Mime Bill Bowers Asks, ’What Are Boys Made Of?’
Frogs and snails and puppy dog tales.
That’s what little boys are made of.
That’s quite a burden to live with, if you happen to be a little gay boy from Montana whose basic building blocks fall more into sugar and spice category.
From the very moment Bill Bowers’ mother was released from the hospital after giving birth to him, the die was cast: her son would like all of the things a boy likes - and he’d grow up to be a man.
Several years ago, shortly after his mother died, Bowers "was going through her things, and I found this poem, ’What is a Boy?’ - it was one of those hokey 1950s poems, you know, about all these traditional things a boy is supposed to do."
Finding the poem pinned to the very baby blanket he was swaddled in upon arriving home from the hospital, the adult Bowers realized that verse was a blueprint for how he was expected to behave - things like "catching frogs and playing with guns...the things we gender-specify boys to be doing. But I wasn’t that kind of boy at all. Seeing this [blanket and poem] is what got me really interested about what we expect boys to be, and what happens if we don’t meet those expectations?"
Unlike an emotionally unavailable straight man, Bowers didn’t take it out on others or put on a brave front or drink himself silly at a major team sporting event. No, sir. He did what gay men have done throughout the ages, the thing that makes us fabulous. He wrote his feelings down, and put on a show!
In Beyond Words, Bowers explores the power of silence in our culture and illuminates the experiences of remaining silent, being silenced and silencing someone else.
A featured solo show in the LGBT-themed All For One Theater Festival, "Beyond Words" is a full-circle homecoming. The collection of vignettes premiered Off-Broadway, in the fall of 2011 (at Urban Stages) and recently had acclaimed runs in Warsaw, Poland and at the Edinburgh Festival.
In the states and around the world, "It’s gotten an incredible response," says Bowers, who attributes the show’s cross-cultural appeal to the fact that it addresses "a very hot topic right now, about masculinity and how we should be educating our young boys. It hit a real nerve, more than I realized it would."
The stories Bowers wrote for the show, nine of them in total, are structured to represent "the journey form boyhood to manhood-and within that, I tell stories with and without words. Some of them are musical, with a soundtrack, some of them are spoken and some are performed in mime."
Yes, Bill Bowers is an out, proud mime-and he’s waging an uphill battle for respect that’s every bit as fraught with prejudice as the effeminate boy’s quest for acceptance.
"The word ’mime’ scares people," says Bowers, who admits, "It even scares me."
But strain it through the filter of hip-hop, and the largely unrecognizable art of movement practiced by 1970s throwbacks Mummenschanz and Shields and Yarnell suddenly becomes a sought-after skill.
When Edge spoke with Bowers, he was on a short break between sessions of his Mime and Creative Movement class. Now in his third decade as a professional teacher, Bowers splits his time between the Stella Adler Conservancy and NYU.
"I’m busier now than I’ve ever been in my life," says Bowers. "So many people are interested in freestyle and street dance-and much of that is the same technique as mime. I just went through this in class," he says, referencing a student who tossed around the term "iso" without realizing it was short for "isolations"-a classic mime move.
"Any kind of pop and locking that’s done in hip-hop," says Bowers, "is exactly the same thing as [movements that are done in] mime." So in addition to giving vocabulary lessons, Bowers strives to put the coveted moves of youth culture in their proper context.
"Very few students know who Marcel Marceau [1923-2007] was," bemoans Bowers-who studied with the iconic French mime for several years, beginning in 1999. "His fear was that this whole art form would just disappear-and in this country, mime is the butt of a joke. But the moves of hip-hop are based on moves that have been traveling through history, in the form of mime."
As a performing artist, Bowers’ own work "has evolved into using words as well as mime and music. I’m taking the traditional art of mime and addressing contemporary issues with it, but also looking at other ways to use the art form in non-traditional ways. Some of the stories I tell [in "Beyond Words"] are autobiographical, and some of them are fictions I’ve written-but they all have to do with how the world response to you, if you’re a different kind of male."
The vignettes include a movement piece inspired by the silent film performance style of Charlie Chaplin. "It’s a Wild West story," says Bowers, "about a guy who’s trying to be macho, a cowboy-but he’s not any good at it. It asks what happens if you can’t be a ’real man’-what happens to you?"
A sad but true story from Bowers’ childhood, which made its way into "Beyond Words," answers that question. Growing up, recalls Bowers, "My uncle was probably the meanest man I ever knew. I later learned that as a boy, he was teased mercilessly, because he carried a little rag doll with him-in the wilds of Montana, in the 1920s."
Eventually, the pressure to conform became too much for the child, who committed a very telling act of self-loathing. "He strung his doll up on the clothesline," Bowers recalls, "and got a huge stick, then beat the doll until it was nothing but stuffing. When I was a boy, he used to tease me for being too effeminate. His experience as a child informed who he became as a grown man."
Beyond Words is performed on Saturday, October 12th at 7pm, Sunday, October 13th at 4pm, Saturday, October 26 at 1pm and Saturday, November 2 at 7pm. At the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce St., NYC).Tickets are $25. For reservations info, visit afofest.org.