Before they went down to the square, they smeared white paint on their faces and drew delicate black lines to accentuate their facial features.
There was no crowd initially, just people milling about a public place in Guatemala.
The students arrived with their director and smiled at the Guatemalans as they climbed the stairs of the gazebo in the center of the San Marcos square. They unfurled a black backdrop, queued up music on a speaker, and began the play.
The only human sound was mumbling in Spanish and Mayan dialects from the gathering crowd.
The students were on a high school mission trip in 2014 with EPPIC (Each Person Personally in Christ) ministries to evangelize through mime. Among their number was senior Jacob Hann.
When he decided to go to Guatemala for the mission with Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, he knew there were five different teams: a medical team, sports and drama, children, service, and mime.
His older brother John had gone on the trip previously and he had participated on the mime team and had already taught the “mime walk,” a motion akin to the moonwalk, to Jacob in middle school.
The trip organizers asked him his preferences for which team he could be on.
“I put service first and mime second,” Hann said. “I had seen the performance and thought it was well-done, unique, and moving. Little did I know that no one was going to put mime anywhere near their top choice.”
Though he thought he would be suited for the service team, he was the only person to show any preference for the mime team.
“I was destined to be a mime,” Hann said.
But he wasn’t donning a zebra-patterned shirt or a beret to do physical comedy on street corners — he was sharing the gospel.
The team shares the story of the death and resurrection of Christ while also telling character-building stories through physical movement.
Evangelists must contend with the reality of Babel. They find themselves in situations where they may need to fully understand the language to proselytize.
But miming allows missionaries to experience the miracle of Pentecost. It is like Luke wrote of the apostle’s evangelization: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
The director of EPPIC Ministries, Chris Erickson, said he believes the body expresses universal feelings and emotions.
“It doesn’t require explanation,” he said. “You can go any place in the world with it. It is like a language unto itself. Mime is a language where you use your body as a tool to talk.”
“You can take this and bring it anywhere in the world and people still understand what is happening,” he said.
Though modern conceptions of mime portray a Parisian vagabond pretending he is in a box, or figuratively lassoing a passerby, mime actually arose from the ancient Greek theatrical tradition.
The best mimes in Ancient Greece were known as ethologues, and they were valued for their ability to teach and instill moral lessons in the audience. And those audiences were not simply passerby who might flick a nickel into a felt top hat, mimes were the main event and audiences numbered over 10,000.
Charlie Chaplin’s roles as the “Little Tramp” show a mastery of physical control and Marcel Marceau, a frenchman, epitomized mime in the twentieth century with his character Bip the clown. Marceau referred to the art form as “the art of silence.”
“The art of silence speaks to the soul, like music, making comedy, tragedy, and romance, involving you and your life.… creating character and space, by making a whole show on stage – showing our lives, our dreams, our expectations,” Marceau said in 1949.
EPPIC ministries’ brand of mime uses the Christian narrative to evoke emotional responses from an audience and like Marceau, they want to speak directly to souls.
Erickson felt called into this ministry in 1984 after seeing EPPIC, then only a two-year-old organization, do a Christmas performance at Eden Prairie Presbyterian in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. At the time, Erickson was a high school teacher and was so moved by the performance. And he wasn’t the only one.
“In the audience I saw five dads, grown men, in tears and they couldn’t explain why,” he said.
He became so inspired by the intimate connection miming could have that he quit his job to become a full-time missionary.
Jacob Hann, because of his stature and charisma, was chosen to play Jesus in the redemption sketch, called “Forgiven by his Love.”
Using simple costumes to distinguish the characters — angels, humans, Jesus, and the devil — the actors show a great sacrifice taking place and an empathetic character who helps a struggling human find happiness.
The powerful symbols cause spectators to approach the missionaries after the performance to learn more about what the silent characters represented. From there, often with the help of an interpreter, the gospel can be shared in fuller detail.
It is a subtle routine, and the actors, with painted white faces and eyeliner, remain masterfully consistent as they create imaginary props — walls, chairs, pens — and never forget about them, moving around and through them, while portraying universal human emotions in their posture and facial expression.
Both Hanns played the role of Jesus in “Forgiven by his Love.” The role, which is the most difficult in the play, requires over 60 hours of practice and require the mime to hold his hands above his head for three minutes during the crucifiction. The mime has to be able to intimate the love of Jesus Christ to the audience without the help of the Sermon on the Mount or any other scripture.
But Erickson thought he, like his brother, was up for the job.
“Jacob has a good build and a good look,” Erickson said. “He caught on really well and has a great attitude.”
Hann has a group of friends back home who get together still to work on new material or stay fresh with their old standards.
“Mime is a dying art form but when it is done well, it can be astounding,” he said.