Mime, defining the art.

Posted by Russ Kennedy on

We have received requests for information on learning to mime, how to do the make up and putting on mime productions.  Before we start with the “how to” we need some education and clarification; because the art of mime, like clowning, is often misunderstood and misrepresented.


Michael Lee

Michael Lee

To give us some insight into the world of mime and movement we looked to one of the supreme experts in the field, Michael Lee, and had a sit down with him to help put things into perspective.

I asked Michael about his background in the art of mime he replied; I call myself “one of Marcel Marceau’s last and most advanced students,” in the group he called “my ancients,” those of us that had studied with him since the early 80s and kept coming back every time he taught in the U.S. I studied with 9 different times, in Ann Arbor and at Kenyon College in Gambier.

What is mime?

I first met Michael when he gave a workshop for clowns who wished to improve upon movements and body language while performing their skits; who better than a mime to teach movement. As part of the workshop we gained insight as to what mime really was, a pure form of theater in which the actor tells a story with body language in lieu of words. The workshop educated us on how body language and movement paints the picture you wish your audience to see. We were amazed when we learned that a simple facial gesture to show curiosity or surprise can totally change the mood of a performance. An exercise in movement had us bending, stretching and reaching in various positions, all to make us aware of the usable space around us. Everyone in the group had their eyes opened to this wonderful art form called mime. What most impressed me about the workshop is that Michael took the time to learn about clowning to suit his class for our needs.

Do all mimes have to look the same?

During the Q & A portion of the workshop, most all of us wondered why mime had the stereotype of the white face, Michael explained that this was do to the heavy influence Marcel Marceau had on the world. He put things into perspective this way, … When I teach students mime for the first time, I strive for them to understand they are using their bodies to do art, and that Mr. Marceau’s is but one version instead of the whole art. I say, “Imagine you never heard music before (you’ve heard all other sounds, but never music). Then one day a guy comes in and teaches you music, using a violin. You leave the workshop saying, ‘I know what music is. It’s violin.’ You see how much that leaves out? That’s what happened to mime.” This scenario can easily be compared to clowning; most people would describe clowns as a white face, red details, big crazy hair giant shoes and so on, perhaps due to the influence of the character Bozo; but we know there are 3 distinct classes of clowns with a variety of make up styles and costumes. Michael explained that mimes need not where white makeup or a specific style of clothing but only makeup that any actor may choose to wear to be visible from stage and clothing that allows free movement.

Mime = Movement:

Those of us who attend this workshop learned how to paint a picture with movement through our performance space and that mime certainly is far more than pretending to be stuck in an invisible box. One of our favorite exercises was to walk across the floor, pretend to trip on something and give a reaction to the stumble. Believe it or not this is much harder than it may sound, we all know what it’s like to trip on something but now do that same motion without anything actually causing you to trip and making it look real. The timing of your steps, a stumble that looks believable and a genuine reaction of surprise made a room full of adults feel like they never had taken a step in their lives.  After some encouragement and a couple of more demonstrations from our instructor we began to grasp the concept of this little trip exercise. Michael gave other examples of this kind of movement in performance. The photo at the top of the page is of Michael lifting a small balloon filled with air, his acting made it seem as if it weighed a 100 pounds. This demonstration showed how body language is used to influence the audience into believing something is contrary to what they normally know to be true; in this case the balloon was not light and bouncy but appeared impossible to lift.

The art of movement in the Olympics:



Michael with ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

The world of competitive ice dancing has benefited from Michael’s talents as a mime. Olympic silver medalists Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin needed help with their 2007 routine, the simple act of picking a flower, their coach suggested they look to a mime for guidance. Michael was contacted by Ben to see if he was interested in helping with their routine, the answer was yes, so Michael met with this young couple to coach them on the acting and movement of their routine. This proved to be a wise decision and Michael’s coaching abilities were sought after by more and more skating teams, over 30 teams at the present time, 20 athletes went to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Michael takes on the role of physical acting coach, working with the choreography to bring out the drama of the piece and develop the characters and plot line. Breathing is something we take for granted but in an ice dancing routine it is an integral part of the whole show; Michael will use singing exercises to help the dancers control their breathing. Twirling, spinning, lifting all while gliding across the ice is impressive on it’s own, then add in acting out a story…. wow! I can only imagine the amount of work that goes into the skating portion of the sport, now you add in the art of movement and story telling and it is a whole new game. Having seen Michael teach first hand I can see why many of these skaters not only have gone to the Olympics but achieved a medal as well.

How wonderful is it that one person can teach a group of clowns to better convey a slapstick routine or ice dancers to paint a beautiful picture all with the art of movement. I know personally my performances have benefited from the skills learned in the mime workshop and I feel richer as a person from getting to know Michael.

With that being said, I think it’s out of respect that we learn more about the art of mime before dressing up in white face and stand around mirroring people’s movements calling our self a mime.

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