From trying to get some reaction from a stony-faced, isolated Amish community in rural Pennsylvania to stripping off after a show in a snow-shrouded nudist colony, Bill Bowers has done it all, and in the case of the latter, seen it all during his life on the road.
Originally from distant and very quiet Montana, now resident in New York, Mr Bowers has travelled the world for the last thirty-odd years presenting his mime shows, teaching and holding workshops. For the past week he has been lecturing at the American school in Holland with the trip culminating in two shows in The Hague.
Billed by STET, who presented the show, as “a mime journey across four continents” one could be forgiven for expecting All Over the Map to be a . . . well, a mime show. In fact, the show was Bill Bowers talking about his life, travelling the world as a mime artist. It was a bit like Mel Brooks’ classic film comedy, a pastiche of the pre-talkies, Silent Movie, when the only character to speak was Marcel Marceau. I think many of the audience were surprised and some were certainly disappointed.
Nevertheless, everyone was soon won over by Mr Bowers’ engaging personality and the dozens of anecdotes and stories gathered from his extraordinary peripatetic life as a performer and teacher. He makes a biggish deal about being gay and explains that the childhood isolation resulting from that and the silence of Montana where cows outnumber people by six to one, were important factors in the inevitability of his chosen career. He studied for three or four years with Marcel Marceau and has also worked in conventional theatre on Broadway as well as playing all fifty of the American states and appearing at The White House.
This is story telling at its very best and, not surprisingly, his shows are generally warmly received, but in such a long career, and having played in the grandest to the most basic venues, there will be problems. After hearing descriptions of some of the places he has visited and the homophobic reactions and incidents he has encountered, it’s difficult to know whether Mr Bowers is evangelical or masochistic. But above all, he is an entertainer whom it would be impossible not to like.
The show, illustrated by the projection of cartoon-style maps with a pin highlighting the places being described, is mostly funny, frequently tear-inducingly so, and often moving. Aided only by five chairs and the maps he takes us on buses, into schools and theatres, to the Gateway Arch in St Louis, to a hot tub in the naturist colony deep in a snow-covered forest, and lots more besides. We meet characters ranging from a wheelchair-bound guy dying of aids to a woman whose talented rabbit has aspirations to be a mime artist He also encounters the notorious Dutch prostitute and brothel keeper Xaviera Hollander, “The Happy Hooker”, who ran off with the takings from a show of his she promoted. But Bowers was philosophical, pointing out that he was only one in a long line of people to be screwed by her.
The best line in the show comes from some red-neck farmer in the American heartland whose view on vegetarianism was that if God had intended us not to eat animals he wouldn’t have made them out of meat.
All Over the Map is an exceedingly entertaining show performed by an accomplished performer, teacher and story-teller. To discover whether he is an accomplished mime artist will have to wait for another day. Michael Hasted 7th April 2019
Listen to ArtsTalk Radio’s exclusive interview with Bill Bowers