In His New Out of the Loop Festival Show, Mime Bill Bowers Explores the Sound of Silence
In his new solo show Beyond Words, Bill Bowers combines mime, music and text to tell stories from his life growing up in Montana. He also shares some stories from other lives, including one about a small-town boy from Sherwood Anderson's short fiction collection Winesburg, Ohio.
Beyond Words is one of the mainstage shows at this year's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, playing at Addison's WaterTower Theatre March 1-11. (Dallas Observer is a sponsor of the event.)
This will be Bowers' third appearance at Out of the Loop. His 2008 Loop show, It Goes without Saying, won the DFW Critics Forum award as best touring production that year. Beyond Words was a hit with critics and audiences during its run Off Broadway last fall.
With The Artist vying for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, we wanted to know what Bowers, a student of the great Marcel Marceau and one of a handful of professional mimes still performing solo stage shows, thought of the new semi-silent film. One thing about mimes: Out of the white makeup, they're keen to converse.
Did you like The Artist? And are you surprised that a silent movie is such a hit?
Bill Bowers: I did enjoy it very much. I had hesitation because I'm such a fan of silent film. Charlie Chaplin is my idol. But it really won me over. They do a lovely job in the film communicating a story without words. That actor [Jean Dujardin] is so charismatic, he transcends language. As a mime, it encourages me to know that it's possible to carry a two-hour film without any words.
In your new show, you speak as well as doing traditional pantomime. Does that upset the mime purists?
With my director, once we acted out the basic skeleton of the piece, we started laying words back in where they were essential. There's a whole sequence with no sound at all. I guess mime purists would say I'm playing with the art form. Combining language and movement -- as a storyteller that was interesting to me. This time I wanted to look at how to tell a story using sound and gesture and finding the middle ground between those two.
Silence in theater or anywhere else is so rare these days. Do you find it hard to get an audience to be quiet while you're performing?
Where do we find silence? Places of contemplation, places where you put your feelings. Churches, temples. Some people do feel awkward with silence. My attraction to performing as a mime is that I think it's an uncomfortable place to ask people to go. It almost always transforms into a powerful place for people. If they're willing, it generally leads to a profound experience. We're so rarely asked to be quiet anymore, to unplug and take something in visually.
In the 1970s, mimes were all over TV, pop culture, public parks. Woody Allen made fun of mimes in Annie Hall. Where did all the mimes go?
You're right, not many people are doing it anymore. There are so few mimes. When I worked with Marcel Marceau, he said, "If you don't go do this, it will die." I do believe that. It only happens if you do it. I made that my mission statement. In New York City, I know one other mime. It's just not in our culture necessarily. It's not in the training for young artists. A lot of how I make my living is getting grants to come in and do a semester in mime and movement as additional training.
It's thrilling to be at the Out of the Loop for a third time because it means people want to see the kind of stuff I do. I did my show It Goes without Saying at Ohio University the other night and it was sold out, which was surprising. Young people are showing up for this art form. It was a packed house. The response from the audience felt like I was playing Shea Stadium. Afterward, there was a line of people telling me how they cried through half of it. I love it. They allow their emotions to go into the metaphor that is mime.
I do a story in one of my shows about a man who falls in love with the moon. He pulls the moon out of the sky and at the end he has to say goodbye to it. A woman came up to me sobbing at the end of the performance, saying "That is my relationship with my mother." It threw me. But I realized how powerful mime can be if you're willing to put your feelings into this thing. If it happens, it can be incredibly moving.
Has Cirque du Soleil, with its silent clowns, confused audiences into thinking that's classical mime?
I think the definition is going to change. I like to hold onto the classical training but in order for it to live, it has to expand out a little bit. Cirque, which I love, has reintroduced the idea of silent clowning. With that and with the fact that The Artist is the hit that it is, I think it means mime is going to be OK.
See Bill Bowers' Beyond Words on the main stage at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival: 8 p.m., Friday, March 9; 5 p.m., Saturday, March 10; 2 p.m., Sunday, March 11. He will teach a workshop in the Stone Cottage space at 11 a.m., Saturday, March 10. For tickets to the festival, which features multiple venues for plays, music and dance, or for more info, call 972-450-6232.