Gloria Spielman

Interview with T. Daniel, mime artist

T. Daniel is an internationally known creator, choreographer and performer of mime. His work has been compared to Red Skelton, Buster Keaton and Marcel Marceau. T. Daniel studied mime under Marceau and Etienne Decroux, Father of Modern Mime. He talked to me from his Chicago home.

How and when did you first become interested in mime?

I became interested in performing at an early age. But it wasn't until I began studying theatre in college that I really became interested in Mime. At that time, there were very few places to learn the art. When Marceau performed at the school, I used my wits to get back stage to meet him. As he signed my program, I told Marceau I wanted to study with him. He said he was going to open a school. The following fall I was invited to study there.

What was Marcel like as a mime teacher?

I have often said that one had to be a better student than Marceau was a teacher. The reason is that he had so much to give, that you, as a student, had to be sure you understood everything he was saying and demonstrating. He was always patient and encouraging. I do not remember him ever saying a negative word to any student, but always found some good in everyone's work.

Mime is probably not the most popular of the performing arts in the public's mind. Why do you think that is? Do you agree?

We may never know how or why Mime went from a really popular art to one that is not popular. At the beginning of the 20th century, Mime (Pantomime) was one of the very popular arts. Jean Cocteau and others all wrote Mimes. (Cocteau wrote three). Mime could be found in film from Children of Paradise to 2001 Odyssey. And just about every TV variety show had some form of Mime from Red Skelton to Jackie Gleason to Dick Van Dyke.

So how did we go from that popularity to such negativity? I think people looked at mime and saw only the illusions. People thought, "I can do that. Nothing to it."

One of the best known mimes is the creation of an imaginary wall. The performer uses his hands to create a solid barrier that can be thought of and seen as a wall. Marcel's piece The Cage begins with him 'making the wall' to show that he is trapped inside 'a cage' but a wall has no emotion. A wall is just there. However, how would you feel if the only thing between you and a hungry lion was the wall? Or how would you feel if you were hungry and the wall stood between you and a feast? Your emotions would be different. Many people who wanted to be mimes did not learn this basic concept, they only learnt that tightening the muscles in the arm creates a solid wall.

What made Marceau's The Cage so powerful was not the 'making' of the wall but the emotion of being trapped within the cage. When Marceau built that imaginary wall, the audience felt what it was like to be trapped. It was not the Wall that made that piece; it was the emotion of the person being trapped in side.

Mime is often associated with those street performers who use these simple illusions but ignore the emotion so people began to think of mime as a poor art and turned away. How would an audience react if they went to several piano concerts and all they heard were variations of Chop Sticks? Before long, audiences would think that the piano is a very poor art. This is what I think happened to Mime. So today people think that Mime is only simple illusions and do not realize that true Mime is so much more. And, that they do not realize that they see Mime all the time, that the images of Mime are part of our culture. Painting, literature, theatre, dance and film all use the images of Mime. The first 18 minutes of one the classic films of the 20th century, 2001 a space odyssey, is all mime, performed by a well-trained mime. Mime is important to humans; it has been since ancient Greece. There must be more to Mime for it to be one of the oldest arts known to man. We just need to help people understood this.

Have you noticed a difference in the way children and adults respond to mime?

If you perform Mime, as it should be, one can reach both children and adults with visuals that appeal to each. The reaction is the same. However, children do have a more open mind to see more, if you provide images that are within their experience. When this is done, their response is true and honest. If they do not like something, they will tell you. Adults, unfortunately, will sit and watch something they do not like. The key, to my thinking, is to reach their imagination and take them to a new place. This is what we attempt to do with each performance. One reason our production, "Fantasmia", is so successful is because of this. We have had comments from audience where children and adults have enjoyed the program, each at their own level. We are all mimes, but we lose the child in us as we grow up. The idea of "Fantasmia" is about recapturing that spark of imagination that we have lost.

And one last question. What's with the "T" in T. Daniel?  What does it stand for?
My standard answer is: the "T" does not stand for anything, it is very intolerant.

Read more about T. Daniel's work with mime. 

University of the Ghetto