He Has A Way Without Words

March 17, 1995|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

In class with Mark Jaster, body language speaks louder than words.

"Mimes don't use their voices to express themselves," the 39-year-old Rockville resident and visiting artist at Forest Ridge Elementary School in Laurel tells a group of first graders. "We're not doing opera. You don't have to make a sound."

He is one of several artists who hold weeklong residencies at Howard County schools, which receive grants through the county's Art Council and Parent-Teachers Association.

This week, Mr. Jaster traveled to Forest Ridge to perform and to teach some basic mime skills.

"You guys brought all the mime equipment you will ever need," he says, giving the routine introduction he uses for his workshops. "For mime, all you need is your body."

"You need clothes, too," one student blurts back.

"Well, there's no special equipment required," Mr. Jaster says. "I'm going to teach you the techniques you need to know to do mime. What is mime?"

"It's like pretend stuff," 6-year-old Michael Eastman says.

To show agreement, Mr. Jaster responds with a mime: He stretches out his right arm with his palm raised and acts as if he's leaning against an invisible wall, drawing laughter and smiles from the students in the classroom.

"You have to use your imagination," Mr. Jaster says. "What does this remind you of?" he asks as he makes two fists, places them one above the other and pulls down.

"Milking a cow," 7-year-old Vincent Eisinger says.

Mr. Jaster wanted to show that the same motion can illustrate many activities: churning butter, climbing a rope or plunging a toilet.

The key to being a good mime, Mr. Jaster tells them, is to learn how to stop action.

"It wouldn't be clear to the audience if I left out that important stop part."

Pantomime exercises demonstrate his point.

First he squats with his elbows on his knees and puts a bored look on his face. Then he slowly rises when the idea of buying ice cream comes to his mind. But he stops when he realizes he has no money and becomes sad again.

Then he tries digging with an imaginary shovel, stopping when he strikes an imaginary treasure chest that he discovers is filled with gold coins.

Although he talks primarily about body movement, Mr. Jaster weaves in a little grammar: "You have to punctuate mime like you punctuate sentences. If you don't stop, there's no story. That's like a bunch of sentences with no periods, question marks or exclamation points."

Throughout the school day, Mr. Jaster gives his lectures to one class after another.

For the past 10 years, he has visited schools in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, teaching children about his craft and hoping to dispel the myths of a mime being nothing but "a white-faced ninny."

"People would rather see a mime abused . . . than be one," Mr. Jaster said. "So many people's first or only experience with mime is with untrained mimes."

A native of Alexandria, Va., Mr. Jaster learned some of the basics of his craft while in high school. He later studied in Paris, where nTC he was taught by pantomime master Marcel Marceau.

After acting in Washington-area theaters, Mr. Jaster now performs almost exclusively in schools for assemblies and as an artist in residence.

"I think he was good for the little kids," 6-year-old Erin Southard said. "He was funny."

Even after Mr. Jaster announced that his mime short-course came with a homework assignment -- "Go home and show a family member one thing you learned today" -- the children didn't seem to mind.

"The kids just love him," first-grade teacher Kathy Niederhauser said. "He's great."

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