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Mime's Stage Career Sprang to Life From a Funereal Birthplace

April 11, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

When Tom Leabhart was a little kid growing up in Lancaster, Pa., he discovered that his world was a stage--an unconventional one.

Back then, in the 1940s, he found his medium in the viewing room of a funeral home. The parents of a friend owned the home, and when the viewing room was not otherwise occupied, it became Leabhart's theater.

"We created our own plays," Leabhart recalled. "I could see then that one day we had nothing, and the next day we had something. All my life I've come back to that first theater" experience.

Today, Leabhart, 40, remains unconventional. In his multiple roles, he is professional mime, teacher, publisher of Mime News (a journal that is in most theater libraries) and author of a book on mime that is scheduled for publication next year.

He is artist-in-residence and faculty member at Pomona College, having established a reputation as a serious performer in Europe and North America.

His career has never been predictable, or even logical, except to Leabhart.

"My family could never understand what I was doing," he said. "Everyone said I was wasting my time. It's not as if you open the paper and read an ad: Mime wanted."

Leabhart said his early studies took him from one art form to another--painting, sculpture, literature, dance, theater. And then one day he saw a film of mime teacher Etienne Decroux and it all came together.

"From that very moment I knew what I would do." Mime, as he saw it through the great French master's film, involved writing, creating stage settings, dancelike movement, acting--everything he had done or wanted to do.

With a Fulbright scholarship, he studied for four years in Paris with Decroux and then went out into a world that generally considers a mime to be the white-faced clown on a street corner, someone you'd see at a child's birthday party, or Marcel Marceau's enduring character, Pip.

But the art form has far greater depth and breadth, Leabhart said.

Mimes today, he wrote in an Arts Review article, "open their own schools, teach in colleges, learn to live economically, tour extensively, or all of the above. (They) tend to be soloists or work in small groups. One almost never finds white-face makeup, illusionistic pantomime, humorous skits, or anything that approaches popular, prime-time entertainment."

His performances, which have received wide critical acclaim, make use of autobiography, social issues, dance movement, spoken words and anything else he chooses to bring in. They are done with his everyday look--a blond youthfulness outfitted in polo shirt and slacks.

His current work, most recently performed at The House in Santa Monica, is entitled, "How I Was Perplexed and What I Did About It." A reviewer in the Washington Post said it "not only exemplified some of the main trends in new mime, but also used the present, self-questioning predicaments of the art form."

Unpredictably, as usual, Leabhart has found happiness and fulfillment in the halls of academe.

"I love teaching," he said. His wife, Sally, teaches French and ballet at Pomona College and serves as his editor and severest critic.

Leabhart's everyday stage now is in an ancient building, Holmes Hall, that is scheduled to be razed soon. Like the long-ago viewing room in a funeral home, it provides the bare essentials: platforms and players. Leabhart continues to provide the rest.

"You have to keep discovering and discovering, to bring life to your work," he said. "I'm still learning."

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