Bill Bowers has been asked so often why he became a mime that he wrote a whole one-man show to answer the question.
“It Goes Without Saying” is a semi-autobiographical performance focused on his childhood and early interest in mime growing up gay in 1960s and 1970s Missoula, Montana.
“Growing up at the time I grew up, it was such a funny time for that, because there was literally no conversation,” Bowers said. “I was really good at not talking. I was really skilled at keeping quiet.”
As a kid, Bowers was drawn to theater and movies, particularly physical performers like Danny Kaye and Red Skelton. Bowers called them “silent clowns.”
He remembers the television premiere of husband-wife mime duo Shields and Yarnell in the ‘70s, as well as attending a performance by Marcel Marceau in Missoula.
At the time, the art form wasn’t the oddest hobby for a child, despite its relative oddity in the 21st century.
“(Mime) was less strange than it is now,” Bowers said. “There was this high point and — I always feel like it was the beginning of the end.”
Mime became a phenomenon that spread too quickly, in Bowers’ opinion, resulting in low-quality mimes who fed into the idea of the art form as a cultural joke.
By the time he was a professional, teaching workshops and booking jobs as a mime, Bowers said it had become a punchline.
“I’ve done a number of movies over the years, and I’m always the mime everybody hates,” he laughed. “That being said, I’ve never been busier as a teacher and a performer.”
Last year, Bowers said he was teaching 10 classes in New York City, a high point in his career.
“The integrity of it is coming back.”
Bowers went from Missoula to Billings for college, and to the East Coast for graduate school, studying acting and honing his mime skills on the side.
He took hardly any professional lessons in mime for years, teaching himself out of books until a mime would offer a workshop nearby. Bowers himself would earn money by teaching the occasional workshop and performing as a “living statue” in shopping malls.
“I basically paid my rent by being a mime,” he remembered. “Mime has never, ever gone by the wayside.”
Eventually, though Bowers was landing roles in Broadway shows — his biggest role was Zazu the bird in “The Lion King.”
Bowers injured his hand during the show and remembers laying in his hospital bed watching television when Marcel Marceau popped up again, this time promoting a world tour for his 80th birthday. He was inspired to reach out to Marceau to ask for training after acting for around 20 years.
“I thought (acting) would be a selling point, but to him it was not,” Bowers said. But Marceau agreed to teach him.
“It was a lot,” Bowers continued. “There was a lot of technique I just didn’t know.”
After he worked with Marceau, Bowers dedicated his career to mime, with an eye toward education and outreach, to keep the art form alive and relevant.
At this point, Bowers has traveled to dozens of countries to teach and has done residencies and workshops in Macedonia, the Netherlands and China.
“I’m attracted to unusual experiences,” Bowers said. He often chooses destinations that he feels could use a visit from a gay man and a mime, who can connect with kids and artists that are unfamiliar with his work.
The “greatest hits” of his travels were compiled into his newest one-man show, “All Over the Map.” Bowers described it as a travelogue, with a lot of storytelling and comparatively little miming.
The show covers some of his favorite visits to Macedonia, Poland and Asia, to start. There will be a couple of Montana scenes as well.
“I’ve yet to have a terrible experience,” Bowers said. “I’ve had some surprising experiences.”
The most surprising was perhaps his visit to Choteau, Montana, in the early 2000s.
“It’s a very small town, and I think I worked with everyone in town over that entire week,” he said. They welcomed him with open arms.
“Montana’s special in that way,” Bowers laughed.