Bill Bowers has performed at WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Festival three times, and if you don't remember what he sounds like, well, it's because he's a mime. If you've seen his shows, such as Under a Montana Moon in 2009, you haven't forgotten him.
He discovered the art form in high school. He learned to love the art of silence and was lucky enough to train with the world's best-known mime, Marcel Marceau. He also studied with renowned Polish mime artist Stefan Niedzialkowski, and teaches the pedagogy of the late Jacques Lecoq. And he's an avid student of Japanese butoh, a dance form that was born out of mime.
Mime is an art that Bowers works tirelessly to preserve, performing his shows and teaching in New York City, where he lives, and all over the country and the world. In fact, if you're interested in more, Bowers will teach a "mime and creative movement" workshop at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 10, at Loop. You can find more info here.
His latest show, Beyond Words, was in New York last year, and he'll perform it three times in this final weekend of the 2012 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. In the show, which combines silence with talking, he explores the question of "what is a boy," inspired by a poem with that title that his mom had when he was born (he found the poem in a box in her house after she died a few years ago). That question also has new resonance for him because he and his partner became fathers in early 2011, to a boy born to a lesbian couple who are longtime friends.
We caught up with him for a few questions:
TheaterJones: The last time you were at Loop, you performed Under a Montana Moon. How is this show different?
Bill Bowers: I started looking at the question of why I became a mime, which I explored in Montana Moon. For this play, I wanted to look at stories from other people's lives, too. And I'm still looking at the idea of silence, but I'm focused more on what it means to be a boy. There are stories about boyhood and manhood and the journey between the two. [Last] year I became a father, which was a huge experience for me. That has been part of the piece, too, what it is to be a boy and a man, and then become a father.
What kind of kid wants to become a mime? Is your story different from those of other mimes you've met?
I think [mine] was quite different. I became a mime long before I knew what it was. I grew up in Montana in a small town, so for me being a mime wasn't about being a performer, it was about being a quiet kid from a small town, and being a gay kid in a small town in the '60s, before Oprah. I realized now that I was very surrounded by silence; the silence of Montana, the silence of being in a big family that didn't talk about anything, the silence of being a gay kid. There was no conversation about that when I was little. So when I got a little older, in high school, and realized there was an art form about not talking, it clicked for me. I started teaching myself what I thought mime was.
Looking back, I realize how interested I was not only in the art of silence, but the subject of it. How much in the world is not spoken, between people and families, in politics. …My shows aren't completely silent, I do talk. There are whole sections in silence. People have strong emotional responses when they allow themselves to sit in front of silence. Because mime is metaphorical, I find that people participate; they're filling in their own story into my silence.
Are you still shy?
Not with being in front of an audience, I have no problem with that. But socially, I am. I'm the worst at a party.
"Mime" is short for "pantomime," but there's a difference between those two, right?
Yes. Pantomime is what we know the most. It's Marcel Marceau, it's the most conventional things like the white face and striped shirt. It's silent storytelling and all of the illusions that go with that, like walking against the wind or into a wall. Pantomime is a reflection of the real world in an imaginary world.
Mime is everything else. Using your body in nonhuman ways, like the group Mummenschanz; anytime you have abstract movement that's not storytelling, if it's just like images in space. If it's not a story in silence, it's mime. I do blend both of them.
Do people ask you how you make a living as a mime, and are they freaked out by childhood images of mimes?
All the time. So much of mime is terrible. If someone said to me, "Hey, there's a mime show," I'm not sure I would go—and I'm a mime.
Do you remember Shields and Yarnell, they had a TV show in the '70s? That was the high point of mime in America, but also the beginning of the worst of mime in America, because all of a sudden it was on TV and everyone's thinking "oh I can be a mime," but without the training. A lot of bad mimes were born out of that.
Have we seen a resurgence in interest for the art of mime?
Not really. I live in NYC and I'm the only person teaching mime right now. I go to a lot of schools and teach it. Most of [the kids] don't even know the word. I learned from Marcel that it's an art form that won't exist if you don't teach it, person to person. There are no textbooks that can teach you how to be a mime.
Maybe you should pitch a TV reality show, something like So You Think You Can Mime?
[laughs] I want to do a mime workout, something that says "lose weight while you mime!"
◊ Beyond Words will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in WaterTower's main stage theater. To see a complete schedule of shows and venues, go here.
◊ WaterTower is streaming several shows and events at Out of the Loop. To watch them on our site, click the US Stream icon at the top of this page. It will open a separate tab. The streaming schedule is also included there.
Here's a video interview we did with Bowers in 2009:
And for fun, here's a video from The Shields and Yarnell Show.