The marvelous art of mime

  • Marcel Marceau, left, and Robin Hood at Smirkus COURTESY MARVELOUS MIME

Published: 1/22/2020 9:04:19 AM

When I was 9, my grandmother took me to a performance by the renowned French mime, Marcel Marceau. We sat in the front row. I’d lost my hearing from the mumps three years earlier, had no hearing aids, was bluffing my way through public school, could barely follow conversations at home and — the moment Marceau walked across the stage in front of us, I was spellbound.

Here was someone I could understand easily! Fluid finger, hand, arm, leg and foot movements that defied gravity yet were clearly linked to the world. One minute he was catching a butterfly, the next minute he was the butterfly. The white painted mask covering his face shifted constantly from amazement to puzzlement to horror.

Then came one of Marceau’s famous acts: a tug of war with this mask. The mask in that moment was smiling and he wanted to get it off. He poked and pulled but it wouldn’t budge. I don’t remember how the struggle was resolved but I understood exactly how Marceau felt. I understood because he was showing me how I felt: stuck behind a deaf girl’s pretend-you’re-happy mask. Without a word, Marceau took my grandmother and me from heights to depths, then out on a windy day walk that almost blew him away.

Fast forward 66 years to meeting Rob Mermin. Before I knew who Rob was, I knew of Circus Smirkus because we’d gone several times with our grandchildren and loved it as much as they did. I was awed — and still am — by the vitality of that circus, how closely the Smirkus work together and the obvious care they have for one another. Then I learned Rob, the founder of Circus Smirkus, had studied with Marceau and that took me back to my early memory. I also learned of Rob’s Parkinson’s Pantomime Project and was immediately interested because my husband has Parkinson’s.

Rob has given two workshops for people with Parkinson’s in this area. Those workshops have shown how mime can open our eyes to how we move — which is usually out of habit, meaning rather unconsciously. When I tried to do mime like Marceau or Rob I quickly discovered mime isn’t about imitating or pretending — as in pretending to be catching butterflies. It’s about bringing consciousness and fluency to every movement one makes. How would you catch a butterfly? Do all butterflies fly with the same wing movements? Evidently not. Being attentive to small differences in movements can, I’ve found, be of immense benefit to a person with a disorder like Parkinson’s. I’ve seen my husband’s stumbling gait change when he brings full awareness to exactly how he’s putting his foot down, how he’s pulling his shoulders back and putting his head up, how his arms and hands participate in these moves.

Mime makes me newly appreciative of the agility with which the human body can move and how graceful movements are, in themselves, a language. How you hold a glass if you have a tremor and drink from it so the liquid doesn’t spill can become a toast, a thank-you, to fresh water.

Balancing a feather — Rob uses peacock feathers in his PD workshop — on the palm of your hand can help one reconnect with one’s sense of balance. And this language of movement is fun: with a couple of gentle but firm hand movements, Rob has shown us invisible windows in the air, slid them open slowly, and invited us out beyond the constrictions of Parkinson’s. As Marceau — whom Rob refers to as his mentor — once said, “To mime is to pass physically from one state of mind and body (to another) to take the shape and spirit of what you are portraying.”

Come discover the cultural history of mime for yourself, 3 p.m. Sunday Jan. 26 at Fellowship Hall in Shelburne in this special presentation: “Adventures in Mime & Space: The Legacy of Marcel Marceau.” In this one-man show, Rob will present his memories of training with the master. He will also explore the metaphors of mime technique and show rare film clips of Marceau teaching and performing, bringing to life the essence of what Marceau called “the silent language of the soul.” Suggested donation: $10 per person. Call 413-625-0307 for more information.

Claire Blatchford lives in Shelburne. She and her husband Ed are longtime educators. Ed was a founder of the Four Rivers Charter Public School. Claire’s book “Rolling With The Waves: Our Parkinson’s Journey” was published in 2019.

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