Interview With the Mime

I hate mimes. Who doesn't? Say "mime" and I think of Marcel Marceau. Or worse, Shields and Yarnell. No matter who, it'll be white face and a striped tee shirt and those loose-limbed bits with titles like "Climbing the Stairs" or "Walking Against the Wind." Right?

Not anymore according to Daniel Chumley, the director of 13 Dias/13 Days: How the New Zapatistas Shook the World, a new play by the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe. Chumley says the play, which the company will perform in Scottsdale on Saturday, is a perfect example of postmodern mime.

The multimedia show employs computer-driven slides, video and even e-mail to tell the story of the infamous peasant uprising in Mexico on New Year's Day 1994. 13 Dias/13 Days celebrates the thousands of Mayan laborers who that day took control of seven Mexican towns to protest the North American Free Trade Agreement. "This play isn't about imitating some guy in a windstorm," Chumley insists. "It's about coming at the essence of life's transactions." Those of us who don't easily comprehend the density of Chumley's language must be reminded that he customarily communicates through mime.

But Chumley likes to talk. He talks a lot. Perhaps to make up for all that time he spends being silent, wearing kabuki makeup and doing the Robot. "We don't do that anymore," he says, sighing. In a telephone interview from the mime troupe's offices in San Francisco, Chumley is trying to explain what the San Francisco mime troupe does do. "We don't do pantomime," he says. "We talk. And we sing and dance." And, in 13 Dias/13 Days, the troupe brings Mexico's 1994 Zapatista uprising to life with rear-screen video projectors, computer imagery and a bilingual musical score.

All this is a long way from the shenanigans of Marceau's clown-faced Bip. And while Chumley insists there's nothing wrong with good, old-fashioned pantomime, he likens it to "a meringue, full of form and beautiful peaks, but ultimately hollow. The least-talented people go study mime and then go to Seattle and stand out in the street in white face imitating people who walk by. It's such a cheap form of expression."

This lack of substance, Chumley says, is what has given mimes such a bad name. The early 19th-century silent-pantomime tradition that influenced Marceau's work in the Fifties has since evolved into exhibitions that employ sound effects, words and music as well as movement metaphor. But don't mention to Chumley that all this sounds suspiciously like good, old-fashioned theatre. "No, no, no," he says. "We use contemporary dramaturgy, but ours is a more expressionistic style. We use masks. We write our own plays. It's all very bold. It's entirely different." Maybe not entirely. A number of theatre companies write and produce their own material. And aren't masks a device traditionally used by . . . mimes?

"Yes, but we're not doing what people think of as miming," Chumley cautions. "We spend half of our time explaining that to our audiences. One woman even reported us to the Better Business Bureau when she bought a ticket for a mime performance and found herself at a play." In a silent move fully characteristic of mime, the troupe sent the woman a photocopy of Webster's definition of the word "pantomime."

Chumley agrees that changing the company's name would probably alleviate such confusion. "We've gone away on retreats with the purpose of coming up with a new name," he says. "We always end up saying, 'Fuck it. Keep the old name.' But the young people in the company plead with us: 'Please, please, change it! We're tired of telling people we're not that kind of mime!'"

They certainly aren't. The troupe, according to Chumley, is about much more than just silly silent sketches. "We're focused on the evolution of the global economy and its impact on people around the world," he explains. Pressed to explain how, he says, "Hey, we have a Tony and three Obies. That proves that whatever we do works. Plus we've played Kennedy Center." And so have the Rockettes.

Before it arrives at Scottsdale Center for the Arts on Saturday, the San Francisco Mime Troupe performs for college drama departments in Tucson and in Phoenix at Arizona State University West.

This has me worried. I picture a lot of 20-year-olds in suspenders and white face paint, trapped in imaginary glass boxes of their own making. Maybe Chumley should avoid all that and instead simply explain to the students the difference between a mime troupe and a straight theatre company. And then maybe one of the students can explain it to me.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe's production of 13 Dias/13 Days: How the New Zapatistas Shook the World will be performed on Saturday, November 2, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, 7380 East Second Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela