It was The Red Skelton Show in 1965 that not only inspired a young Rob Mermin, but was to determine his future. The great French mime Marcel Marceau joined Skelton, himself a mime as well as comic, in “A Concert in Pantomime” on primetime national television.
“That’s the show that inspired me,” Mermin said. “I was watching that show with my folks and my siblings, I hadn’t seen anything like it. It was one hour of silent acting. There were no words spoken for an entire hour on a Red Skelton variety show.
“And I thought, that is fantastic,” the Montpelier mime and circus artist said recently by phone. “I wonder if I could do that?”
It was a few years later, in 1969, when Mermin was in college, that he saw that Marceau was going to perform live a few hours away. It was winter, and he had to drive through a snowstorm to get to the theater.
“I got there at a quarter of 8, the show was at 8 o’clock, I ran up to the box office — and it was sold out,” Mermin said.
But he had driven three hours to see Marceau perform live, so he managed to find another door into the building.
“I went inside and there was a closet full of winter coats,” Mermin said. “I was pushing the coats aside and the light went on. A guy stood there and said, ‘You here to help?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir! Yes, sir!’”
Marceau’s show was about to start, and the guy asked him to set up some folding chairs at the back of the hall for the staff.
“I helped put up some folding seats and I sat right down,” Mermin said. “It was great!”
The program said that Marceau was opening his first mime school that coming fall.
“So I wrote a letter and I got a form letter back saying that classes start at 10 a.m. at the Theatre de la Musique in Paris. That was it, no audition, no nothing,” Mermin said. “So I showed up — and that started my mentorship with him in 1969.”
Mermin, who went on to a successful career as mime and theater artist, and founder of Vermont’s Circus Smircus, remembers his teacher and mentor in “Adventures in Mime & Space: The Legacy of Marcel Marceau” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Grange Hall Cultural Center in Waterbury Center. Mermin will repeat the program at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12 at the Plainfield Opera House.
Marceau (1923-2007), born Marcel Mangel, has become an icon in the arts, his white-faced visage if not his name familiar worldwide.
“In the 20th century there were two iconic mimes,” Mermin said. “In the first half, of course it was (silent film star Charlie) Chaplin. And in the second half of the century it was Marcel Marceau. Their images were known around the world, Chaplin through film, but Marceau through 50 years of traveling to theaters throughout the world. He would do upward of 300 shows a year in many countries each year. So he is certainly a unique icon of world culture.”
In this tribute to Marceau, and Marceau’s teacher Etienne Decroux, Mermin shares his memories of training with these masters. Mermin explores the metaphors of mime technique and presents rare film clips of Marceau and Decroux teaching, bringing to life the essence of what Marceau called “the silent language of the soul.”
The legacy of Marceau encompasses not only his virtuosity in mime, but also his work in the French Resistance saving Jewish children during World War II. Marceau’s life as artist and humanitarian earned him the respect of the world.
Marceau once told Mermin, “The art of mime is the identification with the essence of all things that surround us, and the portrayal of human thought and emotion through silent physical expression.”
“There’s a lot in that sentence,” Mermin said. “The thing I got out of it was the identification with the essence of all things that surround us. That’s the essence of what I got from his teaching. It actually wasn’t so much the technique, it wasn’t so much the style of acting and the making of illusions in space, and that kind of thing, it was his metaphysical world view.”
There were other classes with other teachers as well, including acrobatics, classical dance, and a fencing class with the French world champion.
“Marceau loved fencing,” Mermin said. “It was really intimidating when Marceau would show up in the fencing class and ask who wanted to fence with him? Not only was he Marcel Marceau, but he was a great fencer.”
Training as a mime with Marceau brought Mermin to look at the world differently.
“I would be noticing every little action I would do, brushing my teeth, washing my face. How was the body moving in real life?” Mermin said.
“The art of mime is not mimicking real life,” Mermin said. “It’s transposing reality. It’s not trying to copy exactly the movements of real life. You could compare it with poetry. It’s not the way you would speak in real life. Mime is the same way. Instead of words, it’s gesture — poetic movement rather than realistic.
“Marceau gave me that sensibility of how to move through the world, not just how to act on stage, but how to observe the world, learn from observation, and move through the world gracefully.”