Bill Bowers loves the reaction he gets at the start of his one-man performance It Goes Without Saying. The opening scene suggests a slightly different play than what attendees were expecting. “It begins as a mime show, and it’s always my hope that people will be in the audience like, ‘Oh sh*t, it’s a mime show,’” Bowers says. “And then after about two minutes of mime, I break the silence and start talking, which usually gets a great laugh of relief.”
The play, about how the 29-year resident of New York City’s East Village became a mime and where that life has led him, debuts in Asheville Saturday, Jan. 9, at Asheville Community Theatre. The visit is made possible by new local staging company LEAD Productions and will be Bowers’ first time back in the city since 1995. That summer he was in the Flat Rock Playhouse’s productions of Buffalo Gals, My Three Angels and Beau Geste, and spent each of his days off exploring downtown Asheville.
It Goes Without Saying originated as a comedy called My Life in Tights, in which Bowers told wacky true stories about his career as a performer. He brought the material to the Adirondack Theatre Festival in 2003 where Martha Banta — who had a hand in developing Rent and was the associate director of Mamma Mia! — got him thinking about blending the humor with memories that weren’t so funny.
“Her specialty is developing new work. She’s just got a great ear for what works, and she’s an excellent editor,” Bowers says. “One of the reasons I wanted to work with her is she doesn’t like mimes, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s probably good.’”
Banta helped Bowers focus on the story he wanted to tell, and once they arrived at exploring why he became a mime, she suggested he present the vignettes chronologically. The decision was fitting because the events that led Bowers to not talking for a living dates to his childhood in Montana. Though he says it’s no hotbed of mime, he notes that the Big Sky State is a spacious, quiet place, and that the big, silent part of nature is a significant aspect of his life. His mother’s family were homesteaders who traveled the Oregon Trail, making Bowers a fifth-generation descendant of Westerners, nearly all of whom, he says, “talk about nothing.”
From these formative years as what he calls “a gay kid growing up in the wilds of Montana, back in the ’60s, before Oprah,” It Goes Without Saying charts Bowers’ professional and personal trajectory. The subject of silence is the play’s fitting through-line as Bowers examines why certain topics are deemed open for discussion and others are not. Among those addressed is the 1980s and ’90s AIDS epidemic in New York City, which claimed Bowers’ partner. But even when the autobiographical content veers into more emotionally painful territory, Bowers stresses that this is foremost a performance, not an opportunity to figuratively air his dirty laundry in public.
“It’s important that you make a piece of theater as opposed to working out your issues onstage,” Bowers says. “I’m not a fan of doing therapy onstage. Part of the process for me of writing is to really look at things deeply, and really work through them, but the goal for me is to make a piece of theater that is beyond my own story.”
Augmented by light and sound design, It Goes Without Saying involves Bowers, a stool and a giant notepad on an easel, on which the actor has written each vignette’s title (e.g., “Hugh and Donald,” about an early morning encounter with his Two Weeks Notice co-stars Hugh Grant and Donald Trump). This humble production design and Bowers’ friendly, informal manner may suggest that he’s making things up as he goes. In fact, it’s a true scripted play with an order of stories that has remained the same since its acclaimed Off-Broadway run at New York City’s Rattlestick Theatre in 2006.
Though Bowers never set out to write a play he’d still be performing 10 years later, he’s kept his senses attuned to new and unusual anecdotes, the result of which has him reteaming with Banta for a nonchronological quasi-sequel to It Goes Without Saying. The new play is culled from the journal Bowers kept during the past decade of performing, often in underserved rural areas that consistently lend themselves to interesting experiences. Inspired by his shows at a nudist colony, an Amish community and numerous strange encounters with hookers, Bowers has titled the work Nude Amish Hookers and the Mime on the Road.
WHAT: It Goes Without Saying
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 9, 7:30 p.m. $25