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Mimes get the silent treatment

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Troupe member from The Mime Company of Chicago performs a piece titled "Mannequin." (Photo By Ross Martens)

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Members of the The Mime Company perform a piece titled "Seasons" which portrays a tree in its cycle through the changing seasons (Photo By Ross Martens)

Don’t say anything, but it appears that metamfiezomaiophobia—the fear of mimes—may be at an all-time high.

Casting calls are scarce. Just a smattering of theaters offer mime shows. The best drama schools avoid mime in their curriculums. Even Hollywood, which produced silent icons like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, has gone mum.

“Mime goes up and down in popularity over time, and it had been alive and well in the past,” said Eliot Monaco, artistic director, performer and writer for The Mime Company in Chicago. “Right now, it is not alive and well.”

Plagued by the cliché of a guy in a striped shirt and a beret aping passersby from the steps of a museum, and with little demand for them on stage and screen, mimes have fallen on difficult times. Today your best shot at seeing one is at an obscure festival like the London International Mime Festival, or at a children’s birthday party—although even these bookings are rare.

To keep their craft alive and to make a living, mimes are applying their skills to other arts, to disparate fields, and educating a new generation of mimes. Some find a home in amalgam performance shows, such as Cirque du Soleil or the Blue Man Group, which apply mime skills while avoiding the name and the stereotypes.

Others have gone Hollywood, using their skills behind the scenes. “I don’t know anyone making a living as a mime,” said Chris Lueck, who did mime training at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre in Santa Barbara, Calif., and applies his physical mime skills to his work as a clown. “But I know lots of people making a living as a clown.”

The silent art goes back centuries and has many varieties, from Greek plays that involved some speech to the masquerading style of Mummenschanz . Today most associate mime with Marcel Marceau and his most famous character, Bip, whose painted face and striped shirt compose the archetypal mime image. Using physical illusions, such as the glass box, Marceau wowed worldwide audiences and influenced performers from Dario Fo to Michael Jackson.

Marceau, who died in 2007, cast a long shadow and spawned a host of imitators who copied his illusions while ignoring their underlying artistic principles. “Mime got killed because a lot of people who did it weren’t very good,” said Paul J. Curtis, director of the American Mime School in New York. “Because a lot of people who went up before weren’t professional, they hurt the whole ball game.”

Scattered far and wide, some mimes are returning to tinsel town. But rather than dazzling the silver screen, they work, often without credit, against a blue one.

Lorin Eric Salm studied under Marceau for three years at his now-closed school, Ecole Internationale de Mimodrame, in Paris. Today he is a movement consultant doing everything from conducting seminars for animators at Disney and Pixar to motion capture on blue screens for projects like “Shrek” and “Chicken Little.”

“Motion capture asks for a particular things that one with mime training is particularly adept at,” said Salm. “They give you a stand-in object to interact with and you have to treat it as though it has the actual weight and shape of what you are handling on the screen.”

Salm also works with directors and actors on television and movies. He designed the zombie walk for “House of the Dead II” and is even featured in the DVD’s behind-the- scenes footage coaching the actors.

Such coaching, however, has all but disappeared from acting schools. “Currently I do not know of any graduate acting program that teaches pantomime as a separate course of study,” said Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama. “I believe that some do fold in some of the discipline to other courses,” like clowning or commedia dell’arte.

Some mimes elect to teach in mainstream universities, rather than at drama schools, where they can incorporate some mime technique into theater curriculums and groom a new generation of mimes.

Thomas Leabhart, a mime performer and author of “Modern and Post-Modern Mime,” is a resident artist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., where he edits Mime Journal and teaches acting and directing through the school’s department of theatre and dance.

At Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., one of the few schools to offer courses in mime, Bud Beyer, head of the theater department for nearly 30 years, created a student mime troupe to perform on campus and do educational outreach in Chicago schools.

Last year the organization, now called The Mime Company, moved off campus and became a nonprofit city organization that teaches mime to teachers and children in childhood literacy programs for bilingual, deaf and autistic students. It also produces new stage pieces for mime. “We feel like we are picking up the work for the next generation of mimes,” said Eliot Monaco, a former student of Beyer’s.

Though drama schools aren’t offering mime, professional performers still seek it out for its rigorous physical training. “Many who study with us don’t want to be mimes,” said Curtis, whose former students include Robert Redford and dancers from New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Even as he remains hopeful about the future of mime, Curtis is regularly reminded of how undervalued his craft is when organizations ask him to donate his services to their events. “I tell these people it takes six years to get lousy in this business,” said Curtis. “You don’t get these people for nothing.”

For now, mimes are taking what they can get. “I have only done one gig as a mime,” said Lueck. “It was a public service announcement about abstinence and they used a mime to describe how the barriers to talking to kids about sex don’t really exist.”

E-mail: rma2122@columbia.edu