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Mime Workshop (Outline)

Tim Settimi
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.
Definitions
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.
head
neck
chest
stomach

hips

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.

Locomotion
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.

The Kicker
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 nonintellectual, 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:
Pecks: emotion
Belly: physical

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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