Speaking out 

Professional mime Bill Bowers on the art of silence

The connection between Montana and mime is obvious to Bill Bowers. The Missoula native, now living in New York City, remembers Montana as “a place where there’s not a lot of sound.” That wide-open quiet coupled with what Bowers figures was a natural inclination toward wordless communication, propelled Bowers into a 25-year acting career—of which, he says, mime is the most enjoyable part.

“I’ve been a mime basically since I was born,” says Bowers, whose credits include playing Zazu in a Broadway production of The Lion King and teaching mime and movement at New York University. “I’ve always been attracted to silence so when I learned there was an art form about it, I was ready to go. It was what I wanted to do.”

One result of Bower’s mime career is Under a Montana Moon, a collection of nine original sketches he performs in an effort to explore “the idea of silence”—what it means to remain silent, to be silenced or to silence someone else.

“I tried to use the open spaces of Montana metaphorically,” says Bowers, who attended both Hellgate High School and Billings’ Rocky Mountain College before moving east, “as a place of great imagination and wide expanse and also a place that can be isolating.”

The sketches in Under a Montana Moon are sometimes comical, as when Bowers dons a cow suit to portray a bovine with an ambition to become a mime. Though he pulls off the cow-trapped-in-a-box gag, Bowers-as-cow can’t help mouthing a couple muted moos as the walls begin to close in.

The show does not limit itself to comedy, however. In a sketch that tips its hat to Frank Capra, Bowers lassos the moon and pulls it to earth, beginning fancifully but weighing down under the immensity of the project when the orbiting globe actually comes within reach. In this sketch Bowers resembles a dancer as much as an actor, using athletic and fluid movements, often accompanied by music and sound effects. But unlike most dancers, he confronts the audience directly, wordlessly soliloquizing with his facial expressions.

Such a performance might seem intimidating, but Bowers finds that people ultimately understand what he’s working to get across.

“I’ve done [Under a Montana Moon] all over Montana,” he says. “It gets a really great response. Even though it’s mime. Even though it’s not an art form people are used to or necessarily fans of, people really respond to it…especially if they know Montana.”

In that concession—“even though it’s mime”—Bowers acknowledges succeeding as a mime these days requires more than just competent execution. Mime is an often disrespected art form, which creates a hurdle to acceptance Bowers tries to surmount. “There is this kind of punch line thing about mime,” says Bowers. “When I first started doing it in the late ’70s, there was kind of a glut of mime…Lots of people went out on street corners and said ‘Oh, now I’m a mime because I painted my face and I’m wearing rainbow suspenders.’ There was a lot of bad mime out there.”

Bowers adds, “If someone said to me ‘Hey, guess what? There’s a mime show happening.’ I’m not sure I’d go, and I’m a mime.”

In the face of so much disrespect for his favorite art form, Bowers has a list of reasons compelling him to continue with it. Mainly, it’s what he believes he was meant to do. In fact, he thinks everyone has an inner mime.

“It’s the universal language,” he says. “Everybody is wired to be a mime…It’s something we are born to do.”

Bowers now spends a lot of his time teaching both straight mime and nonverbal expression as an element of acting. He explains that languages die out for lack of use and Bowers worries that, if he doesn’t spread his love for mime to others, something of what he and other practitioners have distilled into the art will be lost. It’s a concern honed by Bowers’ study under Marcel Marceau, the acclaimed French mime whose name is practically synonymous with the art.

“One thing that Marceau taught me,” says Bowers, “is that if you don’t perform [mime] and teach it and pass it on, it will die because mime is a temporal art form; it only exists if you are doing it. It’s about you and an audience right now; you can’t record it; you can’t it write down; you can talk about it but then you’re talking. Mime has to be now.”

Bowers says watching mime is something like reading, requiring active imagination to construct the backdrop and other elements of the scene from the hints provided by his movements. That puts him, onstage, in a role analogous to a writer’s, not crowding the audience’s attention with extraneous detail but limiting what’s communicated to the essential elements.

Sometimes, no amount of effort on the part of Bowers or his audience is enough to bridge the gap, however, as when Bowers visited an Amish schoolhouse in St. Ignatius to introduce the children to mime.

“I did my opening sequence in mime,” says Bowers, “and I could see their bodies pitching backward like it was freaking them out. It’s like they had never seen illusion; they didn’t know what illusion was. When I started talking, there was actual gasping.”

When he followed up with the schoolmaster about the visit Bowers learned just how shocking his appearance had been.

“After I left, the class all prayed for me because they thought I was retarded. They thought I was demented,” he says. “I freaked their shit out, I’ll tell ya.”

While most of his audiences have enough of a frame of reference to make sense of his performances, Bowers realizes that his art form is a challenge for many audiences, and he relishes it.

“People are challenged by mime because you have to sit silently, and it’s a vulnerable place to ask an audience to be… In the same way silence is powerful in prayer or in church or in meditation, it opens you up in a different sort of way than you might ordinarily be during the day.”

Bill Bowers performs Under a Montana Moon Friday, March 16, at the Hamilton Playhouse, 100 Ricketts Road in Hamilton, at 8 PM. $12.
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