By S. Leigh Ann Cowan
Contrary to some assumptions, mime and sign language are not the same. Perhaps what people are noticing is one major similarity between mime performances and signed languages such as American Sign Language (ASL): Both are visual methods of communicating ideas. That’s about all they have in common. The key difference? One is a language. The other is not. Let’s get into it.
First, what is mime performance?
Basically, this is a silent staged performance where the actor tells a story using only their body and its postures, gestures, and facial expressions (Sokołowski 59; Knight 15). Mime borrows from traditions of dance and theater across the world, though the French have done a lot of work popularizing their own mime culture. To this day when we think of mimes, we generally imagine this:
Mimes don’t always wear white face paint and gloves. That’s more necessary to performing in front of a large audience, adding contrast so the people farther back can see them. Street performers who pose as statues are also mime artists!
We contrast mime performance with signed literature, which has its own historical context and style.
ASL literature arises from community gatherings. When the deaf community comes together to discuss ideas and share diverse perspectives, a ton of information spreads (Peters 39). These spaces promote the transmission of art and literature. Think of it like back in the olden days before technology made it easy to share news and stories. You learned these things by going to a gathering with the people who experienced it or heard about it from someone else. Unlike many spoken languages, which can be recorded, transcribed, and printed, ASL is primarily a visual language that loses some of its dynamics when filmed. ASL literary productions are dependent on a signing audience that sees the stories at deaf gatherings and take them home. When someone repeats a story, the narrative can change and result in variations of the same story (Peters 41). But variation is not necessarily a bad thing. Hearing people too can listen to a story and share it in their own words and style, hence the variations in some stories like urban legends. An example of variation in ASL literature is the popular Deaf King Kong joke, which you can watch here.
For a transcript of the joke, please click here.
So while both signed literature and mime performance are forms of expression, they have different purposes and audiences. Essentially, signed language is a language with a unique grammar, a tool people use to communicate every day. While signed stories can include mimetic properties, they operate within the cultural context of the language. In signed literature, understanding the story is dependent on the audience’s fluency. The audience must be able to understand, for example, when a hand represents something other than a hand, like a tree or a foot. Signers tend to remain stationary on stage, using the hands to represent movements through space, while mimes utilize the entire stage to show that movement (Sutton-Spence 459 – 60). (Notice in the Deaf King Kong joke how the performers are standing in one place. Contrast this with the examples below!) Mime is a performance using techniques that aim to be universally understandable. The audience’s understanding of a mime performance depends on their ability to make connections between what the mime is acting out and their experiences. That is, a mime playing basketball depends on the audience having experienced or seen a basketball game.
Want to know more about the differences between signed literature and mime? Check out these YouTube videos: “Deaf Mime: What Is The Difference Between ASL And Mime?”, featuring deaf mime James “JJ” Jones, and a 1980s short film “Deaf Like Me,” in which a deaf girl learns to express herself through mime performance.
Now that we’ve made the distinction between signed literature and mime performances, we can see examples of deaf mimes in action. Each of these performances is filmed in front of a live audience, showcasing the interactive nature of visual storytelling. Carlos, for example, interacts by waving to his audience and encouraging them to wave back, making an extended game of it. Maria humorously flirts, gesturing at an audience member to call her after the show.
Note: The embedded videos are only short clips from the original videos. If the embedded video does not play, use the hyperlink under the still to view the clip on YouTube. To see the full performance, click the heading for each section.
Carlos finds a small ball on the ground and picks it up, only to get in a little over his head as the ball keeps growing!
Carlos demonstrates an important feature of the silent narrative: changes in body language and expression. The transitions between his entrapment and freedom skillfully and seamlessly reinforce the narrative’s sequences.
Example 2: “Deaf Nena Mime (#3)”
Maria performs two different stories at a deaf convention: first, a day in the life of a girl, and the second featuring personified props. We will focus on a clip from the second half of her performance. Maria pulls an invisible object out of a paper bag and tosses it in the air. It plops back into the bag—until it decides to go rogue.
The striking feature of this skit is Maria’s use of a prop: the paper bag. While most mimes rely solely on manipulating imaginary objects, she uses a mixture of tangible and invisible objects to tell her story. Her choice to personify the invisible ball rather than the paper bag is also interesting because it personalizes something abstract rather than concrete.
Example 3: “Mime Performance”
I chose this video specifically because it was filmed in northern India. These young men’s mime performance shows that international audiences can understand and enjoy the narrative. We’ll focus on their first skit! Here, a man buys and eats a banana, much to the misfortune of a passerby.
One remarkable aspect of this skit is their use of freeze frame. While these performers are representing one scene of continuous movement across the stage, the end product more resembles a comic strip that progressively unfolds the story, giving the audience a chance to look back on the cause and effect.
What do these deaf mimes’ performances mean for the deaf community and signed literature? Since mime performance is an art form more universally understood, it creates space for the deaf artist to gain more recognition from a mainstream audience. Perhaps a less obvious benefit is that many families of deaf people don’t sign, or they have a home communication system that does not match the deaf community’s language. This can be either by choice or due to a lack of support and resources to learn signed languages. Mime performances, such as the one put one by the students, allow for nonsigning family members and friends not only to enjoy the show, but to connect to the performers. The interactivity between the audience and the performer fosters storytelling between languages by simply removing language.
Hernandez, Maria. “Deaf Nena Mime (#3) 8-1-12.” YouTube, 9 Aug. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAN3piqr3Sg.
Knight, Richard. Mime the Gap: Techniques in Mime and Movement. Crowood, 2018.
Martínez, Carlos. “The Little Ball (Full version) by Spanish mime actor Carlos Martínez.” YouTube, 19 Mar. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DVRQHV260o.
“Mime Performance.” YouTube, uploaded by Noida Deaf Society, 3 Mar. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d59cV8zKLdw.
Peters, Cynthia. Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon. Gallaudet University Press, 2009.
Sokołowski, Marek. “Silent Comedians. The Olsztyn Pantomime of Deaf (1957–2009): In Search of a New Aesthetic of Expression.” The Art and Science of Television, vol. 15, no. 3, 2019, pp. 57–72, doi:10.30628/1994-9529-2019-15.3-57-72.
Sutton-Spence, Rachel. “Deaf Gain and Creativity in Signed Literature.” Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity, edited by H-Dirksen L. Bauman, and Joseph J. Murray. University of Minnesota Press, 2014, pp. 457 – 77.