Middle school can have a profound impact on young lives. As a teacher at Delta Middle School, Bret Hamilton has not only seen how adolescent lives are shaped by their experiences in and out of the classroom, he also recognizes the impact middle school had on his own life.
"Middle school is a very inspiring place it turns out," Bret says, relating how a guest artist did a two-week residency on pantomime at his junior high in DeKalb, Ill. The guest artist, Geoffrey Buckley, was known worldwide as a mime and movement specialist.
Bret was already involved in school productions, the speech and debate team, and had formed a rock band. He added mime to his creative pursuits, spending hours in front of a mirror perfecting his technique. When his movements didn't look quite right, he kept practicing until he could achieve the illusion he was after.
He attended the Illinois High School Theater Festival all four years he was in high school, and if a mime workshop was offered there, he made sure he was there. A couple of times mimes came to the university where his father taught, and he was able to pick up a few more tips.
His skills progressed through "a little bit of training here, there and everywhere," with a lot of working on technique in the mirror.
"If you want to do the wall kind of thing you look at yourself in the mirror and discover there are things you can do to substantiate the illusion," Bret says, referring to a basic technique in which a mime can turn invisible walls and an invisibile ceiling into the illusion of a room by tapping into the viewer's imagination.
The way a mime moves against a wall or handles an object tells a story without the use of words. While mimes are not always silent and don't necessarily wear makeup, Bret is a traditional "white face" mime who never speaks once he has his "mask" on.
During high school, mime got co-opted into dance and while Bret was pursuing a master's degree in theatre/dance from Northern Illinois University, he learned of a workshop being offered by the legendary mime Marcel Marceau. Bret, and about 400 other applicants from across the United States and Europe, sent in audition tapes. Bret was one of the 40 mimes selected to train with Marcel Marceau.
Marceau recognized Bret had a good grasp of technique, so he focused on the conceptual elements of miming. He taught Bret how to create stories with his movements. "When you do a play, you have to work with the people, the props, the sets," Bret says. "The story is limited by the reality of the situation, but when you're doing pantomime, things can go beyond what's real. The story works because you create a kind of subjective reality. The reality for the mime becomes the reality for the audience because the mime makes you believe it.
"That was an insight I hadn't had before, and that insight really allowed me to take miming to the next level, to do it more effectively and interestingly."
He appeared on "Bozo's Circus" on WGN-TV for hundreds of thousands of viewers. He's also done corporate events, library programs, birthday parties and performed on the streets in New York, Chicago and New Orleans. Since moving to Colorado, he's performed at festivals in Greeley, Pueblo and most recently, Cedaredge's AppleFest.
Mimes are rare these days, but most folks instantly realize he's a mime by his white face and silence. "Once they figure out you're not a clown, there's no question about what I'm doing."
Street performing is often unpredictable, Bret says, who's learned how to deal with inebriated individuals, folks who want to provoke a mime into "breaking" his persona and young kids who scream or cry when the "doll" begins moving.
"When I'm performing in a setting where there are little tiny kids, I'll start with no makeup on and I'll talk to them about what I'm doing," Bret says. He explains that his makeup is a mask, and because it's a mask he can't talk out of it. Until he takes the makeup off, his actions will be doing the talking, so it's important to pay close attention to his movements.
Bret enjoys making the experience interactive -- playing a game of catch with the older kids, or plucking a flower out of the ground, sniffing it and handing it off to a audience member.
"If I can interact with the audience, it creates a memorable performance," he said.
Walking an invisible dog, falling in love with passing strangers, walking against the wind ... all are widely understood movements that are quick to grasp.
Bret also does skits, but those are harder to do on the street because people will be lost unless they've watched the story unfold from the beginning. In Pueblo he did an hour-long stage show that required a great deal of physical preparation. Miming is physically demanding, Bret explains, because the movements require a lot of muscle resistance.
"You have to hold your body, push the muscles in and out ... I had to work up to the hour-long performance."
Now that he's living in western Colorado, Bret hopes to find opportunities locally to perform as a mime.
"It's entertaining for me as well as other people," he says. "If I choose to do an event, it's because I want to do it and I still find it fun. If I make some money on the side, well that's nice but I don't worry about it and I don't depend it."
In dance, Bret has performed professionally with seven companies in five states. He's danced in the Nutcracker ballet for 22 seasons, but says his physique makes him more suited for modern dance. He is a member of the Pueblo Improvisers Community Orchestra, or PICO, an improvisation and new music ensemble based in Pueblo. He is also a published author and makes music videos.
He's shared his passions with the sixth graders at Delta Middle School, who recently wrote, acted and produced their own film. Another class is finishing up creative writing projects that will be incorporated into a magazine.
"This is a time, that for me, helped form who I was, helped me understand myself better and how the world worked. I hope my students will find the same thing with their writing."
In addition to teaching at Delta Middle School, Bret is coaching the Paonia-Hotchkiss speech and debate team.
Bret was a painting contractor for over 20 years, but returned to teaching with the downturn in the economy. He got the credits he needed to renew his teaching license and moved to Colorado, first to Pueblo and then to Greeley. This is his first year at Delta Middle School, and he believes he's found a good fit.
As an entertainer, Bret is fun, energetic and engaging. Those traits are equally valued in the classroom, where the ability of a teacher to engage students is a huge step toward fueling a desire to learn.
Check out Bret's Facebook page at Bret Hamilton Mime. His students' video is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0aouXv83Do.