At first glance, a Thursday stroll across Justin-Siena High School was like any other weekday on campus. Teenagers walked from class to class, waited in a cafeteria line, or seated themselves at outdoor tables in the sunlit plaza intently following their friends’ chitchatting.
Only one thing was missing for some of the students: speech.
The silent ones were easy to find. Only their faces were decorated – with squiggle lines drawn over eyes, or black triangles above the cheek, or red-and-white makeup that made their lips appear smaller and more pinched than before.
They were members of the Justin-Siena drama club, turning down the volume for the school Mime-A-Thon. For most of the school day they would communicate only with facial expressions, eye movements and hand gestures, going wordless in exchange for donations to fund a March musical production of “Guys and Dolls” in which they would star.
Holding one’s tongue for six hours amid hundreds of fellow teens might be a challenge to rival any coursework, but theater students like Pria Bose declared themselves ready to throw themselves fully into the effort, however awkward it might be at times.
“I try to stay in character in class too,” admitted Bose, a 17-year-old Justin-Siena senior who was one of five mimes to briefly step out of character for an on-campus interview. “I think it’s funny; the teachers may not think so!” she added with a laugh.
Ahead of the Mime-A-Thon, a group of school faculty, parents and classmates paid to sponsor individual mimes or the drama program as a whole, according to James Bailey, Justin-Siena’s director of theater arts. Funds will pay for the hiring of a 15-piece pit orchestra to accompany student actors when they perform “Guys and Dolls” March 15-25 at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville.
The donations will be money well spent to create as Broadway-like an experience as possible for the 75 or so teens acting or helping stage the musical, according to Bailey.
“I could do a recorded track and it would be a lot cheaper,” he said. “But there’s just something special about working with live musicians, and they don’t have that opportunity very much anymore.”
Relatively little rehearsal was necessary for many of Thursday’s silent actors – partly because of their experience in a previous Mime-A-Thon in 2016, and even more because of skills they already have learned in competitive improv theater programs. The variety of hand and facial expressions needed for improv translate naturally to miming, said students taking a short midday pause from their silence.
Mostly, however, the secret to success may simply be in waiting an extra moment at all times, according to Erin McClure, 18.
“Just thinking before you act, because you can’t speak – especially with people trying to tease you, trying to get you to talk,” she said. “The first thing I do when someone says something is freeze, take a breath and stop before I process things. If too many things are happening at once, you might just break character (otherwise).”
Despite theater students’ promotion of the special day, one actor admitted that schoolmates don’t always make it easy to keep up their speechless act.
“People ask me questions that aren’t yes or no, or they say stuff like ‘Say yes if you’re not stupid!’” said 18-year-old Kevin Palla with a slight smile. “They try and peer-pressure you into saying something. People will poke you, try to get a reaction out of you.”
“The coolest part is when they look at you – then look at you again – and then the third time, stare at you, and they like it because they’re seeing something different,” he said.