East Mime Company breaks ‘out of the box’

The Cherry Hill High School East MIme Company rehearses a scene on Wednesday, March 11. From left to right: Senior Jackson Feudtner acts out a scene where he pretends to be a dog with senior Liam Reilly as his owner. Senior Nala Jackson acts as owner to junior Carlee Bystrycki (on floor) who is also pretending to be a dog in the scene.

What comes to mind when you hear the word mime?

It’s probably someone with a painted white face pretending he’s trapped in a box. At Cherry Hill High School East, the students have put a different spin on miming.

Yes, the school’s East Mime Company wordlessly performs and their faces are painted white at showtime, but the troupe of students carefully creates, writes and acts out skits centered around ironic situations. From imagining what might happen if mimes were dogs to acting out a scenario where a piece of already chewed gum makes its way through a movie theater, the mimes’ goal is a simple one: to spread smiles and laughter. 

The company has been in existence for more than 30 years, and this year, Debbie Barr became the club’s advisor, taking over for her predecessor, Tom Weaver, who had chaired the company since its inception. Barr was in the troupe herself when she attended East in the ‘90s. 

“I don’t know how many schools have this, but I don’t think many – if any –  really do something like this; it’s pretty special and unique,” she said. 

Each year, the troupe performs for the Cherry Hill Elementary Schools, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were slated to perform for A. Russell Knight, James Johnson,  Horace Mann and Woodcrest elementary schools on April 1.

At the beginning of the school year, the company holds auditions, during which it pairs a current mime with an auditioner. From there, group members test the auditioner’s ability to act, take direction and emote. From there, they whittle the company down to around 20.

Barr said unlike traditional acting, where “less is more,” miming centers on “bigger is better.” She explained her goal is to get students “out of their box” and to let it all go. 

Barr said miming asks students to draw on a different set of skills. While in traditional acting  actors may listen for a line, miming requires the students to watch carefully and connect with the other people in the scene without using their words. If one mime pretends to throw a mime in another’s face, the second mime better be ready to respond.

The students will have brainstorming days where everyone comes up with a variety of scenarios. Senior Liam Reilly, one of the company’s managers, said the company starts with a simple idea – like how a mime might go through a drive-thru if he or she can’t speak – and builds  from there.

Barr noted that as the students write their skits, they always look for the ironic ending – a key component of mime. They work collaboratively on their pieces and join together to ensure the pacing keeps audiences engaged.

When learning how to mime, one of the most difficult hurdles is consistency. Barr said when you mime putting something on a shelf, you need to remember where that shelf is. If it started at chest height, and then, it’s suddenly at waist height, the illusion is destroyed.

Senior Jackson Feudtner, co-manager with Reilly, said miming has opened him up to a whole new experience of expression. He explained that for most actors, the voice is the primary emotive tool, but when it’s stripped away, they become more attuned to their body language. He said overall, mime has honed his acting skills. 

“I just feel like I’ve grown and blossomed as an actor,” Feudtner said. “It’s also made me a funnier person. I know how to make jokes; I know what lands and what doesn’t.”

Reilly said there’s a special connection that develops when the mime group performs. Because they’re utilizing nonverbal communication, people who may struggle with physical or mental barriers can still feel like they’re part of the fun. 

“It’s such a bridge,” he said.