Mime recalls mentorship with master Marcel Marceau

  • Rob Mermin, who lives in Vermont, speaks at the Shelburne Fellowship Hall on Sunday. Mermin spent his career as a performing mime and was mentored by the French master Marcel Marceau. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2020 8:35:37 AM

SHELBURNE — Rob Mermin still remembers being transfixed when, in 1965, he saw the great French mime Marcel Marceau on television.

It turned out to be one of the key events in Mermin’s life, and led to him devoting his life to the art of mime. On Sunday at the Shelburne Fellowship Hall, Mermin, who lives in Vermont, told stories from his time traveling Europe as a performing mime, and about his long relationship with Marceau, as part of his touring lecture series, “Adventures in Mime and Space.”

Marceau was world famous from the late 1950s through the end of the 20th century. Mermin called him one of only two mimes who achieved such stature in the 20th century. The first, in the first half of the century, was Charlie Chaplin. In the second half, it was Marceau.

In those times, Mermin emphasized, mime was seen as a high art. It wasn’t until later that its reputation fell, when unskilled imitators of Marceau began to appear in city streets, wearing painted white faces and affecting blunt imitations of pedestrians. One reason that Mermin is now giving lectures on mime, he said, is to help renew interest in it as a legitimate art form.

Fittingly, Mermin’s first meeting with Marceau came about through an act of mimicry. In 1969, Mermin drove through an ice storm to Madison, Wis., to see Marceau in performance. When he got there, he said, he found it was sold out. Instead of giving up, he snuck around the building, found an unlocked door and slipped in.

A man inside saw him and said, “Are you here to help?” Mermin, improvising, said yes. They had been setting up chairs backstage to see Marceau. Mermin played along, and saw the whole show from backstage.

At the bottom of his program was a short mention that Marceau was opening a mime school in Paris. When Mermin got home, he sent an application, and was accepted to the school’s first semester ever that fall.

That began a mentorship that lasted until Marceau’s death in 2007. Now, Mermin believes Marceau taught not only a form of performance, but a kind of “metaphysical thinking,” an understanding of how human beings interact with the world.

“What I got from Marceau is that mime is the basis of all art,” he said.

The technical problem that all serious mimes face is of how to represent an object that isn’t there. Marceau taught his students to not only imagine the physical object itself, but to identify with it completely, Mermin said. For example, he said, to properly portray an apple, the mime must understand the tree the apple grew on, the farmer who picked it, the market where it was sold.

“The more I identify with it, the more you do,” Mermin said.

Mermin later studied with Marceau’s master, Etienne Decroux, who had developed many of the techniques that later became iconic of pantomime. Mermin recalled him as brilliant, but also as a “taskmaster” with an intense teaching style.

The class spent days at a time doing nothing but miming as if dusting a table.

“Students dropped out of class, but I knew he was up to something,” Mermin said. Then one day, Decroux instructed the class to mime as if reaching for a box on a shelf; Mermin found that all the movements of the arm had been perfected by dusting the table.

Mermin traveled through Europe as a performing mime, achieving some fame in the Scandinavian countries because of his partner, a mime named Rufus who happened to be a dog. Their most famous act involved Mermin miming as if eating a meal and tossing scraps to Rufus, who would take them, chew and swallow.

“We established this communication,” Mermin said. “I would be projecting this image into space, and I think Rufus could understand that image.”

Unlike many performers, Mermin did not continue to take classes throughout his entire career. He did maintain a relationship with Marceau, but he rarely sought critique from his old master. Instead, he said, he was learning how to be an artist, how to see “the mime’s eye worldview.”

Four years ago Mermin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which affects a person’s ability to control their movements. Common symptoms may be tremors, or an arm that doesn’t swing while walking. To deal with the symptoms, Mermin has used the miming techniques he learned from Marceau — identifying completely with something that isn’t there. If, for example, an arm isn’t swinging normally, he said, he analyzes the proper movement and visualizes it, and it begins to happen as if on its own.

“I’m coming full circle,” he said, “from being a 19-year-old student of Marceau to using the art of mime in a different way.”

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