“A mime is a terrible thing to waste.” ~Robin Hood: Men in Tights
Confession: I was a professional mime. Yep. When I was in my 20s I made a (very modest) living for a time doing mime and teaching it. That’s right, I not only “used,” I got others hooked! And I don’t even have the decency to be ashamed.
When I went back to college for grad study, the head of the theatre department congratulated me one night on my “riveting physical presence” on stage. He asked what technique I’d studied. “Mime,” I said. “Nonsense,” he replied, “mime is a joke!” Then he mentioned that one particular younger actor in the play also had excellent physical technique. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m his mime instructor.”
Mime has gotten an unfair rep for being a cheesy street entertainment any talentless schmo can master. Why? Probably because too many self-taught beginners with no real technique attempt to perform it publicly. It’s as if, having only heard beginning piano students play “Für Elise,” we’d decided Beethoven was a third-rate composer.
Did you know Robin Williams was a professional mime early in his career? So was David Bowie. Mel Gibson, Dennis Miller, Jennifer Lawrence, Doug Jones (The Shape of Water), and many other actors have studied mime.
Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest comedy actors of the 20th Century, was a student of classical French mime. So were Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Harpo Marx. Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball and Peter Sellers studied Chaplin. So did Marcel Marceau, the great French mime, and then he went on to pioneer the locking and popping techniques used by Michael Jackson (including his famous moonwalk) and countless jazz and hip-hop dancers.
My biggest mime gig was the gala opening of a Nordstrom store in Southern California. To my astonishment, I was paid what I asked (!), and told to create a brief but fun intro for their “sizzling haute couture” show. I was a brand-new Jesus-follower at the time, with a worldly past. So when I met the two dozen stunning models backstage and saw them standing around completely naked between changes (underwear leaves lines), I prayed very, very hard. Suddenly I knew what my opening would be!
As the program began, I pantomimed building an invisible box to keep the too-haute-to-handle models off the runway. And then, as they strutted out, shattering my invisible box, I was hurled into the audience—and the sizzle began! All of this lasted less than four minutes because, after all, as Billy Crystal said in This is Spinal Tap,
“Mime is money.”