Clown vs Mime

It’s an epic rivalry of the ages. Such a rivalry as can only exist between siblings. Clowns and mimes share much in common: they are physical, visual, often don’t speak though both can, and both can be performed either on stage or in the street. So what is the difference? Having just made a brief foray into clowning, I am going to take a stab at this question. Probably a foolish thing to do, but hey, we’re talking about people who throw cream pies and get stuck in invisible boxes here, so I’m OK with foolish. As is often the case with art forms, the boundaries are fuzzy with large grey areas of work that could fall in either camp. The most obvious differences are the clown’s penchant for outrageous costumes and squirting flowers, and the mime’s use of illusion to create invisible objects. Based on my experience, I found the answer to also be one of process and focus.

Stage or Street

Both clown and mime can be performed on stage or in the street very successfully, but they are fundamentally based on opposite sides of the 4th wall. Let me first clarify that “street” need not be a litteral street, but any situation where the performer is entering into the audience’s space, where there is no 4th wall, and interacting directly with members of the audience. On stage you may choose to break the 4th wall to address or involve the audience, but that is quite different from not having a wall to break.

The dynamic of the street vs that of the stage is a bit like comparing Guiness and vodka. The latter are both alcohol, both require fermentation, and you drink them both in similar settings. Beyond that, the ingredients and preparation processes are distinct, they are generally imbibed in different types of glasses and I for one have never opted for vodka with my fish and chips. So it is with the street and stage. Both are types of live performance, both require some degree of stylization and presence. But the preparation process for interacting directly with the public – which is like audience participation on steroids – was totally unfamiliar to me as a stage performer. These two styles are suited to different atmospheres, and though there are gags that work for both they require a different presentation.

Which brings me to how this differentiates clowning from mime. Let’s look at clowning first. Clowning is often a combination of stage and street. If you’ve ever been to a classic circus, you’ve likely seen clowns mingling and playing with people in the audience and then later seen these same clowns do a choreographed routine in the ring. For a wonderful example of stage clowning, here’s a little Avner The Eccentric.

I would contend, however, that the heart of clowning lies in the interactive play of the ‘street’. The clown’s focus is on that no-4th-wall situation. The clown then brings many of the conventions developed for the street to the stage.

Mime’s roots are on the stage. It wants to tell stories with characters and plots that develop. When it goes to the street, it must trade this for improvising around illusions and gags such that whenever someone happens to walk by, they can immediately understand what is happening. The street mime is a reduced version of the stage art – which doesn’t mean it’s easy! And it clearly comes closer to clowning on the street. Check out this footage of mime Robert Shields on the streets of San Francisco.

This difference in focus leads to different creative processes.

Character Development

As I understand it, one of the basic tenants of clowning is the creation of a clown character that remains the same through all situations, and bits are invented for the character. The mime may play 15 different characters in a single skit or no character at all in abstract pieces. True, Marceau created Bip, a character he played in multiple skits, but that was only half his show. Also, clown characters are usually eccentric and flamboyant – thus the bright colors. Bip’s costume was neutral (except his iconic hat) and he was a stylized everyman just trying to get on with life; it was his circumstances that were exaggerated. The other half of Marceau’s show was what he referred to as “Style Pantomimes” and included multi-character skits and metaphoric pieces such as “The Hands” or “The Mask Maker”. The process of developing a single, over the top character that can be used in improvised interaction is vastly different from that of developing a precise choreography that recounts a character’s story or invokes an abstract idea.

The Plotless Plot

The plotless plot is a routine built around a single gag or trick. For the mime this would include some of the classic illusion bits like being stuck in a box or struggling with an object that seems to have a will of it’s own. For the clown, the plotless plot is their bread and butter. Avner’s hat routine in the video above is a perfect example of a plotless plot. These sorts of ideas are essential for a street-type situation. They are designed either to interact with people or to draw a crowd of passers by. They can absolutely work on stage too, the difference being one can afford to be less frenetic and more subtle when the audience is seated and attentive. On the flip side, it is very difficult to keep a seated audience engaged for an entire hour or longer just with plotless plots unless you have some pretty impressive tricks or stunning imagery. Which is why mime, being stage oriented, likes to develop stories and abstract imagery, like in the video below. By the way, plotless plots can be verbal as well, just think of the classic Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine.

I am indebted to my friend and clown muse, Gregory Parks, for giving me the best piece of clowning advice. He said watch as much as possible. I particularly got a lot from watching Harpo Marx, Elsie Ames with Buster Keaton, and Benny Hill. All of which are people I would recommend for mime as well but I found I watched them with slightly different eyes, keying in on different details such as Harpo’s buggy-eyed facial expression. And the extremely child-like innocence that all three exhibit, even as they are pursuing adult desires.

Please, chime in with a comment if you have something to add. I learned a lot and have a lot more to learn from my clown cousins.


Leave a Reply