Want to take a 4-year-old to a symphony? No, this is not a trick question.
While most parents would quake at the thought of trying to get a preschool age child to sit still through an orchestral performance of Stravinsky, Beethoven and Strauss, Dan Kamin has unlocked the secret to making the music accessible to tots: keep them laughing.
Kamin, the Pittsburgh-based mime who created Johnny Depp’s physical comedy routines in “Benny and Joon” and trained Robert Downey Jr. for his Oscar-nominated performance in “Chaplin,” will bring his unique blend of comedy and classical music to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh when he performs “The Classical Clown” with the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra (ESO) this weekend.
Kamin is on a mission to bring young audiences back to the symphony. By adding an engaging visual component to the music, he finds that his shows, which he has performed with orchestras worldwide, can capture and hold the attention of children as young as 3.
“My shows merge classical music with low-brow comedy,” said Kamin. “It makes the music make sense.”
“The Classical Clown” is about a symphony where everything goes wrong, and the story is one that even the youngest audience members can follow.
“Everything gets turned upside down,” Kamin said. “I’m a mime who wants to conduct, and by the end of the show I do, and [ESO conductor] Walter Morales and the whole Edgewood Symphony become mimes. It is truly humiliating for all concerned, and yet another reason to hate mimes.
“I show up in a surprising way,” he continued. “Then it becomes a struggle for power. I want to become a conductor. Because I am like a misbehaving child, the kids get it.”
Kamin began his performing career as a magician at the age of 12 in Miami.
“The only bar mitzva gift I remember is two decks of crooked playing cards from my magician friends,” he recalled.
“The magic is all mind over matter,” he added. “I don’t have much of a mind, but it really doesn’t matter.”
Kamin has been performing with symphonies since the early 1980s, but began his training as a mime in the 1960s while a student of insustrial design at Carnegie Mellon University.
Fate, however, had other plans for Kamin.
“An amazing mime artist named Jewel Walker, who taught on the campus at that time, showed me the tricks of the trade,” he said, “destroying what slim chance I had of leading a normal life.”
Kamin was inspired further by silent screen stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as well as Victor Borge who performed comedy to classical music.
But because venues for the art of mime seemed limited, Kamin knew he had to find a space where his art would be meaningful.
“I wondered, ‘where do you do this anymore?’ ” he said.
He found his answer with the symphonies.
“[Miming] makes fun of the stiffness and formality,” he said. “It is now accessible and fun.”
During recent seasons Kamin has performed with many orchestras across the globe, including those of Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Albuquerque, Shanghai, Singapore and Malaysia.
Although the shows appeal to children, Kamin said, adults are entertained as well.
“Adults are so refreshed to see the clichés of music collide with the clichés of mime,” he said. “I am satirizing the role of the conductor as the dictator of the orchestra. For the children, it is very real.”
Although ESO Personnel Director Marilyn Myers was at first unsure how the musicians would react when asked to participate in Kamin’s show, she has found that everyone is on board.
“During rehearsal everyone was smiling and doing what was asked,” Myers said. “I have not heard one complaint.”
“We’ve never done anything like this,” she added. “The show will be very family friendly. The kids will love it. Dan gives the children something to look at while the music is going to give it a visual appeal.”
Mayda Roth, a violist with the ESO, called Kamin “a consummate artist.”
“He is extremely competent in his craft,” Roth said, “and is a wonderful partner with the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra musicians.”
Kamin’s talents extend beyond the arts of mime and magic. He frequently appears at conferences as a keynote speaker who falls apart, and has authored two books about the comedy of Charlie Chaplain. It was his first book on Chaplain that caught the attention of Robert Downey Jr. when he was preparing for his film role, and opened the doors of cinema to Kamin.
In addition to creating the physical comedy scenes for “Chaplin” and “Benny and Joon,” Kamin played the wooden Indian that came to life in the cult classic “Creepshow 2,” and created Martian movement for Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks.”
“I taught Johnny Depp how to roll the coin around his fingers the way he does at the end of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ” Kamin said. “But does he call? Never!”
The upcoming concert at the JCC will also include the John Williams scores for the motion pictures “E.T.” and “Star Wars.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)