Mime as Art Therapy

The silent form of performance can have surprising emotional, social, and cognitive benefits.

For a mime, Julithe Garrett isn’t very quiet. His voice is loud but non-threatening, with a cheerful sing-song quality.

“Alright, alright, let me go around and give high fives to all of you,” Garrett says to the pupils in a class he’s teaching one January afternoon. The seven students studying pantomime—a form of silent, movement-based storytelling—have just finished a physically grueling routine and Garrett is giving them a five-minute breather.

With slicked-back dark hair and a stocky build, he doesn’t fit the image typically conjured by the word “mime”: the iconic Marcel Marceau, with his white-painted face, sad eyes, and sinewy dancer’s body that moved in eel-like lines. Garrett seems more earthbound, but when he demonstrates movement to his students, his hands swoosh and flutter with warm expressiveness.

“What if we dance to a little bit of Michael Jackson?” Garrett asks. At the mere mention of the name, the students smile and a few clap their hands. Many in the class had presented pantomime acts that Garrett choreographed to Jackson’s songs during a tribute to the singer at The Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston’s premiere performance venue back in November. A life-sized cardboard cutout of Jackson stands in the back of the room, seeming to look on with approval.

The students hold black fedoras up to their heads while Israel Lopez, 31, the day’s “music director,” cranks up Beat It on the sound system.

The students become the band. Zachery Hatcher, 25, excitedly slides his fingers up and down the neck of an air guitar. William Mason, 23, slams invisible drumsticks against a nonexistent snare. Several students moonwalk across the floor. Once the song is finished, the group bursts into laughter, faces flushed.

The bi-weekly workshop for adults with Down syndrome, now in its third year, gives students who seldom have a public platform a chance to share their talents on stage, parents of the participants say.

Parents of children with Down syndrome often hear teachers and employers underestimating their children’s abilities, says Brenda Bearden, a volunteer at the Down Syndrome Association of Houston (DSAH), which hosts the class. Her daughter Kristan, 25, has been enrolled for the past two years. The program provides a rare chance for the students to be part of something—but more than that, she says, “it has built my daughter’s confidence so much.”

Mime is also building Kristan’s and her classmates’ communication skills, and for those whose verbal capacity is more limited, it also provides a means of expression. These classes suggest that the much-maligned art of mime may still be good for more than just a game of charades.

*  *  *

It may seem easy to laugh at silent green-faced Central Park performers dressed as the Statue of Liberty, but Garrett says miming is deceptively complex, requiring the performer to achieve a difficult balance in which the brain and body are in sync.

For the last two decades, Garrett has introduced miming to some of Houston’s most vulnerable communities. He spent most of those years collaborating with his now ex-wife, Eva Szego, a licensed art therapist and psychotherapist. Naming their professional partnership “Breaking Barriers,” the two brought pantomime to therapeutic settings such as a women’s shelter and Szego’s own private practice. Recently separated, the pair are now working independently to see how silent performance can have a profound effect on people not often given the chance to express themselves creatively.

Garrett first met Szego in 1994 at a community event for Central American immigrants, where she was speaking about overcoming loss. It was a vivid topic for many of the immigrants who had left family members behind in their home countries. Szego spoke of her own grief over the recent death of her father. Garrett, who had recently left Mexico with the hope of forging a career as a traveling mime, was moved—his father had also just passed away—and approached Szego afterward. When she found out he was a mime, Szego asked Garrett if he could perform at one of her lectures the following day.

Watching him interact with her patients, Szego was struck by his technique’s visceral impact on the participants: They were more willing to address painful topics through movement than they might have been in a clinical setting.

“My colleagues and I were using all of this psychology, and we could see that people were tuning us out,” she says. “When he performed, the whole audience was just so present.”

Impressed, Szego asked Garrett to develop pantomime exercises to address concepts around other lectures she and her colleagues were planning for recent immigrants, on issues like alcoholism and family schisms.

This experience opened Garrett’s eyes to possibilities beyond performing, while Szego embraced the idea of nonverbal therapy. Later that year, they joined one of Szego’s colleagues on an art therapy presentation in Houston and soon began to work together more regularly. Along the way, their friendship eventually blossomed into romance, and the two married in 2000, around the same time they formed “Breaking Barriers.”

Garrett says it was initially intimidating to enter the therapy field. He does not possess Szego’s clinical expertise, and has found himself in positions where people open up about their past experiences in the same way they would to a trained therapist. Szego says that while Garrett isn’t disciplined enough for the academic training required of a clinical therapist, he nevertheless has a natural affinity for this work.

In the 18 years since their partnership began, they’ve presented at art therapy conferences across the country. While movement has long been used by art therapists, Garrett and Szego’s pantomime work originally stood out, though it’s since gained greater acceptance within certain corners of this field. Mavericks at first, they are now part of the wider art therapy fold.

*  *  *

Garrett came to DSAH in January 2009. The timing was perfect: Alejandra Lima, the association’s new executive director, was looking to add young-adult education to her roster and knew arts courses would be a big attraction.

Down syndrome, or trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder that results from the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21. Symptoms vary from moderate to severe intellectual disabilities and growth defects. Some individuals are nonverbal, while others are very sociable. Similarly, some can hold jobs, while others need to be monitored by a guardian. This variability makes a pantomime troupe difficult to lead, but Garrett works patiently with his students, adjusting the flow of his classes to deal with short attention spans and frequent outbursts, and Lima has seen the students make great strides by being part of a program that allows them to be social and creative.

The 15-week class has been one of DSAH’s most popular offerings, causing Lima and Garrett to cap enrollment at about 15 to ensure individualized attention.

Lima is personally connected to her advocacy work—her 13-year-old son has Down syndrome. Since she started at DSAH, the number of registered members has grown from 700 to nearly 2,000. It’s a huge increase that she says can be attributed partly to programs like Garrett’s. Lima sees no limit to its appeal.

“We say ‘One day, the White House.’ We want this to go national,” she says.

*  *  *

Garrett and Szego aren’t the first to use mime for purposes beyond pure performance. Mime Jan Bronk and otolaryngologist Pieter Devriese brought miming to the physiotherapy world in the 1970s and 1980s—the two men devised a way to introduce mime to patients with restricted facial movement or a lack of facial muscle control.

A mime’s face has to convey emotions broadly to spectators sitting in the front row, and in the farthest stretches of a mezzanine. Bronk and Devriese asked patients to make these exaggerated expressions as a means of easing their symptoms. For instance, an individual with Bell’s palsy could loosen up his facial muscles through contortions. Their work was observed with skepticism until 2003, when a research team from the Netherlands reached a breakthrough in treating synkinesis, a condition in which an individual experiences quick, involuntary facial movements. The researchers found that mime therapy had tangible effects, with facial improvements holding stable a full year after a patient had completed his or her treatment.

Other studies look at how movement impacts the brain. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, a computer engineer at the University of Houston, and Karen Bradley, chair of the University of Maryland’s graduate dance program—who met at a flamenco dance class—have been working on a project called “Your Brain on Dance,” which measures how the brain responds to movement. They studied dancers who were hooked up to electroencephalography technology, examining what parts of the brain were stimulated the most during specific movements.

“You often think of the motor cortex as the sole location of movement in the brain,” Bradley says. “But look at something like flamenco, which is an improvisational form. Our research shows that this kind of artistic movement also engages the frontal lobe, which is where decision-making happens.” Previous neurological research has also shown how movement stimulates the reasoning part of the brain and facilitates learning.

Vidal-Contreras adds that it is easy for scientists to dismiss the tangible neurological impact of the arts. But the expressive shifts that a dancer makes engage both sides of the brain. Dancing to Beat It is more than just fun; it involves a complex negotiation between the brain and the body. Parents of Garrett’s students—many of whom lament public education systems that automatically placed their children in remedial courses—see how the troupe may be giving their kids’ brains a workout they don’t get anywhere else.

*  *  *

Though separated, Garrett and Szego’s work continues: Szego recently submitted a draft of an academic paper on her work with Garrett to an art therapy journal, while Garrett, who has also brought his talents to settings as diverse as a children’s cancer ward and a body-language workshop for police officers, continues his partnership with DSAH.

Looking ahead, Garrett aspires to nurture his performing career, but says it would be difficult to walk away from the hospitals and schools that have been his creative home.

When Garrett steps into the DSAH performance space, the students cheer loudly. “Hello, hello, everyone,” he says, hands waving in the air. The lesson hasn’t started yet, but one of the students squares her shoulders and performs “the robot,” her arms rising up and down in jerky mechanical movements. The other students mill about Garrett chattering excitedly, but this one woman remains focused, like she is on her own personal stage, telling a story without words.