The late Marcel Marceau, in an April 2003 appearance at the Lobero Theatre.
David Bazemore

The year is 1972, the place, San Francisco’s Union Square. Our hero is Robert Shields, who has stolen a policeman’s peaked cap and is directing cars through an intersection by yelling through an orange traffic cone. In a black-and-white military jacket and white face makeup, Shields looks like a modern-day Marcel Marceau. But this mime is far from silent, and he’s attracting a crowd.

At the very same moment that Shields is being arrested for causing a public disturbance, another mime artist is just around the corner, teaching a class on physical theater technique. His name is James Donlon. As negotiations in Vietnam fail and Northern Ireland erupts into chaos, two of the most talented young movement theater artists in America are waging their own battle against mediocre mime everywhere.

The Passing of a Mime Idol

Fast forward 35 years, and Donlon and Shields are about to have a reunion. This weekend’s Festival of Fools-produced by longtime UCSB theater professor Donlon and Jeff Mills of Santa Barbara’s Boxtales Theatre Company, with Shields as visiting artist-was conceived as a way to inspire younger generations with the magic of an art form that has lain relatively dormant for decades. The organizers’ intention to revitalize the art of physical theater has led them to consider the festival a tribute to Marceau, the Parisian mime artist credited with reviving the art in the post-WWII era, when it had been eclipsed for more than two decades by the silent film industry.

Donlon and Mills invited Marceau, who had performed at the Lobero Theatre multiple times and had reputedly considered opening a school here, to attend the festival as a guest of honor, but he was unable to travel due to illness. Nevertheless, a panel discussion on the great mime’s influence on comedy was scheduled, the presentation of a “Marcel Marceau Living Masters Award” was planned, and the festival’s closing night of vaudeville performances was dedicated to his legacy. Physical theater workshops were held with high school students in anticipation of the event, and a teenage “Mime Idol” competition, inspired by reality TV shows, was planned. Promotional material was distributed, the weekend’s lineup was set, and rehearsals were in full swing. Then, on Saturday, September 22, at the age of 84, Marceau passed away in Paris.

The death of the world’s greatest mime casts new light on the festival dedicated to celebrating his contributions. Speaking on the phone from his home in Sedona, Arizona, Shields was subdued. “This is terrible,” said the one-time protege of Marceau. “It’s a fantastic loss to the theater world. He was a brilliant man, and a true innovator of this art form. When he was in his prime, he was the best mime in the world.” When asked how Marceau’s death would affect his performance in Santa Barbara, Shields spoke earnestly. “It deepens it,” he said. “He was so good to me-he completely supported me and believed in me. He treated me like his own-I was just 19 years old when he took me into his company; he thought I was the best in the world.”

Not Just a Walk in the Wind

Just days earlier, Shields’s tone was markedly different-an enthusiastic promoter of the art of mime in general and of his own work in particular, he was polite but defiant when it came to a discussion of Marceau’s legacy. “I went to Paris with Marcel Marceau-I lived in his home-and I couldn’t take it any more after a while,” Shields said. “I was the Lenny Bruce of mime; I was a renegade. I would imitate society as I saw it, and it wasn’t always pretty. I wanted to take it and put it on the street. Marcel was very upset. In Paris, everyone was walking against the wind and pulling flowers. In San Francisco, I became the first rock ‘n’ roll mime. I opened for the Rolling Stones, Herbie Hancock, Tower of Power, Miles Davis, and the Grateful Dead. I was radical. I’d flip the bird; I’d peel a banana and turn into a monkey, and the crowd would go wild.”

From his work on the streets, Shields rose to national prominence with the popular TV program, CBS’s Shields and Yarnell, going on to perform in Las Vegas and on Broadway. He is credited with creating both the “moonwalk” that became one of Michael Jackson’s signature dance moves, and the jerky, robotic body isolations that breakdancers now call “popping and locking.” As far as he is concerned, the art of mime is the pinnacle of creativity and physicality, and also involves some degree of social commentary. Public misconceptions exasperate him; though he continues to perform on occasion, he has turned his attention to visual art, where he’s relieved not to have to defend his work. “A good mime is a gymnast, a dancer, an actor, a comedian, and a clown,” Shields insisted, lamenting, “you can’t even say ‘mime’ anymore. The name is death. It’s like saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to blow up balloon animals.’ What the fuck? Even I don’t want to sit through that!”

You’ve Got to Be Good

Just like back in the San Francisco days, Donlon’s tone is as measured as Shields’s is manic, yet both men are looking for ways to transmit the power of mime to modern audiences. Over lunch at Savoy Cafe just days before Marceau’s passing, Donlon acknowledged that the role of the mime in society had changed since Marceau’s heyday, and spoke of a rift between generations of physical theater artists. “There are no festivals of physical theater in the U.S. anymore,” he noted. “There’s my generation, and then there’s a big black hole between about 1984 and 2007, with very few people getting experience in this art form.” For Donlon, the magic of mime lies in its power to transform human beings. “Any audience that sees good physical theater comes away feeling incredibly positive about life,” he said. “You have to be really good to do this. To train in this art form you have to be an athlete-not only physically, but an athlete of the heart. The mime is the consummate physical master of space, and the ultimate improvisational artist; there is no editor.”

Robert Shields working the crowd at Union Square, San Francisco, circa 1971.
Courtesy Photo

Like Shields, Donlon sees himself as part of Marceau’s lineage; one of his most influential teachers, the Swiss clown Dimitri, was a student of Marceau’s. He sees the influence of physical theater as widespread in our culture, citing Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey as successful modern clowns, but he also feels the reputation of mime and clowning has suffered from too many amateur attempts. “A lot of people misunderstand mime,” he said. “It’s not just silent performance. The striped shirt and floppy shoes is just one style. It’s such an eclectic art form; it’s very hard to describe it. I once asked Marceau what advice he’d give to a young physical theater artist. All he said was, ‘Be good.'”

The Art that Knows No Bounds

It’s easy for experts like Donlon and Shields to say what makes for bad mime; it’s harder for them to express the true heart of their art form, which unsurprisingly seems to transcend words. In describing the inspiration and the history of mime, Donlon spoke of the art form’s predecessors: Kabuki, Noh, and Butoh theater in Japan, Commedia dell’Arte in Italy, the work of Molire in France and Shakespeare in England, and even the comedies and tragedies of ancient Greece. Jeff Mills, who recently took over Donlon’s position as resident movement and performance instructor in the Department of Theater and Dance at UCSB, sees the power of mime at work every time he leads a physical theater workshop with young people. “They’re all hungry to express something,” Mills reflected, “to play like little kids again, to get rid of the inundation of media messages. One teenager I worked with wrote a piece about how video games destroy the brain.” “Yeah, my consciousness when I was three, four, five, six, seven, was really no different from now,” Donlon broke in. “It’s about tapping back into that awareness of the world you have always had. Physical theater is a way of getting closer to that again-being amazed by colors and loud sounds, and being really present in your body.” Mills nodded in agreement, adding. “I think it gets a little foggier if you don’t do physical theater.”

The fact that young people respond with such vigor to this work gives Donlon and Mills hope for the future, though what will happen to the art of physical comedy as the last generation of professionally trained mimes ages remains uncertain. Marcel Marceau is gone, but his legacy lives on, and Donlon is optimistic. “I always have thought of movement theater as being very large and versatile,” said Donlon when asked for his thoughts on Marceau’s passing. “Marcel Marceau was a great representative who brought mime to the masses in the last part of the 20th century, but there’s still so much scope for celebrating this theater of the imagination that has no boundaries,” Donlon said. “He always expressed to me that his whole purpose for living was to perform and create. I think his generosity and vision were especially acute in the last years of his life. In an interview a few years ago, he said he felt the art form would grow and flourish again in the 21st century. He hoped others would carry on the tradition and continue to entertain, educate, and inspire others.”

Entertainment, education, and inspiration are exactly what the Festival of Fools plans to deliver. If Donlon, Mills, and Shields have anything to do with it, the year 2007 will mark more than the death of the world’s greatest mime; it will be the beginning of a renaissance of the boundless art form that Donlon calls “the theater of the imagination,” and that Shields sees as “creativity at the highest level.”


Festival of Fools runs from Thursday, October 4, to Saturday, October 6, and includes performances by Robert Shields, James Donlon, and Boxtales Theatre Company. For a complete schedule, visit For tickets, call 963-0761.


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