Bill Bowers has a perfect voice-over voice, masculine with a kind of warm, rough edge. He’s also immensely articulate. Yet the thespian found himself at home, early on, in watchful silence. Bowers is a mime. Not the robotic busker who mimics a passerby and finds himself entrapped by walls – though he’s paid those dues – but a conjurer of the invisible, a purveyor of speechless expression, a choreographer of narrative, a storyteller.
First the silence. Then the voice of the silence. E.M. Standing
Born in what he describes as the quiet state of Montana, the last of six children – four girls, “not to be sexist, but I have talking sisters” – Bowers kept his own youthful counsel. He spoke late and little, dreamed of secret rooms, read a lot, and tried to walk the narrow line.
“I think it was partly about being gay, not understanding feeling different than other people…I was teased in school, called a fag, and I learned the way to survive was to be quiet or funny and a good boy.” Did his parents know? Likely, he recalls. Mom saw him playing under a tree with borrowed Barbie dolls. “It was the 1960s. I think they just didn’t want me to get beat up.”
Bowers as Charlie Chaplin in High School
There was no childhood acting out, no performing for visiting relatives, no striving for a spotlight. An appreciation for Charlie Chaplin with whom he shares a birthday, was the only sign of things to come. From about second grade on, Bowers thought he’d be an English teacher. Fittingly, it was his high school English teacher, Mr. D., who intuited the boy’s “subtext” recommending he do a book report on silent acting. “I put on white face, did it in silence, and got an A.” He smiles. Mr. D. became a mentor. Encouraged, the boy joined The Drama Club. Suddenly, instead of being bullied, hallway attention grew positive “and I thought, this could be my way into the world.”
It Goes Without Saying (Photo by Peter Bellamy)
Their relationship then “transformed into this other unspoken language.” Mr. D. seduced him, beginning a liaison that continued into the young man’s early college days. On the one hand, everything improved- Bowers developed confidence, his grades got better, his demeanor changed. On the other, he didn’t have the opportunity to develop as a gay man finding his way in the world. And there was the issue of secrecy. “I learned to lie.” Bowers wrote about this in his last piece, It Goes Without Saying. “I didn’t acknowledge it happened to me till we opened Off Broadway…Looking back, I wish I’d told someone…I learned the art of silence on a deep, deep level.” His voice goes cottony but doesn’t waver.
In Bowers’ senior year, his mother bought him a ticket to see the iconic Marcel Marceau. The trip was 800 miles round trip by bus “and worth every mile.” If there was ever any doubt of his calling, it vanished with pop. The enthusiast rounded up every book he could find on mime.
Carnival appearance; Busking
At a small Christian College in Billings, Montana, “I started to get a foothold in the art, doing it on a weekly basis…It was the late 1970s. The school chaplain had a very Godspell attitude. He asked me to mime his sermons so performance art was a component of the service. I’d come up with a piece for each theme. It was great training. I had to get people to understand.” The freewheeling minister even conducted a Clown Communion with parishioners in whiteface.
He cannot speak well that cannot hold his tongue. Thomas Fuller
College years were filled with theater. Bowers would mime at every opportunity. He offered workshops to kids and put together his first solo shows. Montana Power, the state’s Con Ed, hired him to create a character to teach children about energy conservation. Bowers became Captain Power, traveling from school to school performing in tights and a cape. Many of his jobs have involved kids. He loves them. One can easily imagine the infectious ardor conveyed. The artist has a bit of leprechaun about him and exudes patience.
Persuaded to attend grad school, Bowers chose Rutgers University and moved to New Jersey. He went from a campus of 500 to a city where a bus was needed to get to and from classes. Almost immediately the newbie was subject to the commandment of conservatory training: “You can’t be a mime, you’re going to be an actor.” Years later, Marcel Marceau would roll his eyes at Bower’s theater resume telling him, in no uncertain terms, that an actor couldn’t possibly become a mime. “They were both territorial,” he comments with a small laugh.
Bowers was determined to continue exploring, however, and got mime work on the sly. “I did a lot of mechanical man stuff based on Shields and Yarnell, it was new then…like in front of a car wash, handing out roses at a flower shop, welcoming women at Marriott’s Mother’s Day brunch. There were jobs as living sculpture.”
He’s been yelled at/provoked, punched, had his coattails set on fire, and paid in meat (by The Montana Cattle Association.) Macy’s hired Bowers to teach runway models mechanical gestures. B. Altman’s events department used him for years. Among the characters he played there were Bruce Spruce, a stand-up comic Christmas tree and a chef with a cleaver herding people towards cooking demonstrations.
The mime played a Martian in the Princeton, New Jersey ceremony welcoming Apollo 16 Astronauts and – wait for it – Seat Belt Man, for which he stood on a platform at the exit to route 9 in New Brunswick, waving and indicating his seat belt during morning and evening rush hours. Apparently Johnson and Johnson had so many employees in the area, they were proactive about safety. Grateful to be performing (this is clearly sincere), it simply never occurred to him to say “no.”
(Silence) is when we hear inwardly; sound when we hear outwardly. Henry David Thoreau
After grad school, Bowers did Shakespeare and Sondheim. Yes, he can sing.“Then I auditioned for Slim Goodbody, the Superhero of Health.” Created for PBS in 1975 by John Burstein, the character wears a flesh-colored unitard with tissues, organs and systems painted on the front in biologically-accurate locations and sizes. (The suit cost $4,000) Burstein was committed to television and wanted an alter-ego to tour the country with an educational, musical health show. Bowers spent seven years at first full time and then in six week stretches on the road. “It was good money. I liked the independence and travel.”
Slim Goodbody (Photo Terry Cyr); The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Regional theater and tours followed until friends pointed out that if he wanted to work in the city, he had to stay in the city. Bowers originated the part of Leggett in The Scarlet Pimpernel, then moved on to The Lion King. As Zazu, the bird, the thespian was seriously injured by puppet apparatus that had not been ergonomically designed. “It asked your tendons to repetitively do things that were harmful.” He spent time in the hospital with his hands in casts like giant foam rubber boxes (he mimes this) and was then in physical hand therapy over two years. The production rectified the design and asked him back during this time. Bowers finished his contract, but in retrospect feels it may have compounded things.
Bowers as Zazu; The Lion King Playbill
“The sunny side of that story (which he always finds) is that while I was in the hospital, I heard that Marcel Marceau was coming to America for his 80th Birthday Tour. Bowers was accepted as a student and worked with the “Maestro” (note, not Maitre) intermittently over three years. “He was mean, very discouraging to people; a taskmaster from another culture and generation and very famous.”
Marceau taught in the old Master Class tradition. Acolytes sat on the floor around him. No questions were allowed. The other seven students, all Americans, spoke pretentious French with one another. Bowers kept his distance. “I don’t think Marceau loved teaching. It was a combination of financial necessity and, as he would later express to me, he was afraid mime might disappear.”
I ask if there was one thing that still resonates from that experience. “He talked about himself in the third person. He’d say ‘People call Marceau a genius, I say no, Marceau is not a genius. The genius is where Marceau and the audience meet.’ I try to remember that. You have to engage the audience. I’m tuned in to their concentration so I can gauge if I have them with me beat to beat. The other thing that changed my life was his concern that if it isn’t taught/passed on, mime will disappear…The inspiration was indescribable.”
A closed mouth gathers no feet. Anonymous
Working with Anna Deavere Smith’s Arts & Civic Action Dialogue at Harvard for two summers – “she wanted to bring a quiet white man into civic discourse discussions of race and policy”- stimulated Bowers next step. Artists who were hired were asked to create a piece. His, about silence, was Under A Montana Moon.
“I began to think about being a writer, continuing to create my own work.” Bowers credits Deavere Smith as galvanizing him with penetrating questions. The Harvard show became nine silent stories he’s taken all over the world. The artist has created four solo shows to date, plus a two-person piece developed with Suzzy Roche featuring one silent, one speaking actor and one for kids called Mime Over Matter.
Under A Montana Moon (Photos by Benjamin Heller)
Beyond Words, which will be performed at the estimable United Solo Festival on Monday October 5, 2015 was stimulated by an incident that occurred just after his mother’s 2007 death. The two were incredibly close. “I was the youngest and got a lot of time with her as well as being the only unmarried one for years. Cleaning out her dressers, Bowers and his sisters discovered a prose poem called “What is A Boy?” which, he discovered, had been tucked into his baby blanket at the hospital and “came home” with mother and son.
It begins: “Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find a delightful creature called a boy. Boys come in assorted sizes, weights, and colors, but all boys have the same creed: To enjoy every second of every minute of every hour of every day and to protest with noise (their only weapon) when their last minute is finished and the adult males pack them off to bed at night…”
What kind of boy was she expecting; who am I now?, he wondered.
Bowers and His Mother
A combination of autobiographical material and fiction, silence and speaking, Beyond Words contains, in part, a Chaplinesque piece, one about a boy’s experience at a country fair, and one from a chapter in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. “It has more to do with being a sensitive child, than gay in particular. I end up being the biological father of a boy at age 50.” (He is now both married and a father.)
The word you keep between your lips is your slave. The word you speak is your master. Arabic proverb
Heyokah Hokahey at The University of Wyoming
In 2010, Bowers received a grant to develop Heyokah Hokahey at The University of Wyoming. Heyokah is a Lakota Sioux word roughly translated as “the one who walks backwards.” It ‘describes’ a clown who acts as a spiritual teacher, sitting at the right hand of the chief like a court jester, poking fun at things, mirroring alternate points of view. (Jesters could get away with truths no one else would dare.) “A lot of them actually do walk backwards or speak in nonsense.” There are apparently 120 different clowns in Native American traditions. Hokahey is synonymous with “go for it” or “Carpe Diem.”
“I wanted to explore how cultures deal with “the Other,” what happens to the oddball, the different one, the one who transgresses… I devised a series of exercises, writing and improvisation, identifying experience as an outsider; the different perceptions of “us” and “them.” From these investigations, we joined traditional Native American teachings of the Heyokah to contemporary experience.” Each cast changes the piece, but everyone, Bowers feels, has been “the Other”. Like much of this low key evangelist’s original work, Heyokah Hokahey suggests we honor difference rather than fear it.
Mezozoic Musical by John Forster & John Burstein; Bowers as Tinkerbell
Residency at The Harold Clurman Center for New Works has allowed the increasingly multifaceted artist to begin his latest passion project, an adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun as a movement based play. This summer it was workshopped at Stella Adler Studio. (Bowers teaches here, at NYU Steinhardt, and the William Esper Studio) and in 2016 will receive a full production.
It’s the stream of consciousness story of a soldier who returns from WWI with no arms, legs, face, sight or hearing; no obvious way to communicate (he finds one.) His heart and brain are fine, however, and he feels vibrations leading to memories. Having established to himself that he’s alive, the soldier wants his body taken around to show what war really is. If anyone can pull this off, it’s Bowers.
Though increasingly tied up with his own pieces, Bowers just completed an upcoming indie film called Artemis and the Astronaut by A. Lauren Lee in which he plays the ghost of actress Lynn Cohen’s husband. He still does speaking parts and teaches both adults and children, conceiving self expression programs for such organizations as Make-a-Wish Foundation and Teach for America. As if all this weren’t enough – “I feel like the next thing I’ll do is write a couple of books, one about the pedagogy I’ve developed over the years concerning movement and physical theater and the other a memoir.” You’d imagine him hyper and be wrong. He radiates calm.
Bill Bowers has created a niche for himself, his talent, inquisitiveness, perception and sensitivities. He’s kind, modest, and joyful in his pursuits; part pilgrim, part perpetual student.
Let us be silent, we may hear the whisper of the gods. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Note: I watched a video of It Goes Without Saying many weeks after my piece was complete. It tells this story and considerably more with heart, sensitivity, and finesse.
Watch for Bower’s AFO produced show Nude Amish Hookers and the Mime Who Loves Them – “true stories of outrageous experiences I’ve had on the road performing my solo shows.” April 18 thorough May 8, 2015 at The Lion Theater, Theater Row
Opening Photos by Benjamin Heller