Purposeful over-the-top acting, caricatures of stock characters, and physical gags: Pantomime touches on something both universal and comedic about the human experience. This nonverbal performance style has long been an amusing, emotive part of the industry.
Pantomime is a type of theatrical production that relies on humor, audience participation, and shared cultural knowledge. The art form has roots that date back to ancient Greece and Rome, but it has evolved over the years—such as the masked Italian commedia dell’arte during the Renaissance. Versions of pantomime theater also existed in Asia long before it appeared in the Western world. Like pantomime, bharata natyam uses exaggerated gestures and facial expressions in dance-dramas accompanied by music.
In the U.K., pantomime is a staple of the holidays that usually involves popular fairy tales, slapstick comedy, and the triumph of good over evil. These comedic pantomimes include talking and singing, and are meant to bring good cheer and fun.
The word mime is often used to indicate a more modern form of pantomime. And while pantomime is an act or performance, mime can also mean the actual performer—classically, someone who is clad in black and white and hopelessly stuck in an invisible box.
Using body movements, facial expressions, and a keen understanding of space, mimes tell a story without ever speaking a word. A successful mime can portray a range of emotions and scenarios that take the audience on a journey with little to no props or stage design. Mimes have a way of intriguing their audiences with a silent laugh or wide-eyed plea that brings them into an invisible, silent world that somehow feels rich and full.
Acting goes far beyond simply remembering lines and delivering them with the right emotions. An entire world of unspoken language in the form of body movements and facial expressions is needed to solidify a performance.
Body movements: In her negotiations with Ariel, Ursula said it best: “Don’t underestimate the importance of body language.” Since performing pantomime usually involves being as voiceless as the little mermaid, actors must rely on only their bodies. This encourages developing skills beyond the mere verbal. When actors focus on their body, they start to gain an understanding of their movements, the space around them, and how to manipulate their body to produce imaginary items that audiences can “see.”
Facial expressions: Facial expressions also do a lot to convey emotion, and miming requires spot-on expressions. “When you walk onstage, you’re suddenly aware that every expression tells the audience something, every gesture, every movement,” Becky Baumwoll, a traditional actor who also dedicates time to miming, told Playbill. “It applies to work outside of mime: your body is completely powerful and you need so little to tell so much.”
Mime requires that you hone a different set of communication skills that actors can use to inspire their speaking roles. Not only can practicing mime help you communicate with an audience, but it also helps you communicate with your fellow actors. Group mime exercises require that you anticipate what other actors are thinking and understand what they’re doing simply by watching their movements and facial expressions.
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Mime lets you “endow air with shape and weight” to have the audience imagine objects and situations, according to Walt Frasier. The mime then “further endow[s] the imaginary object with mood and emotion,” which provides the mime with space to react and interact.
At Improv Does Best, they say that “weight, volume, and tension are the key characteristics” for a mime to consider so that an audience can “see.” They advise that mimes should be deliberate and commit “to engaging the environment.”
To get started, some basic exercises can help actors get into the feel of handling imaginary objects. From there, moving into individual and group exercises help improve movement and communication.
Practice with real objects: Pick up an everyday object and study all the movements your body makes to pick it up. Even with light objects, our bodies make small adjustments. Choose a light object and pick it up multiple times. Focus on what your body does. Then pick up the imaginary version and recreate all the muscle movements. Repeat this exercise with a heavy object.
Seeing is believing: Before a mime even touches or interacts with an imaginary object, they might see it. React to the object by nonverbally telling the audience, “I see it” or “I hear it.” How can your facial expressions and body movements convey that you see or hear something?
Full stop: In this classic mime exercise, the mime encounters some imaginary object that forces them to stop. Consider the entire body when encountering “the stop.” Your entire body should react in order for the audience to imagine the imposing object. You can combine this with seeing the object first for a truly immersive experience.
Realize the room: Enter an imaginary room and perform a single activity that might take place within, such as reading a newspaper, eating an apple, or brushing your teeth. Then leave the room, ensuring that you encounter the same obstacles that you did on the way in.
This exercise can be done individually or as a group. For the group version, when the first player leaves the room, the second player enters. They perform the first player’s activity, add their own, and then leave the room. Player three enters the room, performs player one’s activity, player two’s activities, and then their own activity—and so on until someone forgets an action, or all players go.
Play ball: Play with an imaginary ball. What type of ball is it? How heavy is it? How big is it? Does it bounce? Can you juggle more than one? Make sure to maintain the size and weight of the ball throughout the performance.
Like the room activity, the ball game can be done individually or as a group. Standing in a circle, player one makes sure to act out the size and weight of the ball before making eye contact with another player and passing it on. Players then pass the ball to each other, keeping the size and weight of the imaginary ball consistent. Always make eye contact with a player before passing the ball.
Tug of war: This is tug of war with a twist: the rope is invisible. Two teams stand opposite each other. Players should take a moment to pick up the rope and get a feel for it. Unlike a real game of tug of war, this version isn’t about winning. Instead, it’s a collaborative effort between all players to make it look real. A successful mime of tug of war has the audience believing they’re watching a real tug of war.
Take the time to practice mime to improve your acting skills. Understanding nonverbal communication and being able to combine that knowledge with speaking can elevate your performance to the next level.