Contemporary mime—evolving from the 1811 artistry of Paris acrobat Jean-Gaspard Baptiste Deburau and the ancient Greeks before him--is a performing art which uses the physical skills of balance and movement for artistic storytelling. What distinguishes mime from acting in a play is that mime actors are non-speaking. Mime performers are characterized by their sophisticated clown-white face makeup, often with a single black tear, and black Charlie Chaplin-esque costumes.
This overarching pantomime type refers to performance that is without predetermined structure. There is no defined plot, and no single character in this style. Its goal is to evoke emotion or make the observer think.
Literal mime tells a story. It is typically scripted in the mind of the performer or written out prior to performance. While it is always part of a mime performance to elicit emotion, this form has at least one character and a plot with a beginning, middle and end.
This style of mime includes both scripted and spontaneous sections. Because mime is a performance art much like movie or play acting, it includes comedy, romance, drama, mystery and any other genre of cinematic or stage art.
Ancient Greek and Roman Mime
Pantomime is first recorded as an art form called "hypotheses" in ancient Greece. The ancient actors wore masks and performed stories of everyday life for audiences that were sometimes thousands strong. Roman and Greek pantomimes also integrated dance into their performances.
In the 1700s, mime was part of what were called “entertainments,” snippets of performance before or after a main production, such as a play or concert. Referred to as “panto,” it combined Italian street-performance acrobatics with music and slapstick. This style was very strong on character development and storytelling.
Silent pantomime’s identity as a specific art form is credited to Deburau who brought melodrama and staging to the performance of mime. In 1923 another Frenchman, Jacques Copeau, opened a theater arts school where he used mime to improve acting skills. Early French mime was characterized by being somewhat grim, and then evolved into movement theater where emotion of all types is important and the plot less so.
Begun in 1952 by Paul J. Curtis, American mime is antithetical to French mime in that it is more about play-writing in preparation for the performance; the character development is paramount and melodrama sublimated. Curtis also brought dance, which had not played much of a role in French mime, back into the American art form.