Mime over matter: “I aim to live life fully”


Author: Sarah McGrathPublished: 16 March 2023

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A close up of Barbara Salsberg Mathews striking a pose with her face painted white

Retired teacher and artist Barbara Salsberg Mathews shares how she was first mesmerised by mime and how she’s used her love of the art form to try to help others with Parkinson’s “live life fully”

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your experience with Parkinson’s.

I’m based in Toronto, Canada. I started mime when I was 16 years old and became obsessed with it. I saw the French actor and mime artist Marcel Marceau perform live and was completely mesmerised. I was fortunate in high school to have a very talented mime teach us, and I became her assistant. I had such fun that I ended up creating a theatre company that toured for around seven years.

I then studied experimental theatre in Paris, France, and eventually became a high school art and drama teacher instructing improv as well as visual art. Afterwards, I worked as a corporate trainer, which involved teaching using all the senses to help corporate learners work more effectively in teams. After being the head of visual arts at a school in Toronto, I retired to a nice small town and was living my dream of travelling and painting.

Then, one day, my hands started shaking. I found out I had Parkinson’s, and things suddenly changed. The news was pretty devastating. I cried; I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying that it was just a tremor or a pinched nerve. But no, it was Parkinson’s. So, I had to rewrite my future. I decided to focus on the legacy I could leave behind, whether it was taking part in research trials or teaching mime as a therapeutic tool to help other people with the condition.

How did you first realise the impact mime had on your Parkinson’s?

I was reading ‘The Brain’s Way of Healing’ by Dr Norman Doidge, which has a chapter on a man who retrained himself to walk normally with Parkinson’s by slowing down the movements of walking and then speeding them up. I realised that what he was doing was a lot like mime, and I thought: “Why don’t I apply mime to try to help override some of my annoying Parkinson’s symptoms?”

Often, I would be holding a glass, and without knowing it, I’d start spilling the water inside because my right arm was weak. So, I visualised that I had a marionette string on my right hand that did not move, and that imagery held. I would practise imagining the marionette string while miming walking and holding the glass. Through this, I was able to retrain my body – now, most people wouldn’t know that I have Parkinson’s when they see me walking.

I then discovered that there was a mime artist named Rob Mermin living in Vermont, US, who also has Parkinson’s and who was teaching mime to others with the condition. He gave me his blessing to build on the work he was doing, which led me to help direct talks and workshops for people with Parkinson’s on how mime may be used as a therapeutic tool.

How can mime support people living with Parkinson’s? 

When teaching, I use three techniques. I really focus on fine motor skills so that people can learn how to control and isolate every part of their body, including their faces. Then, imagery is very important to help override any mental resistance. And the last technique I use is motor memory. People may think of this as ‘muscle memory’, but the muscles don’t remember – it’s through repeating motions over and over again that the brain remembers.

By applying mime illusions, I found: “Hey, I’m not shaking when I’m doing this.” I could walk without dragging my foot. When teaching, people would come up to me with big smiles and say: “Wow, that’s fun!” or “When I was doing that, I wasn’t shaking.” I love seeing the smiles on people’s faces and seeing the changes that can happen in one workshop – when I see people standing tall and moving with confidence. Most of all, I love the laughter. I have such fun.

There are not a lot of people who can teach mime, so it’s important to me to help inspire others to learn it. It’s not just a beautiful art form – it can be a very powerful, practical and useful tool for people with Parkinson’s. I’d hate to see this tool disappear. 

Barbara Salsberg Mathews teaching a mime workshop to people with Parkinson's

Barbara says she “loves seeing the changes” that happen in one workshop.

What advice do you have for someone who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s?

We need to laugh more. We’re going through tough times, but it’s nice to find moments of play and enjoy life as well. Life is not a dress rehearsal. I tell everyone when I do my workshops: “I am not my disease. I am a person with Parkinson’s, and I aim to live life fully.” For me, it’s all about giving back. How can I leave the world a shade more beautiful?

Lead image credit: Carrie Branovan

Need to know 

Barbara Salsberg Mathews is a retired teacher and multi-disciplinary visual and performance artist based in Toronto, Canada. Barbara is currently working with a university in Ontario, Canada, to bring mime and Parkinson’s into their new programme on therapeutic wellness and the arts. She encourages anyone who wants to ask questions or talk about their experiences with Parkinson’s to connect with her at mimeovermind@gmail.com.

For more information on living well with Parkinson’s, visit the Parkinson’s Europe website.

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