me. I was thrilled to be in the show, and so grateful for my early experience with performing in white face.

About that, the director wanted me to wear greasepaint, which would not have been my first choice. I preferred to work in the much friendlier water-based white make-up. Easier to put on, easier to take off, and not so harsh on the skin. There were two reasons why the greasepaint worked better, however. First, it’s a brighter white. The water-based makeup can look somewhat translucent, and in the stage lights, it washes out. The grease paint is thicker, and reads better from a distance.

Secondly, the script had a Bugs Bunny gimmick in one scene, where I kiss the leading man on the mouth. It was a good deal funnier with the greasepaint, which stays wet if you don’t set it with powder. My white makeup would get all over his face when I kissed him. A guaranteed laugh.

So, greasepaint it was. The difficulty came with the fact that the dressing room had no hot water. I did not want to ride home every night on the subway in white face. In order to get the makeup off after the show, I needed hot water. The solution came from the stage manager, who offered to plug in a coffee maker during intermission, so I would have a pot of hot water standing by at the end of the second act.

When it came to the monologue, there was some discussion about how it should be played. No one really knew what a mime’s voice would sound like. Would he have an accent? Should he be French? Exactly what will the audience expect to hear once he opens his mouth to speak? These were unanswered questions, so it was decided that each rehearsal I should try something new. Which is what I did, and I enjoyed coming up with different ways to play the character. It got to the point where the other cast members would come and sit in the house as my scene approached, curious to see what I had prepared.

In the end, the monologue was cut during previews. It would be the first of several times I’ve been cast as a talking mime, and that joke has yet to make the final cut. Maybe it just isn’t that funny. Perhaps mimes are funny precisely because they do not speak.

Around this time, I auditioned for a touring show about five teens in a drug rehabilitation center. It was a play called Halfway There, and I was going up for the role of a dark mime. He appeared as a drug dealer, and represented addiction in several hallucination scenes.

The producer explained that the show toured twice a year, performing in high schools, colleges, and drug treatment centers. This was intriguing. I’d never thought about playing an evil mime. The audition was fun, and I could tell the producer liked me. When she called that night to offer me the part, I said yes without hesitation. We did not discuss salary, nor time commitment, nor any details at all. I simply took the job without question. It just felt right.

I spent the next six years working for that theatre company. Touring with the show at first, and then directing it later on. Every fall and every spring. It was a big part of my life, and there was something particularly satisfying about earning a living as an actor, while doing something that I believed in with all my heart. Shakespeare feels great, don’t get me wrong, but even that doesn’t compare with helping kids stay off drugs.

The performance was occasionally followed by a workshop in a classroom. We would talk about what the characters went through, and then do some fun exercises in dealing with peer pressure. I remember doing my first one of these, with the producer leading the workshop so I could watch and learn.

That day, we were performing for younger kids than usual. Maybe seventh grade. There was a little girl in the front row with her hair caught up in two Minnie Mouse ears, high on top of her head. Her hand shot up in the air when I said how odd it was for me to play a drug dealer onstage, when I had never done any drugs in real life.

“You mean you ain’t never smoked no weed?”

I was taken aback at how such a young child could be familiar with marijuana, and realized she was thinking the opposite about me. It seemed implausible to her that a man could reach adulthood without having been exposed to what, sadly, must have been her day to day interaction with drugs and the people who use them. She was convinced I was lying, and whatever answer I gave next would be viewed as just some bumper sticker slogan I was supposed to say. This was heartbreaking.

I had to be honest with her, and did my best to explain that where I grew up, it was only the bad kids who did drugs. No one from a decent family would ever associate with that element. Of course, I was speaking an arcane language, describing a Brady Bunch world that was as alien to this little girl, as hers in the South Bronx was to me.

It was, too. Alien. While we were loading up the van after the gig, I noticed the ground by the curb was littered with tiny plastic tubes with colored ends. Strewn about like confetti. They looked too small to be fuses. I picked one up and asked the actor standing next to me what it was. He cracked up laughing and said it was a vial for, well, crack. I thought he was joking. I could not believe such a thing would be found right outside a school building.

That was me offstage. Ivory soap. Onstage, I was experimenting with how to portray the sinister mime. Rather than using makeup for the white face, I was given a mask. One with a rather small nose (my own is longer.) The image of this small nosed white mask, combined with the wide brimmed fedora and jacket with gold rope and epaulettes on the shoulders, was reminiscent of Michael Jackson. When I would make my first entrance, some kid would always yell out “Hee hee hee!” in the falsetto used by the singer.

Why fight what’s already there, right? If the kids thought my character resembled Michael Jackson, and if that would help them relate to me, I figured I may as well lift some of his signature moves and work them into the choreography. After all, I was playing addiction, and had to be not just controlling and menacing, but also charming and seductive.

All of that ended abruptly, however. Halfway through my first tour of Halfway There. One of those scandals around his bizarre, creepy sleepovers with little boys at Neverland hit the news and I removed my every reference to him at once.

During the run of that first season, I had a rare audition for a commercial. When I lived in New York, theatre was pretty much all I did. It was extremely unusual for me to be called in for anything on camera. Still, every once in a blue moon, some casting director would go through her files while looking for a guy who could do a handstand, or spin plates, or in this case, perform as a mime.

The mime who auditioned with me, and who was cast over me, was extremely solid. His technical skills were strong. It was clear that he had serious training, which I did not. Next to him, I looked like some kid who picked up a few tricks from watching tv. Out in the lobby, this mime, who spoke to me as if we were instant friends, was talking about the place where he had studied. The teacher he had trained with. Although I had heard of neither the school nor the teacher, I had the distinct feeling that I should have been familiar with both.

He held up his hand and showed me a move that he’d spent hours practicing when he was at school. His hand moved in a wave, first forward, then backward. It was so smooth, giving the impression of water. I’d never seen anyone do that before, and was riveted. The moment I was alone in my car, I began to copy the move, and within a day or two, I added it to my performance as the sinister mime.

Another audition was for a mime show that was to be directed by an accomplished mime named Richmond Shepard. His name might not be well known outside of New York, but his face certainly is. He has a substantial body of work in movies and on television. I was doing a Shakespeare play at a theatre in New Jersey, and raced from rehearsals to make the call in Manhattan. It was one of those auditions where they take people in groups, so I got to see what the other performers had prepared.

We had been asked to present a one minute movement piece. Something showing our range of skills. I had come up with what I thought was an original idea, portraying the birth, life, and death of a man. Turns out another actor had done the same thing, and he went before I did.

Like the well trained mime at the commercial audition, his skill set was way above my own. His gestures were clean and precise. It was easy to envision the letter he had just folded. The envelope being sealed. The stamp he was licking. This guy was good. Even so, while watching him, I had the sense that what I had put together would work better in front of an audience. I had crammed a lot more into that minute. More humor, more emotion, more physical variety.

I began by rolling onto the stage in a tight ball, then being born like a kernel of corn popping in slow motion. With only a few quick pencil lines, I sketched out the terrible twos, the raging hormones of adolescence, a wedding ceremony. For each phase of life, I used a different style of movement. I sat in an imaginary chair and allowed the passage of time to transform me from a strong fit man to a feeble ancient elder. When I stood from the chair, I grasped my chest and fell to the floor without making a sound. As if I were a marionette puppet whose strings had been cut. Then I floated up as gracefully as I could, and glided away, gazing back lovingly at the human form I was leaving behind. It had the effect I’d hoped for.

“Where did you learn all that movement?”

I told Mr. Shepard that I was just a blue collar mime, and that I learned what I could  from people I worked with along the way. He cast me in the leading role.

The show went into rehearsals without any set date for a performance. I didn’t mind, and viewed the experience as a chance to study with a famous man whose name would add credibility to my resume. The next time someone asked, I could say I trained with Richmond Shepard.

Then I was cast in another Shakespeare play. This time with a touring company, and so I had to pull out of the mime show. A dilemma many actors face while struggling to pay the bills. The ones who do not wait tables or have temp jobs. Stay in town and live off credit cards, or go out on the road and know the rent will be covered for the next few months.

It was a lifestyle I believed I was leaving behind when I moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in film and television. Once again, I thought all the mime and clown stuff would be tucked away neatly on a shelf in storage. Acting on camera was supposed to be natural and realistic, right?

When I was told that I was not commercial material, I did not question it. In fact, I suspected as much, and wasn’t interested in doing commercials anyway. So it was a surprise when I booked my first commercial, as a mime. Turns out there is a market for mimes and clowns, after all.

That first spot was for Cash Call. I was a broke mime, needing to borrow money quick. The audition was held at an acting studio where I was a member. On the tv screen mounted up on the wall, they were playing a sort of slide show, featuring actors who had recently booked work. While I was in the room, my headshot flashed across the screen (I had done a small role on a tv show.) The casting director exclaimed, “Hey, that’s you!”

It was a funny moment, also a revealing one. People hire you when they know you are  already working.

On set, the director explained we would shoot the spot two ways. It was only fifteen seconds, and the voice over had already been recorded. I had to match that. In the first version, I would be flipping through cue cards which had the information printed on them. In the second version, which I preferred, I would be miming what was described in the voice over, while the information appeared on the screen.

The first version did not go well. I wore white gloves. The cards were slippery. The recorded text went by quickly, in order to fit everything into fifteen seconds. It was a challenge to keep up.

In the second version, I was free to imagine funny ways to depict an impoverished mime who makes a phone call and finds that it instantly starts raining cash. That’s the version they used.

For another commercial, I was asked to play a talking mime. When I found out who the client was, I almost said no. It was for Girls Gone Wild. I’m not kidding. I really did not want to endorse this product, but when they sent me the script, I knew I would be a fool to turn it down. It was hysterical. Not only did the mime speak, he would not shut up!

I had a difficult, but outrageously funny, monologue in which I was speaking sixteen words to the dozen as I chased the owner of Girls Gone Wild down the street in Beverly Hills. I was explaining my idea for an episode of his show. Which, naturally, I would be in.

The owner’s name was, is, Joe. You can look him up. I did, before the shoot. I have to say, as much as I did not want to like him, he was the kind of person it is impossible not to like. He was charming, engaging, immensely appealing. He would have to be, I suppose, to convince all those pretty girls to take off their clothes for the camera.

When we began shooting, he was so genuinely impressed with what I was doing, so appreciative of my every idea. He kept saying how nice it was to work with a professional actor, and boy was that the right thing to say.

On one take, his phone rang for real, and he took the call. I kept acting, staying in character while I pestered him, delivering my lines into the phone. What was even funnier was how we kept getting interrupted by people on the street who would shout out, “That mime is talking!”

Then there was the bit at the end, when he finally breaks free of me and I shout after him, ad-libbing. On one take, I yelled, “If you steal my idea, I’ll sue! You hear me? I’ll call my lawyers and sue!”

There was a kind of stunned silence from the crew. (Joe was in and out of court, being sued by girls who claimed he got them drunk before filming them topless.) When he walked back towards me, he was laughing. He asked the director if that last bit was his idea or mine. When he heard it was mine, he laughed again, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “That was funny, but yeah, we’re not going to mention anything about law suits…”

The director sent me his cut, to use for my reel, which was very nice of him, but the commercial never aired.

One Saturday morning at nine o’clock, I got a phone call from a casting director I had only met once before.

“Can you be in Culver Studios by noon?”

She had me in her files from an audition six months prior. It was a fun audition, where I had to improvise a series of activities and tie them together into a story. Seriously, there was a list they gave me out loud, just before turning on the camera. I had to think quick on my feet, and be sure to tick off all the items in the proper order.

They were impressed, and gave me a callback. When the client saw the tape, I was put on hold for the shoot. Which means I wasn’t hired yet, but they wanted me to remain available, just in case.

Although I did not get that job, the casting director kept the tape. Now, she was working on a Pepsi commercial, which would air in Mexico. The celebrity they hired backed out on the day of the shoot, so the crew was sitting around the studio scrambling to come up with an alternate plan. It was suggested they go with a mime, and I was among the group of performers they called.

Fortunately for me, I was free that day, and the director liked the video they sent him of me. I got the job, and raced down to the studio for what would turn out to be one of the most enjoyable sets I’ve worked on yet.

The entire crew was from Mexico, and they were all in a good mood. Relaxed. Happy to be working. There was none of the usual stress that comes from knowing how much money is ticking away with the clock. These guys were light hearted, and it made for an easy shoot. They tossed out a few ideas, including giving me a line of dialogue, which of course did not make the final cut.

They wanted a real French mime, and the client showed up with a baguette for me to hold. I’m not sure of his reason behind that, nor why a mime would have an actual prop, but I was happy to do whatever he asked, and that is the version they went with.

After we were done, every member of the crew wanted to pose for a photo doing mime with me. That was fun, running through my repertoire of routines, so each guy got to do something different. They sent me a bunch of those pictures, which look great in front of the green screen. It’s clear that we are on a set and not just goofing around on a street corner.

Which brings me to my favorite story about being a mime. After being booked as a street mime on a pilot for a tv show, I discovered that I would be playing not just any street mime, but one with a particular importance to me. The show was about movies that had not received the critical acclaim which time has shown they deserved. In each episode, a sequence from one such film would be recreated using modern technology, allowing the host to enter the scene and interact with the players.

For the pilot, they chose a movie from the 1970s, set in San Francisco. In the opening scene, which was the one being recreated, there was a mime performing in a park. The main character walks past him as he is doing his thing. They sent me a link so I could study this mime, and copy him exactly.

He looked familiar, this mime, with distinctive 1970s hair. He was wearing a marching band jacket. As I studied him, I couldn’t help thinking that he was really good. Exceptionally good. This was not just some background actor in a mime costume. This was the real thing.

I’ve found myself on more than one occasion, sitting in a green room with a handful of older mimes, all of whom have trained with Marcel Marceau. I’m often the only person under fifty, and they inevitably know each other. One of them will look at me and wonder out loud who I am and why they’ve never seen me before. It can be a bit intimidating.

On this one day of work on the pilot, there was such an older gentlemen. He was playing a pedestrian in the scene. As I was going through wardrobe and hair, where they were showing me photos of the familiar looking street mime so I could do my makeup to match his, this older gentlemen said something about how, yes, Robert Shields always wore a marching band jacket.

It was only then that I realized the mime whose performance I had been studying all night was the same one I had spent all those nights studying as a child! The mime in that movie from the 70s was Robert Shields!

Here I was on a Hollywood set. Dressed as the man who inspired me to become a mime. Doing his routines in front of a camera. For pay. It was surreal.

When I did my favorite bit, where the dog he’s walking goes in another direction and he gets yanked off balance by the leash, the crew cracked up laughing. It was gratifying to know that the material was still funny, and that I was able to keep it that way.

frmime pepsi


About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
This entry was posted in Acting and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Being a Mime

  1. Daniel says:

    Think Garrison Keillor. There are many waiting to hear your tales,

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