Richard Shope is borrowing a centuries-old art form to help today's generation write better tomorrow.
Shope, 33, believes there is a strong link between mime--the art of communicating through silent movement and gesture--and the written word.
To be good at either requires an eye for detail and an ability to capture it. A mime does it with movement, a writer with words. While the means are different, the aim is the same: the presentation of a clear, concise image.
But Shope, a playwright and accomplished mime, contends that much of what elementary and high school students compose today is shallow and unimaginative--shortcomings the founder of the Marina del Rey-based company Mime Media believes he can correct.
His prescription is a bit unorthodox, but hugely popular with students, teachers and administrators who have tried it. Shope, in costume and mime makeup, goes to a school, performs before an assembly or a class, and then challenges students to describe his actions, at first orally, and then in writing. When they finish, students read the compositions aloud, while classmates act out the story line under Shope's watchful eye.
Exercise in Imagination
It is an exercise in observation, recall and imagination--skills that Shope contends are no longer valued--or used--by a generation weaned on television, video games and MTV.
"The aim is to improve a child's power of imagination," said Shope, who launched his mime writing project three years ago, working largely in Los Angeles city schools before expanding into suburban districts, such as the El Rancho Unified School District in Pico Rivera, where he is going from school to school this month, performing and lecturing.
Rio Vista Elementary School was his first stop in the El Rancho district.
When the tall, lanky Shope stepped into Room 22, he towered over the fourth- and fifth-graders. The children's eyes were glued to Shope's every move, fixated by his costume--his ruby-red blouse, his black leather pants, sequined leg warmers and makeup, a layer of white covering his face. Two hearts, one broken, were painted on his cheeks.
After miming a person climbing stairs and walking in the wind, he turned and faced the chalkboard.
When he wheeled and looked at the students there was not a sound. His hands, rigid and vertical, were in front of him. They were spread as wide as a breadbox. Slowly, he moved his right hand up, and then horizontally across the top of the imaginary box. He then raised the lid, and peered inside, his eyes rolling from side to side.
"What is this, class?" Shope asked.
The response was unanimous, "a box."
"Good. Now, I want each of you to pass this box, first opening it, and then showing us what's inside," Shope said handing the box to a little girl in the first row.
One by one, the imaginary box moved around the room, the children's small hands giving it shape as they set it on their desks.
One boy pulled out a baseball, cupping his hands in a circle and tossing it to Shope, who caught it and pitched it back. Another boy found a toothbrush, while the girl next to him lifted a crown out of the box and placed in it on her blonde hair.
Skit Ends Exercise
"When they explore that box, I want them to pull out an object that has size, dimension and shape," Shope said after class ended. "But they have to show us. They can't tell us. That way they have to think about it, imagine what it looks like first, but showing us. It's the same process when you write."
The exercise ended with Shope acting out a short skit about a man who gets lost in a storm and then finds a deserted house that he enters to escape the cold. Once inside, he finds a large box. The children had to write an ending for the story, describing what was in the box.
"He really makes me think about things," said Jerry Rodriquez, 10, who wrote that the man found "hundreds and thousands of dollars" in the box, but only took $5, which he used to buy an umbrella at the Salvation Army. "He's helped me a lot to see things."
Shope describes himself as a "catalyst, an outsider who is trying to motivate the kids and equip teachers with a new way to approach an old problem--getting kids to write well."
In many ways, he said it is tougher today to get children "curious about learning."
That is why, Shope said, the mime approach works, and children "get caught up and before they know it they are learning how to be more expressive, descriptive and observant."
Another of Shope's lessons, for example, focuses entirely on facial expressions. On the chalkboard he might list three moods: sad, happy and angry. He then acts out the moods, and the children must describe which actions are associated with what mood.
"I don't want them to simply say he looks sad," said Shope, who got started in mime in 1971 when he left the University of Minnesota and joined Minneapolis' Urban Arts Program as an actor and instructor.