- Courtesy Millibo Art Theatre
- Bill Bowers uses silence as a means of expression in his mixed-media mime show, Beyond Words.
Having grown up as a gay boy in small-town Montana, Bowers knows a thing or two about the necessity of staying quiet. Deeply held but unspoken social expectations shaped his upbringing, how he moved and dressed, right down to how he talked. “As a kid,” he says, “I would think really ahead about what I wanted to say, and structure the sentence so there were as few ‘s’ sounds as possible, so I wouldn’t sound feminine or gay. That’s not a normal thing for a kid to do.” Even as a child, he recognized the relative safety of remaining silent. Unsurprisingly, miming became an ideal art form for him to pursue, but he did not seek it out. In fact, he counts himself lucky to have been exposed to it at a fairly young age. “What are the odds, living in Montana?” he asks.
Bowers is a classically trained performer who studied with Marcel Marceau, a giant within the discipline of miming. For Bowers, miming is a vehicle, a way to open dialogue by disarming weaponized expectations. “This is my voice. I can be expressive, creative and communicative with less risk than speaking.”
Bowers uses his art form to explore issues and begin conversations about important topics, especially gender and sexuality. He pulls stories from his own life and puts them in conversation with other pieces of art and culture. His award-winning play, Beyond Words, is a set of nine mixed-media vignettes about masculinity, sexual identity and gender transgression. The show draws from Bowers’ own experience growing up in Montana; Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories about a hate crime in a small town, written in 1919; and the story of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. It also includes a handful of fictional pieces Bowers wrote himself.
Bowers strategically deploys a variety of artistic resources to create a moving and dynamic experience, including silent miming, speech and music. It isn’t all serious, though. In some of his vignettes, like the one about a cowboy trying desperately not to look gay in the Wild West, he takes cues from physical comedians like Charlie Chaplin to create funny yet poignant moments.
Each vignette serves a purpose — to start a necessary conversation. “I had no idea when I wrote it that it would still be vital six years later. These issues, masculinity, boyhood, manhood, they seem to really be in the zeitgeist right now,” says Bowers. “Even guns as a symbol of manliness. That conversation is really loud right now.”
Bowers’ lived experience not only informs his art, but also sets his itinerary. He tours across the country, performing in rural communities, not unlike the small town he grew up in. He likes to shake things up. “I like to be an out gay man in those types of places,” he says. “There are gay people everywhere and they need to have a voice, but aren’t allowed to have one.” This conversation is relevant everywhere, not just in the U.S. Touring with Beyond Words also takes Bowers abroad to Europe and Asia.
Though he is a seasoned world traveler, Colorado Springs’ Millibo Art Theatre, known for its circus, cabaret and children’s theater camps, is one of Bowers’ favorite places to perform, and he returns here any chance he can get. “It’s like coming home. I’ve made good friends here, and the core audience is warm and supportive,” he says. “I’ve performed every show I’ve ever written in Colorado Springs and even done some fine-tuning and workshopping here. It’s a great place.”
Bowers will return to the Millibo on Friday, July 20, to do a special benefit performance of Beyond Words.