My first decent high school job was with a mime troupe called Shenanigans, founded by Darren Millinger. It started with him and his brother doing birthday parties. Word got around that they were pretty good. So they made up business cards, landed a couple of street fairs, including the 1988 Superman Celebration in Cleveland, and before anyone could beat the shit out of them, they were making decent money at corporate events. I was a freshman, but one day after Thespian Club I spontaneously did a funny routine where I took a rope and pretended to hang myself. Everybody laughed except Darren, who praised my technique. Darren was a gangly six two and had curly blond hair and an interdental lisp. He took me aside and explained that Shenanigans needed a third person. Steve Weiner had been begging, but Darren thought a girl might make the business seem less gay. So he hired me.
Darren was the most serious person I had ever met. His standards for a teenage mime troupe were colossal and utopian. To him this wasn’t just clowning around. At his house he had bootleg videos of Etienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau and a tattered book of exercises he’d found in a thrift shop. His brother Andrew, who’d been adopted from Vietnam, was more laid-back, and I would have developed a crush on him but, even in a mime troupe named Shenanigans, there wasn’t time for feelings like that. On weekends Darren led us through demanding exercises on the subtle differences in levels of muscular tension. We talked about corporeal articulation, rhythm, interpretation and counterweight—how to push or pull a weight that isn’t there. If I ever mentioned Thespian club, Darren was immediately, ruthlessly dismissive. “What Mrs. Norton teaches is games, music, dress-up, child’s play. We’re stripping it down. Your body is the instrument. If you keep your movements clean and precise, the illusion is real.”
Not long after I joined, the troupe got a really big gig, a fundraiser at an auto museum. I don’t remember what the funds were being raised for. I just remember a cavernous museum with shiny model cars, grown-ups drinking wine and eating hors d’oeuvres off trays, and me, Darren, and Andrew in black leotards and black trousers, with white gloves, and white-face, cutting up the crowds. “It’s a silent auction,” Debbie the organizer explained when she greeted us. “No pun intended!” Our job was to float around the floor and keep people moving, presumably towards the sign-up tables where they bid on orchestra tickets, power mowers, golfing trips.
“These are just rich people looking to have a good time, but remember, we are artists,” Darren said as we entered the dusty brown anteroom where we’d been invited to stow our backpacks. The three of us stood in the only kind of circle three people can stand in—basically a triangle—and warmed up. So many “illusions” depend on how you separate a limb or a set of muscles from the rest of your body. Like the imaginary wall trick—as you flex to isolate the hand, the slightest movement affects your wrist, elbow, and shoulder. So we took the warm-ups very seriously. We isolated, we isolated. We imagined a vertical axis running from our heads down our spines to our feet, like a string, and then we imagined somebody cutting the string, and the three of us fell straight down on the floor like marionettes. Debbie peeked her head in just as we all had puddled to the floor. “Folks are arriving. You kids okay?”
Darren never talked to outsiders once he was in full make-up. He nodded.
It was Saturday night. The previous Saturday night I had spent in Kim Shorrock’s bedroom, listening to music and defacing our junior high yearbook. Standing at the entrance to the gallery, looking around at all the tuxedos and fancy dresses, hearing the roar of the party, I felt as if I had somehow arrived. With a sweeping gesture, Darren indicated that the three of us should split up to work the room. Off I went, looking for a target. I was nervous for about three seconds.
There are so many jokes about people hating mimes, but I wasn’t really a mime, I was a fifteen-year-old girl in white face. And when people saw me coming, they either lit up and played with me, or they got uncomfortable and pretended I wasn’t there. Either way was workable because the longer somebody ignored me, the more fun I could have, standing beside them and imitating the various ways they had a stick up their ass. Mime was the perfect job for a teenager.
There was also a lot to work with at the auto museum. I did a double take at a 1939 Lincoln Zephyr Convertible, as if it were about to mow me down, and broke into a stationary run, accelerating from light to heavy. I pretended to ride a bicycle and then slowly lost control, my face extended in horror as I crashed into a 1900 Benz. After a while, I was feeling pretty high on the hog. Occasionally I’d glance around and see Andrew pulling rope, or Darren climbing a ladder, and think, “They’re stale, I’m better than these guys.” But at some point, there was a lull, and that’s when the guy came over. He was a plump white guy, about forty, without a jacket, just a vest and bow tie. He had a head like an anvil and there was something unusually rangy about his walk.
“Hey mime girl.”
I gave him a cheery wave.
“What’s the matter, cat got your tongue? Oh I get it. No talky. Not even for me?”
I struck a series of attitudes, but the guy was bored. “Do they pay you to do this dumb shit? How much do they pay you? Maybe when you grow up, you can get a real job.” He said a few more things like that. He sighed and waggled his fingers goodbye. A little maliciously, I slipped behind him as he made for a waiter with an appetizer tray and imitated his walk, strange and loping. A few women laughed; he looked over his shoulder and glared, but kept walking. I was so pleased with the laughs I didn’t realize he was leading me away from the main gallery. We ended up in a side room where there was only a 1915 Ford Model T Coupelet, with ropes all around it and signs that said “DO NOT TOUCH.” He put his wine glass on the louvered hood and spun around.
“I guess you like me.”
I articulated a very clear no with head and neck.
“I can tell you do. Why don’t you and I have a little fun? Do you know what I mean by fun? You don’t have to answer, mime girl.”
He reached out and grabbed my breasts. Then he grabbed my crotch. I managed to spring back, but I didn’t say anything. (Part shock, part fear, part professional hazard?) He had a smirk on his face, like he knew he could do whatever he wanted with me and I wouldn’t make a sound. “You’re going to say something when you feel the size of this,” he said, unzipping his pants.
I kept my face neutral but mimed looking for something in my pockets. Pat, pat, pat, and then I stopped—there!—as my hands made contact with an imaginary object. Then I inclined my neck, chest, waist, pelvis and legs, until I looked like I was on the edge of falling. My technique was good, and the guy stopped, despite himself. “Girl on a precipice,” he said. Slowly I wrestled myself back into balance, pointed the object at him, and with a slow vibrating movement, pulled the heavy trigger of my imaginary gun.
Without a cry, he fell to the marble floor.
From the next room came the dull rumble of the party. Darren and Andrew, who had noticed me missing in action, bounded into the room, their hands sculpted around imaginary binoculars. When they saw the guy, their arms shot into the air in surprise. I was in shock, but I acted out my explanation— hands extended, pelvic thrust, I slightly exaggerated the threat to get across the main idea—and Darren and Andrew mimed Horror. They mimed Outrage. Then they did a thing that I will always feel grateful for, because I know what breaking illusions meant to them. “I’ll take his arms, you guys take his legs,” Darren said. We swung the guy into the upholstered backseat of the Model Ford. Darren arranged his limbs so it seemed the man had climbed in and passed out there. Andrew hovered a finger an inch above his chest and checked for blood.
None. But his eyes were closed, his breathing growing faint. Andrew wrapped an imaginary blanket around my shivering shoulders. Darren poured me an imaginary shot of whiskey, and I tossed it back. There was another hour left in the gig, but we couldn’t go out onto the floor again. So we stood in the only kind of circle three people can stand in—basically a triangle—and did a few exercises to focus. As the guy breathed his last rasps, we isolated our heads from our necks, our wrists from our arms, our heads from our hearts.
Sara Levine is the author of the novel TREASURE ISLAND!!! and SHORT DARK ORACLES.