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Shields & Yarnell’s last gasp came with a dream opportunity turned into a nightmare: Broadway Follies, a big theatrical extravaganza that closed after one performance. “When we went to Broadway, that was devastation,” Robert says. “When you saw us live, it was just two people just doing all this magic. This elaborate show lost the magic of Shields & Yarnell. We fell off the pedestal. Our money dropped. People start making fun of mime. It happens to all kinds of acts. You have to reinvent yourself.”
Robert eventually went back to the drawing board – literally – in Sedona. He decided to settle here, and began pursuing his lifelong interest in art more seriously, opening the retail store to market his work.
Other local businesses followed, including a restaurant and a radio station, which he’s since divested, leaving himself more time to devote to performing. Besides his reunion with Yarnell, he’s been honing a stand-up comedy act. There’s also a documentary film about him in the works. And he’s ready to stand up to the common perceptions – and misperceptions – about mime. “If people say they won’t come to my show because they hate mime, put them on the phone with me. I’d tell them, if you hate mime, you’ll love this show, because I don’t like it either. I tear mime to pieces. I come out and say I’m a recovering mime, I play blank tapes at full volume.” But don’t let him fool you: He’s breaking down your defenses, because he wants to show you that in the right hands, “mime isn’t a four-letter word.
“People make fun of [mime] and it’s not fair, because a good mime is really exciting,” Robert declares. “To be a mime, you have to be a clown, and to be a clown you have to be a mime. Unfortunately, there’s a generation that doesn’t know there is great physical comedy and clowning and mime out there.”
And now may be the right time to get reacquainted. “I keep working on new techniques,” he explains. “As you get older, I guess you get smarter about what you’re doing. Your brain is more developed, and can work better with the body. It’s taken a long time for me to learn not to have a big ego. It was really a blessing, because wonderful people came in to help me run my company, trained me on how it really should be done.
“I have time to do stuff now,” he continues. “Because my job in the company now is to create the art. That’s all I do. That’s allowed me to get back into performing.”
And facilitated the reunion with Yarnell. “We will be working for about two months. A lot of it will be knowing the timing, getting music and the costumes. She wants to know exactly what we’re going to be doing. She’s very disciplined. Before I met Lorene, I was so out of shape I couldn’t even jump to conclusions. I’m more the type to say, ‘OK, I’ll be over here, and when I’m talking just come out.’ She doesn’t work that way. I feel like I can just turn it on.” And perhaps in his ultimate tribute to his years in Sedona, he adds, “I’ve learned to turn it off also.”
Yarnell Has Her Say
In Cats, Fish & Fools: The Lives and Art of Robert Shields (Journey Editions, 1996), Lorene Yarnell shared some thoughts about her years with Robert Shields, excerpted below.
“I believe our meeting was a gift. In the early days, we seemed like twins, physically. But our backgrounds were quite different. We both knew it was what he was doing that would create the most success and so I had to actually ‘unlearn’ most of what I had been taught. [Lorene Yarnell has a distinguished career as a dancer.] It was difficult but it wouldn’t have worked the other way around.
“When Robert was performing on the streets, he would approach someone and instantly become that person. It was strange and brilliant. And he was the first. Now there are street mimes in every city, but I’ve yet to see anyone who can match him.
“I love him with all my heart. Perhaps our marriage was never meant to be but our work together was written in heaven.”
Shields & Yarnell will be performing June 10-12 at Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood. For tickets, visit www.robertshields.com, or call 1-866-468-7621. For the June 17 show in Scottsdale, visit www.robertshields.com, or call 1-800-225-2277.
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