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THE GIFT OF TIME / Volunteers in Orange County

Strong, Silent Type : Janet Schwartz's Mime Classes Use Performance, Imagination to Open New Worlds to Low-Income Kids


Janet Schwartz was in the middle of a mime class when one of her young students pulled out a gun.

Although the gun was imaginary, an invisible object the boy pretended to pull from his pocket, Schwartz, mindful of the power of symbols, was shaken.

"I will never forget it," she said of the incident several years ago at an Orange County school. "He pretended to shoot the other children. Then he pulled a knife out of his pocket and went like this." Demonstrating, she plunged an imaginary blade into her own stomach.

From then on, the volunteer teacher enforced a rule: No pretend guns or knives in her mime class.

Schwartz, 76, brings her expertise at mime to underprivileged children, to expose them to theater and performance art--a world beyond gangs, crime and drugs.

On Tuesdays, she volunteers at the Tustin Family and Youth Center, which draws children from tough neighborhoods in south Tustin. She encourages all her students, no matter their background, to go wherever their imagination takes them.

In her classes, you can see kids playing on imaginary see-saws and swing sets, eat pretend apples and blow up invisible balloons.

"My goal is to stretch their imagination and raise their self-esteem by [developing] a talent that's unique," said Schwartz, who lives in North Tustin with her husband, Martin, a retired aerospace executive.

On a recent afternoon, Schwartz was strutting her stuff to about 20 children who ranged in age from 6 to 13. All of them stared intently and tried to copy the woman with snowy blond hair as her expressive face morphed instantly from grimace to grin.

The hourlong class started with everyone standing to form a giant circle. Together, she had them pull a make-believe apple from their "magic pockets." Then they shined their apples, took a big bite, wiped their chins and rubbed their stomachs appreciatively.

"Make your body show how good [the apple] is," Schwartz told them.

Then came their favorite part: She asked them to bite into an imaginary worm. They all made the predictable super sour faces. Then, one by one, she had them dispose of their worms. Some hurled them against the wall. Some pretended to drop them down their shirts. Some stomped on them. One boy put it in his mouth.

Warmed up by now, Schwartz divided the students into two groups to engage in a tug of war, leaning forward and backward while pulling an imaginary rope. In the end, the more theatrical of the performers fell on the floor.

For these would-be Marcel Marceaus, keeping quiet proved the hardest part. In their excitement to perform, they often couldn't help blurting out "I'm eating an apple!" or "I've got a lollipop!" in the middle of their pantomime.

Eric Crissinger, 9, of Tustin pretended to take something out of his pocket and eat it. Before anyone could guess, he announced, "I pulled out a cookie."

"No, you can't talk," Schwartz reminded him.

Although he has difficulty with the silent part, Eric likes the class. "It gets my imagination going," he said.

Alyisha Dyer copied Schwartz's funny faces, puckering up her lips like a fish.

"We learn how to be silent but still be funny at the same time," the 10-year-old Tustin girl said.

Each class ends with the children giving themselves a big hug. During this one exercise, she wants them to talk. "Everyone say after me, 'I love me! I'm very special!' "

For Lucrecia Gonzalez, program assistant at the youth center, Schwartz's mime classes are a positive outlet for the kids who come for center's after-school drop-in recreation program.

"A lot of them have problems in their families and a hard life," Gonzalez said. "This is a good way to express themselves. It keeps them from getting in trouble and away from bad company."

The discipline required to be an effective pantomime can help the children learn to work in silence and focus both mind and body on an activity, Schwartz believes.

"What I tell the kids is to think about a box or a wall. Picture it in your mind. You have to think, think," she said. "To be a mime, you have to discipline yourself, if for no other reason than to stand still. Hopefully, that discipline will rub off in other areas."

Schwartz came to mime late in life. About 20 years ago, a minister and his wife taught a mime class at a mother-daughter banquet she attended at Tustin Presbyterian Church.

"I used to do local theater, but the whole time I had this knot," she said, clutching her stomach. "I knew there was something else I was supposed to be doing. Then I went to this banquet that had a mime and clown theme, and it was like, 'I found it!' "

Schwartz has been an active volunteer or children, seniors and the arts for 60 years. It started in high school when she was a Camp Fire Girl and helped start a chapter for younger girls.

"My life is so blessed. I can't imagine it without volunteering," said the mother of five, who now also has six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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