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The Painfully True Confessions of a Would-Be Teenage Mime

Posted: 09/24/07 03:25 PM ET

I received an email yesterday morning from a good friend who informed me that Marcel Marceau, the famous mime, had died. I was shocked and saddened by his passing, because even though I never met Marcel Marceau, or saw him perform in person, I felt a deep connection to him and his craft.

What I have to say next is a little difficult, since I have confessed this bit of personal information to very few people in my life, but it's crucial to why I'm writing about Marcel Marceau's passing: when I was a teenager, I wanted more than almost anything to become a professional working street-performing mime! Which is to say, I willingly, and without any irony whatsoever, voluntarily pursued educational training for mime-becoming.

Before I get into the particulars of my education and training as a (would-be) working mime -- I feel the need to set the stage, as it were -- to provide both an emotional context and then a cultural and political context for my heretofore inexplicably embarrassing behavior. On a personal level: let's just say that had John Hughes been making his teen-angst movies 25 years ago when I was a teen-angster, I'm sure his casting people would have rejected me for looking "too authentic." I was an outsider, a geek, and a misfit -- not to brag or anything -- and when I wasn't busy sneaking into one of the biology classrooms trying to figure out what species I was since I clearly wasn't the same species as all the other teenagers, I sat around with my best friend Jennifer and bemoaned our epic lack of popularity and what could possibly happen to change our fate and put us out of their collective adolescent emotional misery.

As for the cultural and political context: Thirty years ago, in the mid-to-late 1970s, mime -- or, as the true masters of the art form call it, pantomime (pronounced by the French as pant-o-MEEEEM) -- was deeply respected and enjoyed by all. Larraine Newman, one of the super-cool original cast members of Saturday Night Live, had actually studied in Paris with Marcel Marceau himself, and mimes were everywhere -- on street corners, on college campuses, in small dark theatres with small round stages. M.C. Escher posters were also everywhere (like, all over my bedroom) which was just further evidence of a pervasive fascination with the notion of visual illusion. Back then, one could even go so far as to say that mime was cool. Hard to believe, certainly, from the current vantage point of true cool now -- rap singers and reality show stars and real-life real-time web-cam bloggers. But years ago, when I was suffering in silence every day in the prison of a high school (fact: my newly built high school was actually designed by an architect who had previously designed prisons), I lived for afternoons and weekends when I was free (now that I was finally finished with Hebrew school) to take the bus from my nearby suburb to Cambridge and roam the streets of Harvard Square in search of the perfect $3 used suede jacket and a poofy-but-slimming embroidered Indian shirt.

Most of all, though, what I was searching for was a place where I could "be myself," and I found that place in Harvard Square. "The Square," as it was called by people in the know (suburban teenage commuters) was a breeding ground for individuality, and because of its relatively loose restrictions on conformity and mainstream attractiveness -- straight blond hair and impossibly delicate noses, to name only two predominant physical features, neither of which I possessed and both of which I blamed for making me feel incredibly lonely and, like, such a total loser all the time -- street performers in general and street mimes in particular flourished. And it was there -- in the long-haired bell-bottomed Peace-sign-wearing Volkswagen-Bug-covered-in anti-war-bumper- stickers-driving hipster- populated sidewalks of Cambridge, Massachusetts -- the only state that voted for George McGovern in '72, don't forget! (not to mention the backdrop for two of my never-before-confessed favorite films -- Love Story and The Paper Chase) -- that I saw my first mime and was smitten.

While I can't remember the exact moment I just referred to, I'm pretty sure it was a hot night in the summer of 1974 when the humid dusk air was full of the smell of wafting patchouli oil and clove cigarettes and cannabis and the sound of deeply contented long-haired macrobiotic folk-dancers nearby. I had probably just finished having a Bass Ale (procured with the obligatory fake ID) and half a pack of cigarettes (Old Golds, because a friend's unbelievably cute older brother smoked them) at the bar of the now-closed Blue Parrot -- or the now-closed H'a Penny Pub or Wurst Haus or 33 Dunster Street or original Casablanca -- with Jennifer, who was very tall. Slightly dizzy from the alcohol but energized by the nicotine (not to mention the self-satisfaction of having passed, yet again, for 18), I must have seen a crowd gathered on the triangle of sidewalk across from the now-closed Bailey's Ice Cream. The crowd would have been six or seven deep and difficult to navigate for someone as not-tall as me -- especially given all the view-blocking huge Afros and leather floppy hats and overgrown bonsai-tree facial hair that were the style back then -- but Jennifer must have seen and cleared a path for me. And when I eventually penetrated the crowd's outer rings and made my way to the inner circle -- before I knew what had happened -- before I knew that what I was looking at -- a silent street performer trapped first in what appeared to be an imaginary glass box and then struggling against an incredibly strong head-wind! -- had a name -- C'est une mime!! [sic] -- my mouth fell open, my body became slack, and I almost certainly began to drool:

At 14, I had seen my future. And my future was voluntary muteness.

The most obvious question at this point is why voluntary muteness was such an attractive option to me. This is actually a relatively easy question for me to answer and a relatively easy answer to understand: not talking was the perfect complement to not being seen. Not that I entirely minded not being seen -- in fact, to a large extent I was deeply grateful to my peers for leaving me alone and not noticing me since it was way better than being chased around the vacant hallways of her junior high school with the constant threat of being dragged by the hair to the nearest girls bathroom and given a swirly (getting your head flushed in the toilet so that your hair took on the appearance and consistency of a soft-serve ice cream cone). But being invisible has its price -- just ask Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (if you can find him!) -- and it was that price -- loneliness and lack of a friendly peer group outside her gang of two -- that made me long for a way to express myself.

This longing to be seen and heard, of course, was in direct conflict with my abject fear of being seen and heard, thereby risking certain rejection and swirlies, and it was this very challenge to find a way to express myself without verbally expressing myself -- using my actual voice, that is, as opposed to using paper and a pen as I did when I first started writing (really bad poetry) -- that seemed instantly solved the moment I had my first mime sighting. The necessary muteness along with the facial-feature minimizing white grease paint and unibrow-replacing pencil-drawn eyebrows of sadness and surprise -- all of which were hallmarks of every mime in the history of the world -- were the tools of the street performer's trade that I knew, if given the chance, I could possess in spades.

I already felt partially trained in l'etude de mime [sic]: I had, for the last year or so, been shoplifting record albums and books and make-up and clothes in The Square with a great deal of regularity and success and the delicious irony was not lost on me -- these sticky-fingered sleights of hand were not only (silent) cries for help and deeply connected to my emotional disconnectedness but also precursors to talents needed to become a profoundly talented future mime. It didn't take me long to connect the dots and realize I was destined for a pure and focused and verbally austere Marceauian Life of the Mime.

But just when the story is finally getting good -- just when I'm about to tell you about the afternoon weekday pantomime classes I took with my equally invisible and thus similarly mime-obsessed friend, Jennifer, in and around Cambridge and downtown Boston in the coming years -- several classes taught by a "wicked cute" (Jennifer's words) professional mime who had graced the covers in flagrante delictomime of several "Pousette-Dart Band" record albums (that I had deftly shoplifted) and another class with the absurdly untrue name of "The National Mime Company" -- I'm going to have to stop. Because to go further would be to imply that my love of and passion for mime had continued much past high school.

Which in fact it didn't.

What did continue with great passion and what I still consider today to be my highest achievement during that time and, quite frankly, my high school legacy, was how I so masterfully avoided my mandatory phys-ed classes and elevated the entire field of "gym avoidance" itself into something of an art and a science -- the pinnacle of which was when I convinced the school to agree that my senior-year after-school pantomime classes could be substituted for actual gym classes because of all the stretching we did.

Which means that the only thing worse than having wanted so desperately to become a mime is having failed to become a mime and also having used mime for the sole purpose of getting out of gym.