That Extra Something: The Many Faces of Mime


In hushed anticipation, the audience stares at the blackened stage. A spotlight punctuates the darkness and illuminates the still figure dressed in maroon and black leotards. Immediately he becomes animated and proceeds to walk toward the audience with a heavy satchel in his hand. Although the audience watches him walk and carry the satchel, it is only an illusion in their minds.

The figure, James (Jamie) K. Allen, is a professional mime artist, the founder and instructor of Brigham Young University’s mime club and professional mime troupe.

Mime is one of the oldest art forms. Ancient Greeks spent many afternoons packed in amphitheaters enjoying it. Mime was the substance of early movies before “talkies” came along.

Many people are confused by mime and pantomime. According to Jamie, a mime artist uses only his face, hands, and body to communicate—no sound effects, music, or props are used. Pantomime, on the other hand, can use scenery, props, sound effects, and costuming—“but not any verbal communication.”

“Mime is acting without words, portraying an inner feeling. It’s a series of movements and expressions to convey in nonverbal communication the feelings and thoughts of the artist. It’s a universal language,” explains lithe, auburn-haired Jamie to members of one of his bi-weekly mime classes.

Since it uses only movement to portray the idea, some people have classed mime as a form of dance. “There is a fine line between mime and dance, and between mime and standard acting for that matter. But mime is separate. It is somewhere between acting and dance,” maintains Jamie. “Dee Winterton, a choreographer at BYU, once said that while dance abstracts parts of life, mime overemphasizes the realities of life.”

What does it take to become a proficient mime artist? “Well, you learn by doing it,” says Jamie. “A person must learn how to create a mime wall, how to do a mime walk, use a mime ball, pull imaginary ropes—all with precise shapes, definitions, weights, and tensions. The mime artist must observe in the people around him what certain body movements mean.”

To illustrate how a slight variation of a simple gesture changes its meaning, Jamie holds up his hands with the thumb and forefinger extended, palm facing front. “This means, ‘Here I am!’”

He then turns his hand sideways. “It now means, ‘This is a command!’” Turning his hand again with the palm facing his body, he now represents the counting number one.

Jamie advises anyone interested in mime to begin teaching himself.

“I’m a self-taught mime artist. I learned what I know through observation of things, people, animals. Read some good books on the subject. But most of all observe. Look at a blade of grass and decide just how and in what way it bends; then try it. Watch an old man walking down the street, and try to discover just what it is in his movements that makes him old. Observe people—observe life around you.”

And as Jamie’s students will readily acknowledge, with all the observations and practice, a person will often learn a lot about himself and his relationship to our Father in heaven.

Students are taught to concentrate on their illusions, to see every detail they are trying to define. When using a mime wall or satchel, for example, the article must be clearly defined with the hands so the idea can be projected to the audience. Also, the students are cautioned to never focus on a real person or the illusion will be destroyed.

Jamie feels that exaggeration is one of the more important factors in creating a mime characterization. “The face is the mirror of the soul. To show what the artist feels, he must be able to over-exaggerate his facial expressions so that his audience can easily understand those thoughts and feelings.”

For this reason, performers wear leotards of dark colors and accentuate the face with white make-up encircling the portion from the forehead to the chin. Charcoal or black greasepaint is strategically penciled in to outline expressive features such as the eyes or mouth.

The traditional costumes not only emphasize bodily movements, according to Jamie, but also “take away the personal identity of the performer so the person in the audience can identify with him and say, ‘Yeah, that’s me!’

“In classes, I teach not only mime techniques and philosophies, but how to build the individual’s mental and physical concentration,” explains Jamie as he limbers up with class members. “Mime is a great developer of self-esteem and confidence.

“A lot of kids have become more aware of themselves. Mime is a personal art; they put in part of themselves. They see they can do something. They create their own way of doing things.”

To emphasize “the realities of life,” a mime artist must have absolute mental and physical control of his body. “That’s why it fits so well into the gospel. We’re told to master our own weaknesses, our own passions, desires, and wants to righteous ends. Likewise in mime we must control our actions and thoughts to focus them in our performance.”

Impromptu routines are an important part of Jamie’s instruction to his students. When his troupe performs a show, they invite the audience to think up situations for the mimers, “and within ten seconds they are performed,” says Jamie.

“To be good at impromptu you must become more sensitive to your fellowman. You learn to see and understand others better because of this training.”

Members of the troupe agree with Jamie about the value of their training. Dorothy Richan, a member of the professional troupe, says, “Mime has helped me to come out of myself a little, made it easier for me to express myself, and built my self-confidence. I’ve come around to a point where I’d like to teach mime and maybe help others to begin finding themselves.”

Mime has obvious entertainment value, but Jamie feels that it can also be used as a very effective teaching tool. “We hope to use mime as a missionary tool to help spread the gospel and build up the kingdom of God here on earth,” he says. “Mime is a universal language—there is no language barrier, so through mime we can teach concepts of the gospel all over the world. It can be a spiritually moving thing because it relies on the spirit of the artist to communicate with the audience. It is spirit-to-spirit communication.”

The professional troupe has worked up several mime routines that communicate gospel messages. Jamie’s voice softens as he tells of one of the serious sketches involving the gospel. It is called “The First Vision.” A young boy is torn between two groups as they beckon for him to join their brand of beliefs. In anguish, he kneels on a dark stage, to be highlighted by a single, dull, white spotlight. As his prayerful state becomes intensified, a green light overshadows him, portraying the evil influence. Frightened and again in a feverish prayer, the boy does not realize at first the subsiding of the evil light and the gradual brilliance of an intense white light enveloping him. A peaceful expression comes over his face as the light dims over the kneeling figure.

“Besides teaching gospel principles with our routines, we could provide good public relations for the Church,” Jamie explains. “We might even be able to get into areas missionaries can’t go yet.”

All the troupe members have a testimony of missionary work—and all the young men in the troupe are planning to go on missions.

Jamie also feels that mime can be beneficial to both parents and their children in teaching situations.

“Mothers could teach stories to their children, and children could enact passages of scripture. In a family home evening situation, parents might ask the children to act like Mommy and Daddy, or the parents could act like the children. Parents could see the impression they are making on their children, and the children see how they are impressing their parents.”

Mime is proving useful in a number of unexpected areas. For example, the troupe recently videotaped characterizations of several personality traits such as trust, industry, and intimacy for a child development class at BYU.

Marilee Caldwell, a member of the troupe, tells another use: “I have a very close friend who is deaf. With mime, I am able to better convey my thoughts and to understand his. Your body can’t lie, and since mime is a form of body language, it can be used when spoken language is a barrier.”

“The Magical Mime Troupe” is becoming a very busy organization as mime grows in popularity. Jamie thinks he knows why.

“Because of the complexity of modern entertainment—lights, scripts, props, elaborate costumes, etc.—people are beginning to go back to the basics. There is something that can be supplied by the viewer’s imagination that even the most elaborate productions can’t provide.

“Mime,” he adds, “discovers that extra something.”

[photos] Photos by Longin Lonczyna, Jr.