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A Wrinkle in Mime

Mime and physical theater labs


The first lesson of mime is to think outside the box, not get trapped in it. The antics of whitefaced mimes -- the box, the glass wall, the strong wind -- rub Stephen Chipps the wrong way, and he's not taking it quietly.

"I think mime has a bad rap, because there are a lot of people out there who slap on whiteface and think they can go out and be mimes," says Chipps, who leads weekly mime and physical theater labs at Sunsational Studio in Lakewood. "For some reason, this art form is perceived as not taking any skill, and that's a tragedy."

Mime may have started as silent clowns on street corners, but Chipps points out that it's come a long way since then, most notably at the hands (and body) of Marcel Marceau, with whom Chipps has studied several times over the last 18 years.

"There's a whole physical vocabulary these guys have learned, and they learn it through the body," he explains. "How to stand, how to hold themselves -- there's a whole training that goes with that, and we're losing that."

Chipps sees the labs not only as a way to save the art by introducing students to the fundamentals, but also as a way for performers of all walks -- from dancers to actors to stand-up comics -- to learn how to "fill" a stage. "Physical theater is just that: The body is the primary instrument of expression. Facial expressions is what we're not working on."

In fact, Chipps's own Ground Zero Movement Theater often hides behind elaborate masks and costumes, telling stories through an avant-garde form of mime he describes as dark. "All our work is focused on theatrical presentations. We use masks and lots of full-body costumes -- this week we're beetles; next week we're giant giraffes on stilts. Sometimes we work in the dance market, sometimes in the theater market -- even they don't know where to put us."

And sometimes, that means working a few street corners.

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