The Passion is Mime


Photo Courtesy Michael Lee

The world needs more people who truly ask themselves what they are here for– at least that is what Michael Lee believes.

For Lee, his passion lies with the art of mime, having been training in the style for over 40 years. Having witnessed many people choose their life’s work solely based on the amount of money they could earn, Lee is a firm believer in the fact that there is more than one way to sell out.

“There’s an old saying, do what you love and the money will follow, and I firmly believe that,” Lee said. “For me, I want to do more of my art and I want to do it with people who are passionate, not those who are just doing it to get paid.”

Lee grew up in the small town of Azalia, where the opportunities offered were mainly centered around sports. Though he spent the majority of his time playing basketball and working on a horse farm, Lee was also involved in his school’s theater program.

“Growing up, you don’t really feel like you’re restricted because you don’t know what’s out there,” Lee said. “I just didn’t know about the opportunities in the arts, I didn’t know what I was missing.”

When Lee first went to college, attending Northwestern Michigan College, he received a degree in recreation leadership, leading him to work with mentally ill patients. Later, Lee also used his training to work with kids, becoming a preschool teacher while also running after school childcare programs in Ann Arbor.

“There was always something kind of burning in me from high school when I was in theater, but I never thought I could make a career out of it,” Lee said.

While maintaining his career, Lee began to study different art forms, narrowing down his selection to three art forms: ballet, mime and rodeo clowning.

He began taking ballet classes, but quickly realized he was much too late, finding it challenging to catch up with the other dancers who had begun in their earliest years.

“And rodeo clowning is a very dangerous career, well, because the bull is practically just trying to kill you,” Lee said.

Then, Lee started taking a mime class at the local art colony in downtown Ann Arbor.

“When I started learning mime, it felt like I was sort of walking into a very tiny room and finding a door, and then opening that door and finding a bigger room,” Lee said.

Though the mime class did not continue for many sessions, it sparked a passion in Lee. As he continued studying mime, he found himself wanting to do more and more of it, forcing Lee to learn how to balance maintaining his current job while still making time to perform.

Lee started out his mime career with small performances at churches and school assemblies, trying to get a feel of where this career could take him. Eventually, he was able to leave his original job; he was now able to support himself solely on his mime career.

“There have been so many things that I’ve been able to do just because one door opens up into another door,” Lee said.

Lee began traveling in the summertime, performing at festivals, school assemblies and about every performance that came his way.

“I’d like to say that I had this really big fancy million dollar tour bus, but to be honest, I traveled a lot by motorcycle when I could,” Lee said.

As Lee continued to grow through the art of mime, he took on opportunities, such as studying with great mimes like Marcel Marceau and Stefan Niedziałkowski.

Marcel Marceau toured the world for over 50 years, becoming who Lee viewed to be the world’s greatest known mime. Lee was able to study with him around eight times, describing his teaching methods to be almost like a very kind, but stern grandfather.

“He would not let us do bad work,” Lee said.

Though Lee learned much from studying with Marcel Marceau, he feels that his best teacher was a man from Poland, named Stefan Niedziałkowski. Lee studied mime with him for a number of years, and found that in each class Stefan Niedziałkowski managed to open up an even deeper part of Lee through the art form.

“It was just completely different to anything else I had experienced before,” Lee said. “He was very passionate in the way he taught.”

Usually in classes with both Stefan Niedziałkowski and Marcel Marceau there were other teachers with them, each bringing a different background with them. Lee remembers there being teachers from places like Germany, Italy, South Africa, England, France and Japan.

“It’s mind blowing because you travel the world to get these sorts of cultural experiences, but in this case, the world came to you,” Lee said.

The classes tend to vary from around 20 to 40 students, and those attending would stay as long as three weeks. This allowed the mime students the opportunity to grow close and develop a tight knit community because of the lengthy amount of time spent together.

“It was super intense, like eating, sleeping and doing mime and then repeating,” Lee said. “The level that you’re working at, you’re physically tuned up, you’re spiritually ready to commit and you’re emotionally blown away.”

Lee had been going strong for 20 years, loving what he was doing– but setbacks were almost guaranteed.

In 2002, Lee was gearing up for a major production in Ann Arbor with his company at a festival they had performed at the year before. It was their second year applying and they were confident in their performance, but what they did not expect was to get turned down.

“It really threw me for a loop because we had a piece and had a grant to do the show, but we didn’t have a theater to do it in,” Lee said.

Unfortunately, to add to Lee’s bad luck streak, his close friend, who was in charge of set design for the performance, was suddenly killed in a tragic car accident. With the loss of both a performance and a close friend, Lee felt himself slipping, struggling to find a way to continue his work.

“So I quit,” Lee said.

Lee remembers telling his closest friends about his situation, still considering if quitting was his best option. With blatant honesty, his friends agreed with his decision to quit, thinking it would be the best option due to Lee’s current circumstances. Lee was devastated.

“I used to say, when you’re an artist and you quit, who do you tell?” Lee said.

After 20 years of consistent work within the art form of mime and the combination of constantly traveling and performing, Lee thought that instead of taking the next step up, it was time for him to take a step back.

“And I just really stopped and walked away,” Lee said.

With his final decision, Lee went back to his roots and worked on an organic farm all summer. The days were long and hard, sometimes painful, but the change from working on a stage to a farm was what Lee needed.

“All I had left was a desire to work with my hands,” Lee said.

While working on the farm, Lee was able to reignite his passion for horses, something he enjoyed as a young boy. This led him to pick up a new career, beginning to work with horses while teaching lessons to kids.

After about a year of time off, Lee promised himself that if he ever were to go back to mime, he would not just take any gig that presented itself to him, instead he was going to do so when he truly wanted to.

Looking back at his decision, Lee recognizes how important it was for him to take a step back. He needed the time and space to redefine his passion and decide what he wanted to do, and because of this decision, Lee has found himself on a parallel track since then.

Currently, Lee finds himself with a packed schedule, full of opportunities and jobs that he adores. He teaches horse riding lessons about six days a week, while teaching camps primarily in the summer.

He also works with a figure skating team, helping them to improve their performance quality to enhance their upcoming performances.

“It’s really highly creative to work with figure skaters and I’m basically teaching them mime, but instead we call it physical acting,” Lee said. “I’m helping bring drama to their program.”

Though Lee is not on the stage very often, he still takes on a couple of mime opportunities, like performing at the same festival every year for 37 years. Lee also enjoys teaching his own classes on the mime art form, loving the intensity that radiates off a group of students.

“As a teacher, I’m kind of like a sprinter,” Lee said. “A regular classroom teacher has to teach all year, they have to run a marathon, but with just teaching in one afternoon, I just blow it all up.”

Lee hopes that with his classes he is able to inspire the students, spark something within the two to three hour class period he is given.

Throughout Lee’s career and life, he has met many individuals who have inspired him not only just within the mime art form, but also to be the person he is today. An inspiration that stands out to Lee, is his best friend Edwin, even though he was not someone who directly impacted his career in mime.

“Say you are standing on the edge of a cliff, wondering if you could fly, and someone might tell you to back up from the cliff, you’re too close,” Lee said. “Edwin was the kind of guy who, if you were pondering whether you could fly or not, would come running up behind you, grab your hand and jump– he would fly with you.”

Having an inspiration like Edwin, has helped Lee to take chances in his career in mime, shaping him into the artist he now is today. Lee does not see value in playing it safe and not chasing after passion.

To Lee, passion must be followed.