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Rob Mermin remembers his friend, Marcel Marceau

11/19/07 2:58PM
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The recent death of his teacher and mentor, Marcel Marceau, reminded commentator Rob Mermin, founder of Circus Smirkus, of the time Marceau performed in Vermont under the Smirkus big top.

(MERMIN) I was a student in Marcel Marceau's first Mime School in 1969 in Paris. As a teacher he was inspirational and kind. Although we developed a fond friendship over nearly forty years I would never call him by his first name: he was simply "the Maestro."

As an honorary board member of Circus Smirkus Marceau offered to do a benefit performance in Middlebury in 1999. The Smirkus troupe would perform the first half of the program, and Marceau would do solo numbers for the second half.

Marceau loved the circus but had never performed in a circus ring. He was as nervous as a novice actor, pacing behind the tent. When I suggested he perform his "Tightrope Walker" act, he was appalled. "Non!" he cried, "how can my invisible tightrope walker compete with the real thing!"

Earlier in the day I had watched the maestro practice. He was anxious about the technical limitations of the tent. And I warned his technical director not to push the lights to 100% brightness, as Marceau liked, because it would blow out our system. But - sure enough - barely 30 seconds into his first number the lights blew and the tent was plunged into silent blackness. My heart stopped. Then I heard cursing in French, and I ran out to escort the maestro backstage in the blackness.

After what seemed like years of backstage panic, the lights came back on and Marceau began all over again. It took all his virtuosity to overcome the situation, and several acts before he relaxed into what was for him the awkwardness of the ring. It was a revelation to see him carefully adjust his performance to accommodate a full audience in the round.

Sometimes disaster is the prelude to an experience of profound grace. The day that had begun fraught with anxiety ended in transcendent triumph. By the finale he was beaming as the audience rose as one to give him a standing ovation.

Then he raised his hand to quiet the cheering audience, and I was brought to tears at what followed. Marceau began to speak, in his soft, wispy voice and the astonished crowd hushed. Never before in his 50 year career had he spoken, in costume, in front of an audience.

Marceau had made an endearing gesture by inviting all the Smirkus kids to sit inside the ring to watch his show. And now, deeply moved, he called them all around him and brought me and the coaches into the ring also. He spoke of the power of art for bringing people together, and the power of silence for bridging generations. People saw three generations of mentors standing in the ring together.

I cherish the words he once wrote to me - quote - "Like you, dear friend, I live to enlighten dreams. It is our common task to bring light to the art we love, the silent language of the soul. I remain with all my heart your friend in the battlefield of life, your silent Bip, and faithful Marcel Marceau."

Rob Mermin of Montpelier, is the Founder of Circus Smirkus.

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