I suppose I could write a post about the virtues and limitations of mime training, but this isn't it. Sure, I took a smattering of classes, studying with Reid Gilbert, René Houtrides, Tom Leabhart, and Moni Yakim (and salivating over Children of Paradise), but I never really took to mime. (Translation: I sucked at it.) So instead of a treatise, just a few hopefully amusing snapshots of mime's public image over the years.
There was a time back in the day, following on the first wave of Marcel Marceau's popularity, that an aura of bold creativity was associated with mime.
And then there was the backlash.
Maybe it was all those white-faced pantomimists who thought being trapped inside an imaginary box was a profound statement on the human condition. Maybe it was all the Shields & Yarnell wannabees, mimicking people on the street for cheap laughs. Or maybe it was all Woody Allen's fault.
In A Little Louder, Please, a 1966 comic piece for The New Yorker, Allen pointed out the obvious: much of the audience just didn't get it:
The curtain-raiser was a little silent entertainment entitled Going to a Picnic. The mime... proceeded to spread a picnic blanket, and, instantly, my old confusion set in. He was either spreading a picnic blanket or milking a small goat. Next, he elaborately removed his shoes, except that I'm not positive they were his shoes, because he drank one of them and mailed the other to Pittsburgh. I say "Pittsburgh," but actually it is hard to mime the concept of Pittsburgh, and as I look back on it, I now think what he was miming was not Pittsburgh at all but a man driving a golf cart through a revolving door — or possibly two men dismantling a printing press.
And so on and so forth. You can read the whole selection here.
Not only were mimes confusing, they were annoying as hell. Before you knew it, mime bashing had become quite acceptable. If you couldn't make derogatory jokes about minorities, women, or gays, you could still put down mimes and — ha ha — not worry about them talking back.
This had been going on for a long time already when Bill Irwin was recruited to play an annoying mime ("worse than Hare Krishnas") in the 1991 movie, Scenes from a Mall, co-starring (guess who?) Woody Allen. (In fairness to Woody, he didn't direct this one, Paul Mazursky did.) Here's a compilation of the annoying mime scenes:
I hadn't thought much about mime lately, at least not about traditional illusion pantomime, until last month when I had two pantomime sightings. The first was Brooklyn clown and mime Jeff Seal, who decided to make a video based on all those Shit __ Say videos so popular on YouTube today. (Shit Girls Say; Shit Boyfriends Say; Shit Hipsters Say; etc.) You guessed it: Jeff did Shit Mimes Say. It turns out so did several other people, but I'm happy to report that his is by far the best:
So far mimes aren't looking great in this post, so let's go to my second pantomime sighting: Billy the Mime. Friends encouraged me to see his show at UCB (Upright Citizen's Brigade), a home for up-and-coming stand-up and sketch comics. How would a mime do there, especially one who wore the traditional costume and whiteface, and communicated through placards and silent illusions?
Quite well, actually. His show sold out and the audience laughed a lot; there was no mime bashing from that crowd. His technique is good, but what separates him from a lot of mime is his weighty and at times sensationalist subject matter. A lot of the content is sexual, and he does not hesitate to mime a variety of sexual acts in graphic detail. If anything, he can be faulted for sometimes being lewd and outrageous just for the shock value. Still, many of the pieces are quite good. First his publicity trailer:
And A Night at Monticello:
Somehow I can't quite imagine Marceau performing that one!