Meeting Mike the Mime


In his Mime FAQs Mike Lee asks (rhetorically): “Isn’t a mime a type of clown?”

“At one time clowns and mimes were like brothers, in the form of court jesters and buffoons.

Around 1850 the clowns found their home in the circus; the mime arrived at the theatre.

Clowns try to make us laugh, but the mime actor explores the full range of emotions through dramatic portrayal of characters in many different situations.”

Does this open a can of worms? Probably. Many clowns will claim to express more than jokes and humor, but levity is their main goal. Performers in niches sometimes shared by clowns have to differentiate themselves and put distance from the taint of clowns. However, watching Mike I realized that an even more important difference was the superficial one: less make-up (if any), less costuming (if any), fewer words (if any), and fewer props (if any).

It was a little like Sage had said about his Cirque du Soleil audition.  Eventually the guy told him to work without any props or costume and drilled him through the emotions.

My act had become prop-heavy. I was searching for my voice and was wondering whether I might just try giving it up altogether. It would come back in discretely manageable amounts. One or two words in clown-speak will tell a story just fine if accompanied with the right gestures and expressions.

What can I do for you? asked Mike

Listening to the music makes the heat bearable.

A stubborn balloon routine from Robert Shields (who I happened to see, but not meet, in Sedona in 2003)

Card painted by Robert Shields
Card painted by Robert Shields

As one of my many informal and non-scientific meetings with performers, I met with Mike at his place, under an apple tree, around a campfire, enjoying venison Sloppy-Joe’s and Coronas.

I said the blessing, “The earth is good to me, so I thank the earth, for giving me the things I need – the deer, and the beer and the apple tree. The earth is good to me.”

I told Mike that I was working on my business plan, and I was having issues with selling out versus… going broke.

He replied, “As a sound byte, instead of thinking of it as selling out, think of it as trading off.”

He had had an ethical dilemma working so many corporate events and told his manager, “I feel like such a whore.” She said, “Honey, we’re all whores. Don’t be a cheap one!”

“After all these years you can’t say mime in a board room in Michigan without my name coming up,” Mike told me.

He made $40K in three months miming for automotive trade shows and it allowed him to put on “Circus Opus” for free in his community. It featured aerialists, fire breathing and eating as well as mime. The fire breathing nearly melted the gels on the lights. It nearly touched the ceiling. The principal had the fire department standing by.

Working for corporations also allowed him to take additional trainings abroad. He trained and traveled with Marcel Marceau. He told me,

“Marceau would see someone smoking and ask for a cigarette. He’d light it, put it on the back of his hand, and say, ‘Let’s see if I can still do this.’ Then he’d hit the end of it with his other hand so it would flip up and he’d catch it in his mouth. Then he’d give it back saying, ‘Oh, that’s right, I don’t smoke.’ “

On the topic of music, I admit that I’ve been reluctant to incorporate pre-recorded tracks. In fact, I’ve been overwhelmed with all the choices [6375 mp3s on my hard drive] in addition to finding my own clown voice. It had not occurred to me to approach the problem as the mime would, so it was a very happy synchronicity to make this connection. it was a reminder that I had started this path as a dancer, and the road split as it had twenty years ago. I veered away from the precision of the dance and drill team (even as a spectator). Then 10 years later, when I chose to leave the highly disciplined and measured steps of Orissi Indian dance and practice the highly improvised and flexible Butoh dance. Mike’s web page describes Opus mime as having “The bodies of gymnasts, the minds of actors, and the hearts of poets”. That sounds pretty good.

Mike let me know he chooses music that is ‘weak’ in order that the mime will be strong. In this way, the music does not direct his movements as with some students he has seen who insist on matching their mime to every beat. It’s more transparent. It creates the mood. It creates a bridge between the performer and the audience. I’m excited to pick out some music for my next gig.  [For the EF school I used music during the house warming and exiting.]

Mike is also a Waldorf teacher and is will be teaching in Austin, Texas where my uncle Stephen lives.  Dawn, of the Simple Fool School, is also a Waldorf teacher.  Mara, who was there at Circus Olympus the night I became a clown just got certified as a Waldorf teacher.

Orion has applied to go to Waldorf kindergarten.  Mike the mime has done workshops for the Olympia Waldorf school.  Perhaps I haven’t seen the last of him and his invisible box.  As a matter of fact, I never did see that invisible box.


2 thoughts on “Meeting Mike the Mime

  1. Fantastic post. This Mike the Mime has some wonderful insight. I will have to ponder weak music. I can see where it would be good. What might constitute weak?

    1. To clarify the language I use: I choose music that “supports” the character/story. The basis for it is in the work of Jerzy Grotowski, who wrote “Towards A Poor Theatre.” In it he describes the actor as the “richest” element of theatre, and all other arts i.e. costume, music, props, lighting, etc., should all be “poor” so as not to take the focus away from the actor.

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