Mime is critical to improv as improv does best. We have a blank stage to fill with objects and environment. We have actions to commit our bodies and attentions to. We have space between and around us that has weight, volume and density. We have all this…if we have mime.
When employing mime, I focus on the following:
Reference Points. Noah Gregoropoulos put a banana peel on the stage and slipped on the same spot six scenes later – it was hilarious. To enable this move, walking around cars, opening doors and drawers, and pretty much anything else, an improviser needs to establish and utilize reference points: Points on the Stage Floor and Points related to the Player’s Body.
When interacting with something placed on the ground, try to identify a spot on the stage floor (a knot in the wood, a scuff on the linoleum, etc.) and seek to reengage that same spot when you want to interact again with that something. Find a spot on the stage floor and place your feet on it whenever you want to stand in front of an object (a window, a painting, an ATM).
When you go to open that window, door, drawer, etc., try to identify a height on your body to designate the area of the object you interact with. Patting a dog’s head consistently is easy (and satisfying for the audience) if you reference the dog’s head with your body. Remember though, that if you and another player of a differing height interact with the same object, you can’t use the same reference point. Most players open a door with a knob at elbow height, for example, but a taller improviser who makes the effort to reach lower for that same knob can help make the world – and a laugh – pop.
To practice reference points, play an exercise called “Make Room.” First, one player enters a space through a door they define. Once in that space, that player establishes some object in the room by interacting with it through mime. That player then leaves the room through the defined door. A second player enters the room next using the same door in the same way (did it hinge inward or out? at what height was the knob? did the door squeak or stick?). This second player then interacts with the object defined by the first player’s mime and then creates a new object of their own before leaving the room through the same door. One at a time a string of subsequent players partcipates: entering the room, interacting with each object created by preceeding players, creating a new object of their own, and then leaving the room. Players waiting to participate should work to establish reference points in their mind in order to interact with objects at the same place in space.
Weight, Volume and Tension. We laugh at stand-up comedians who extend a thumb and pinkie from their closed fists to signify a phone. We improvisers cradle the air in our hand around an imagined phone. But is that phone so heavy we have to switch hands to give our shoulders a rest during a long conversation? Is it a thick Zack Morris cell phone or a tiny Zoolander cell phone? Is the phone attached to a base by a short cord that pulls us back as we attempt to reach for a beer with our free hand? Weight, volume and tension are the key characteristics of a mimed object that help players and the audience “see” the object (we are not, after all, defining the dimensions of a box with our palms).
To practice playing on stage with weight, volume and tension, devote yourself to feeling the weight, volume and tension in the activities you pursue in everyday living. While you are emptying the dishwasher – instead of zoning out or focusing elsewhere – concentrate on feeling the shape and weight of various dishes. Notice when an extraction or placement doesn’t go as smoothly as anticipated due to a snag. Then attempt to recreate emptying the dishwasher in an open space. Try this with all your mundane everyday activities: brushing your teeth, folding laundry, disassembling your robots, etc. Take the time to be conscious of rote actions and then to build the muscle memory in mime. It will enhance your performance and stage picture.
Atmosphere. It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man character you’re playing shivers in the cold and flinches under the pelting drops. This area of mime is mostly concerned with a player’s face and posture than hands. And unfortunately this area of mime is too often absent from stage. Rain. Snow. Sleet. Heat. Glare. Fog. Smog. These are all things that affect us in our day to day lives, and yet they rarely get on stage with us (typically only “cold” and “hot” do). Put atmospheric mime into your bag of tricks.
Again, practice atmospheric mime by concentrating on how you interact with real atmosphere and then attempting to recreate imaginary atmosphere. How does rain change your posture? How does snow affect your walk? What do you do when faced with bright sunlight? Focus outward, notice, feel, recreate, build mime muscle memory.
Here is some great information on Mime that I’ve found around the internet. Thank you, Original Posters!
From wikiHow (http://www.wikihow.com/Mime):
Using Reference Points –
- Take advantage of a fixed point. This may be more commonly referred to as ‘pointe fixe’, however that is simply the original French wording of ‘fixed point.’ This is an incredibly simple idea: The mime locates a point with his body, and then keeps it motionless in space. This technique is the basis of all illusions a mime can create.
- Add lines to fixed points. The line builds upon Fixed Point, at first, by simply adding a second fixed point in space. What makes this a unique technical skill is the added difficulty of keeping two points the same relative distance from each other. Also, the relative distance between the two points becomes the definition of this ‘construction block’. As such, the line may become ‘un-fixed’ as long as the two points are kept steady in their relation to one another. A good application of this concept is the ‘mime wall’.
- Make a dynamic line. Whereas the Line did not apply force to its points, the dynamic line adds that element. This is the idea applied to ‘pulling the rope’, but it can be applied to virtually any use of force in an illusion. The secret to this concept is synchronizing the impact of an imaginary force throughout the body. In that respect Dyanamic Line is essentially an understanding of physics applied to the human body. This may seem complicated but you can get a sense for it very easily: Find a wall and place both of your hands on it at approximately shoulder height. Push lightly into the wall with your hands. As you push try to feel where pressure builds up in your body. You should feel pressure in your hands, of course, but you should also feel some tension in your shoulders and hips. If you can’t feel anything, gently increase the pressure until you do. Also try different positions and feel how they change the pressures in your body. Dynamic Line calls upon the memory of forces like the ones in the above exercise to create realistic illusions of imaginary forces
Holding Space –
- “Manipulate” space and matter. This is a fancy phrase for “making things out of thin air”. This is the most complicated technique to explain because it makes use of many of the elements from the previous three. It is best served by an example illusion: dribbling a basketball. Using only one hand, the mime imitates much of the idea behind Dynamic Line, however by using only one hand, he only uses one point. Instead of two points, the mime transforms his remaining point into a shape: a rounded palm with fingers gently curled over it. This shape defines the ‘space’ where the illusion exists and allows the basketball, the ‘matter’, to exist in the illusion. Space/Matter Manipulation can be used to create any number of objects, characters, or events by utilizing this principle.
Move in Space –
- Climb a ladder. To show climbing a ladder, grab at imaginary ladder rungs going up in the air. Place the ball of one foot on the ground, as you would put it on a ladder rung. Pull down on the rungs (keep the hands moving together!) as you go up on your toes, and then drop back down with the opposite foot now “on a rung.” Alternate feet and hands each time you “climb.” Keep your focus upwards, as though you were looking at the place to which you are climbing. (If it’s a tall ladder, look downwards occasionally for comic effect – tilt your head slowly and carefully, just enough to look downwards, and then look forward quickly, with an expression of alarm!) Make your legs do the same movements as if your feet were clambering up a real ladder.
- Do “the lean”. Pretend to be leaning against a lamp post, wall or a counter. It might sound easy but takes quite a lot of strength and coordination to “lean” on nothing. The basic lean has two parts. Start with the feet about shoulder-width apart. For the top part: Hold your arm slightly away from your body, with the elbow bent so that your forearm is parallel to the ground and your hand (wrist relaxed slightly) is near your torso. Now raise your shoulder as you move your chest towards your elbow (keeping the elbow at the same point in space!). The bottom part: at the same time, bend your knee slightly, taking your weight onto the bent leg. The net effect should be that your elbow stays where it is, but it looks as though your weight has settled onto the imaginary place where your elbow rests. Make sure you only bend the leg under your raised arm. Keep your opposite leg perfectly straight as this adds to the illusion.
- Walk in place. One of the icons of mime is the stationary walk. It also one of the most physically demanding feats. This walk reverses the pattern of actual walking. The “trailing” foot in the mime walk does not support any weight, but it represents the weight-bearing foot of a normal walk. This is why the leg must remain straight in the illusion – it appears to be bearing the weight. Here’s how to do it. It is very important to begin with a good posture. You should hold your abdomen in fairly tightly as it will be prone to moving when you’re not paying attention. Keep your shoulders up and back – don’t slouch, your chest and neck should be erect as well – not puffed out. To begin, place your entire weight on the ball on one foot. This is your “forward” foot. Bend the knee over the forward foot slightly as you do this. With your other foot (the “trailing” foot) position the toes parallel to the toes of the forward foot. However, keep your trailing foot from touching the ground while maintaining the sole of the trailing foot parallel to the floor. Keep this leg perfectly straight. With your forward foot, slowly lower your heel to the ground and straighten the leg. As you do this, move your trailing foot backwards while keeping the sole of the foot parallel to the ground and the leg straight – you should feel an intense stretch along the back of your leg. Push the trailing leg as far back as you can while maintaining all of the above qualities, and your balance. Once the trailing foot is as far back as it can go, bring it back to parallel with your forward foot. Try to pick up the heel on your trailing foot first, like a natural step. Bend the your leg as you bring the trailing foot forward. Now touch down with the ball of your trailing foot. If you look at your feet, they are now in an exact reverse of their starting position. The “forward” foot is now in the “trailing” position and vise versa. The transition of weight between these feet is the most crucial aspect of the illusion! You must smoothly transfer weight from your former ‘forward’ foot to your new “forward” foot. At the same time, you must lift the newly freed foot and begin trailing it behind you. This will take quite a bit of practice to master. With all of the activity in your feet, don’t forget to move your upper body! Swing your arms so that the forward foot is always opposition to your forward hand. Also, inhale when you lift your trailing foot to come forward; exhale as you slide your trailing foot back. If you don’t bring your trailing foot back to parallel with your forward foot, you can simply transfer your weight to it and begin moonwalking!
In General –
- Watch yourself in a mirror, or use a video camera to see how effective the technique is. It’s sometimes most effective to do this technique casually, with very little exaggeration at all.