Mime Workshop (Outline)
Acknowledgment: Claude Kipnis' The Mime Book, Jay Torme (my teacher), Mimi Tyrell, Paul Gullan, and all the dancers, mimes, teachers, and students who have shared insights through the last twenty years.
Mime is an art. Mime is a craft. Mime is movement as complex as moonwalking, or as simple as nodding one's head to say yes. Often I've heard mime defined as non-verbal communication. (a negative term) I prefer to define it simply: Mime is visual communication.
As an art it is an artist's expression of the world that surrounds us. As a craft, it is a skill that has to be practiced. Mime technique, while fairly simple, if done sloppily can be confusing and lose its audience completely. Mime is a thoroughly engaging art. You can't watch it without becoming actively involved, whether you want to or not. The mime takes the viewer's imagination and makes it concrete.
Tools of the Trade
Your body. That's it! As in any other craft one must be completely familiar with the tools: what tool is appropriate for each task, how they work, and what are their limits. So, in mime we break down the body into segments, examine the mechanics of muscle and bone, the different movements each joint is capable of, and the limits to that particular movement.
In mime and dance the spine is treated as the center of the body. It is the central axis around which everything else is attached. Upon this foundation set five segments.
These five segments of the central body can be moved in three ways. (The following are my labels for these moves; others may call them something else.)Inclination Rotation Transtation
Inclination is a bend of the spine.
Rotation is a pivot around the spine.
Transtation is a lateral shift of a body segment. (This is actually two or more inclinations in opposite directions, but for the sake of simplicity it is treated thus.)
Transtation, however, calls attention to a concept called body centers. The body centers are those three segments that transtate: the three masses of bone impaled on the spine. They are the head (skull), the chest (rib cage), and the hips (pelvis), leaving the neck and stomach as flexors.
These body centers are the most communicative of segments and are the roots of what I call the articulators, those parts of the body that are even more communicative, namely the face, the hands and the legs. Emotion, manipulation and locomotion. More about body centers later...
For now I must stress the importance of exercises based on inclination, rotation and transtation. Repetitive and mundane as this kind of physical bodywork is, there is no substitute when it comes to finding the muscle groups and making their implementation second nature. You have to teach capabilities and limits.
The Raw Materials: Movement
Mime technique is all about the movement and manipulation of space. A performer focuses the viewers imagination armed with nothing more that a gesture. Since we know what the tools are, it seems natural to examine different ways they might be used. (You don't swing a hammer the same way putting up a picture as you do building a house.)
Here are some more arbitrary labels I use to get a handle on a concept like the qualities of movement.
FLICK a quick, short, undirected movement, a shudder, a spasm
DAB also quick and short but direct; a jab
PUNCH a bigger, heavier direct move
PRESS a punch with resistance; isometric
WALTZ rythmic, usually involving undulations, lyrical
and, oh yeah, we must not forget...
IMMOBILITY not moving is just as important as moving
Finally there is a quality that is the realm of mime almost exclusively. It is referred to as the:
TOC or CLIC a move from static to full motion in an instant and vice-versa.
To Build a World (learning hand tools)
As stated earlier, mime technique can be very complex or as basic as simple hand or facial gestures. In this regard these most basic of building blocks are visual cliches.
Visual cliches are generally trans-cultural, such as nodding or shaking the head to suggest the positive or negative. A smile or frown have the same meaning everywhere. These very obvious kinds of cliches are generally inter-personal communication. A wave, a shrug, a wink, etc.
There is, however, another level of cliche that comes into play as one begins to manipulate objects: that universally understood gesture that is a sort of shorthand bordering on sign language.
This shorthand gesture can usually be found by exploring the use and preparation of the object, reaction to it, or being it.
make a round shape in my hand: it's a ball
bite into it: it's fruit or vegetable
polish it: it's an apple
pull a wiggling finger from my mouth: it's a wormy apple
show upper teeth: it's crisp
show no teeth: it's mushy
Any object or situation has its own bits of shorthand.
a drink. . .a flat cylinder shape is a glass
two fingers against the outside: it's a mug
three fingers & thumb up: it's a beer, add foam and it's certain
one finger to thumb on an open palm: it's a teacup
crush it: it's a paper cup
a bottle that is opened with a corkscrew: wine
a bottle with a twist-off cap: cheap wine
a can of soda can have a spray like beer but add a straw
a glass of milk can be poured from the carton
The Wall (the grander illusion)
The technique involved in creating this illusion is most often called isolation. That is deliberately separating a limb or set of muscles from the rest of the body. Actually touch a wall; the arm extends and stops at the wall. The fingers spread, palm flattens, and the hand becomes immobile. The slightest movement effects the wrist, elbow, and shoulder as they flex to isolate the hand.
In creating the illusion: put out the arm and stop at a set distance. Spread the fingers and flatten the palm through an isometric movement. Again as movement happens, the wrist, arm and shoulder compensate to isolate the hand. The muscles of the arm move in direct opposition to the movement of the body in space. A lean right pushes the hands left relative to a static point. In the case of the illusion, however, the compensation is governed by the memory of the actual action. Pull the hand away from the illusion, and the fingers and palm relax to a more neutral state, leaving the illusion suspended in space.
It must be stressed that the dynamics between the isometric tension in the hand and its relaxation makes the wall more tangeable even as physical contact is broken.
A word about the persistence of memory:
once an illusionary object is created
it exists in the viewer's mind
until it is dealt with and/ or removed by a deliberate act.
The viewer suspends their disbelief in order to experience the invisible world of the mime.
It is important that the performer not be arbitrary in what he choses to deal with.
Everything must make sense of the viewer will be lost in the confusion.
Mime in a general sense is directing the viewer's focus. It can be as sharply focused as flyspeck on the nose, or as broad as outer space. The performer can create in the viewer's mind a sense of space more expansive even than the actual space present in the theater. The mime, through an illusionary walk can define a space vastly larger than his stage. This concept can best be illustrated by examining what happens while watching animation.
A cartoon character walks, and though he doesn't leave the screen and the televison set doesn't move, movement is still conveyed. This is accomplished simply by moving the legs of the character and sliding the scenery past in the opposite direction of the movement. The live performer does likewise working the legs and moving the scenery, by means of a "look" across the stage. Although there are various techniques, focus is most often directed simply by eye contact. The viewer will always "look" at whatever the performer "sees." This works not only for spacial, but also for interpersonal relationships.
A solo performer portrays two people meeting. The mime acknowledges a person by focusing a smile into the adjacent space. He extends a hand in a handshake with the placement high and raised eye contact he has quickly described a warm relationship of a little guy with a big buddy. The viewer's eye and imagination sizes the playing space to include imaginary big buddy.
Another case of how the viewer connects the dots to see a picture of a whole that is more than what's physically on the stage, and all of it built upon little more than gesture.
Back to Illusion: Mass
The technique to creating illusions that appear to nave mass is simply to use an appropriate amount of reaction in the body. That is, the more mass the more of the body is affected. The smaller the object, the less contact is needed:
By cocking a pinky the tea cup becomes delicate china
Two pinkies a needle; a shot glass
A contact lens rests on the tip of a finger
Conversely, pick up an empty bottle with the hand
Pick up a full one with the hand and arm
A bucket with the hand, the arm and the shoulder
A heavy bucket, the hand, arm, shoulder, and chest; then the stomach and hips
Notice that the body segments are placed in order of proximity to the object. The body reacts like a chain. Links don't move until the preceding link applies tension.
Off to a leaning start.
The illusionary lean has become a cliche if not a parody of mime. It is, however, also the clearest example of the leg mechanics involved in locomotion.
If you are sitting while reading this, your legs are probably bent. Stand up and your legs are straight. When the knees lock, your weight is carried by the bones more efficiently than the muscles. It's automatic and it's what's expected. That assumption is an important part of the illusion. We assume that straight legs carry the weight and bent legs are relaxed.
Observe the lean. One leg straight and slightly off to the side; the other leg bent. The weight seems to rest between straight toe, through the body, and hang off the shoulder, propped up by the arm, and so on into support.
Because the viewer assumes the leg mechanics, the illusion of the support is reinforced. In reality the lean is accomplished by reversing the mechanics. By standing on the bent knee the weight carried through the muscle, the viewer is unaware of the shift in the center of gravity. The performer can now shift more weight toward the "support," by the further misdirection of lifting the shoulder, appearing to hang the arm on the support.
Walking involves the same bent leg, straight leg system only it is put in motion: observe walking. Each step lands the body on a straight leg. The body falls forward to be caught by the next step, as the weight shifts to the front foot the back leg bends and is drawn forward to replace the last step. Again it is automatic, and taken for granted.
The illusionary walk involves keeping the weight on the bent leg and either pulling or pushing the straight leg:
stand on one leg
bend the knee
flex the ankle
now, bend and flex at the same time.
In ballet terms: a relive' and a plie'.
The weight of the entire body is focused on the toe. The flex of the ankle raises the body. The bend of the knee lowers the body. By isolating the trunk the movements cancel each other out.
Because of the two dimensional aspects of performance (again not unlike a cartoon); there are two separate techniques for walking, their use depending on the audience's point of view.
Profile walk (to be seen from the side)
Start with both legs straight but separated, one forward, one back.
The weight is on the back leg. The front leg is locked straight, front foot flat on the floor. As the back leg flexes and bends, the front leg is dragged backwards under the body. The flat foot slides along the floor.
The back leg carries all the weight. As the knee bends and the ankle flexes, the work is transferred from bone to muscle.
Timing is critical, the pull of the front leg must start and finish at the same moment as the back leg bends and must stop when it is parallel to the back foot. This requires a concerted effort to keep all of the body balanced on the back toe.
The arms naturally swing in opposition to the weight on the legs. It is an effort to teach the body to compensate visually for a weight that has been placed elsewhere. Doing this naturally does not come easily.
The ideal is to perform all of the moves and keep the overall body at neutral. No bobbing of the body from ill-timed mends, no change of relative position on the floor.
The effect to the viewer is that the floor seems to be moving under the mime.
Full Front Walk (straight at audience)For clarity the illustration is in profile.
This walk starts by placing a bent and flexed leg in front and applying weight to it. While doing so, the leg straightens. The back leg lifts and is pushed slightly to the back, where it bends at the knee and comes forward to replace the other leg.
The effect to the viewer is that the floor falls away behind the mime.
To compound the illusion, make it more believable, more elements can be added. The head directs the viewer's focus, so panning the head to follow an object shows the viewer the scenery the mime is walking past.
Isolating a hand on a passing object, be it a fence post or a horizontal rail makes that scenery more concrete.
This system can be applied to other types of locomotion.
By picking up the pace and tightening the arms of the full front walk it becomes a run.
Bouncing off the toes compounds the illusion.
Slowing it down, and pressing through the move gives it resistance. The effect could be less gravity or under water.
Climbing a ladder is an example of an illusion that depends as much on timing as the arms and the legs, perhaps more so.
Start by placing the hands on the ladder, side rails or rungs. Once the hands are set they must move in unison.
One foot is raised and isolated at a step.
The other foot now flexes at the ankle raising the body at the same time the hands and the raised foot are dropped the distance of the step. Finally the knee of the support leg is bent slightly to keep the hips at neutral. All the focus is on "up;" the lowering by the knee is camouflaged in the rise of the next step.
The "kicker" is to put an "up" impulse in the chest that lets the head react naturally: a sort of false inertia. Other kickers include looking down after several steps, and mixing up the types of hand holds. The impulse can be moved throught the body depending on the work involved, as with the bucket.
A stairway is not much more than a ladder presented on a diagonal. A single hand is extended and isolated chest high. When it is lowered it is pulled back towards the body. The leg work is nearly the same.
Descending a ladder also relies on timing, but since all of the impulse is "down" working with gravity, the leg work hasn't quite the strain.
Grab some ladder (waist high)
Hang a leg out the back. (bent)
Rise quickly on the support toe, then bend the knee.
Straighten the back leg and drop it to the floor at the same time the hands are raised to the chest.
The stair is again the same but on the diagonal and to the front.
Manipulation of space and locomotion are very basic skills that once familiar and become second nature, allow the performer to concentrate on development of character and plot.
Characters for mime are the loud uncles of the actors' family.
There is a pitfall some beginners get caught in that I think deserves a warning. Since the mime works in silence the novice has a tendency to amplify the gesture and, while that might still be effective in manipulation and locomotion, in characterization it is only overacting. In building characters usually less is more.
That said, I endorse a technique based on the bodies' centers (sound familiar?).
Everyone has an individual walk. A person's self image shows through his movement. With observation and this system it is not too difficult to decipher the code.
Human beings deal on three levels: Intellectual, Emotional, and Physical. These correspond to the largest collections of bones in the body:
The skull: intellect, brain box, head
The rib cage: chest, heart
The pelvis: hips, naughty bits, ass
So, in creating a character first define how the character sees himself. Then apply the related center or combination of centers to his movement. Allow the centers to lead the characters through space.
Head the residence of the intellect. Individual types include: the seeker, the inquisitive, the know-it-all, the suspicious, or the visually impaired.
Examples: Sherlock Holmes, the guest speaker, Barney Fife (not particularly smart, although he thought he was)
Each center can be used in a positive way, as above, or negatively to create one who is dull, drunk, some other non-intellectual, or suspicious.
Chest the temple of the heart. Individual types include: the lover, pride or arrogance or rightousness, total joy.
Most strong emotions have some effect on the chest. On the positive side, the lover is led by the heart. Most of his action originates from the chest.
On the negative side a crook, wicked witch or other anti-lover type could be built: starting by pulling the shoulders tight together to close off the heart.
Hips the roots, the bottom of the spine. Individual types include: the physical, animal, sexual, cowboys, sailors, hookers, "the fonz," ultra masculine or feminine.
On the other hand, to close off the hip center, produces a character of no physical authority. (shy, small, frail)
The three body centers can be subdivided and deserve a little more attention.
The face subdivides into:
Forehead: cerebral, nobility, elegance, intellect
Eyes: the windows of the soul, emotion
Mouth: the only moving part, taste, speech, physical
Likewise the chest subdivides into:
The hips adjust according to their degree of tilt.
Ballet dancers are said to present an intellectually engaging display in a most physical craft. Ballet, more than any other form of dance, at times defies its own physicality.
One reason is that proper ballet posture requires all body centers to tilt up, especially the hips.
This posture gives the entire endeavor a note of nobility.
With this ballet posture as a start and tilting the hips back through a neutral stance and beyond, the performer can display a cerebral attitude in the physical plane.
The most valuable accomplishment for the novice mime is becoming at ease with the various techniques so as to be able to concentrate on the situation he or she is trying to portray. If the performer puts himself into a given situation, concentrates on being there, fine points become obvious. As the imagination is brought to bear on problems, the solutions present themselves. It is merely a matter of giving oneself over to the stream of consciousness and letting the unbridled mind do the writing for you.
Relaxation cannot be emphasized enough. Fear, it is said, is "the mind killer." Tension confuses the body. Nervousness is an unfocused energy. Muscles move under electrical commands from the brain. Unwanted electricity in the form of nervous tension spills into the system and can cause a kind of gridlock.
Trust your instincts; trust your imagination. The subconscious mind thinks faster and in much finer detail.
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