An actor explains why he left Broadway at 40 years old to become a mime

When he was 40 years old, actor Bill Bowers left his gig at “The Lion King” on Broadway — one of the highest-earning musicals in history — to become a mime. We talked to Bowers about why he took up the silent art, his technique, and the importance of passing on the art form of mime “body to body.”

Following is a transcript of the video.

Usually the first thing, when people find out I’m a mime, the first question they ask is “why?”

My name’s Bill Bowers and I am a mime.

You have energy and this imaginary world has energy and where the two things come together is an illusion. That’s where the imagination of the audience joins you. Your imagination meets theirs and together you create an object.

So put your hands on the wall, it’s a pushup. So you’re going to let your body come in, and then use the wall to push back. Push in.

When an audience is allowed to really sit and receive information in another way, maybe in a nonverbal way, where you’re taking information in through your collaboration imaginatively. You know, in pantomime the audience is really participating in helping see what you’re trying to create in illusion.

Look at that, yeah! Do that a couple times, just send it back and forth. And what you’re doing is great because you’re watching what you’re doing and that’s really helpful for an audience because there’s nothing there.

What I find is people are incredibly moved. That’s the overall comment I get is that people will say A, I didn’t think I liked mime, and B, I had no idea I would be so emotional by this.

So I think silence has incredible power that way. If you think of silent spaces, churches, temples, libraries, you know, it’s places where people are contemplating and sitting with themselves, which there’s less and less opportunity to do that in our culture and it’s a vulnerable place to put yourself.

I was on Broadway doing The Lion King when it first began. I was playing Zazu, the bird. It was a big hit and we were doing a lot of — I mean, eight shows a week and lots of other special events, and I ended up injuring my hand. I was in the hospital for a period of time, my hands were in these big foam rubber boxes, and I was watching the news and there was a story about Marcel Marceau going on his 80th birthday world tour.

Marcel Marceau was in so many ways synonymous with mime. He was invited on a number of live broadcasts and that brought mime, this art form, into people’s living rooms, and he would continue to appear on TV and in film, and so he just had a huge influence on bringing what mime was out to the masses.

And I had one of those lightbulb moments. I just thought if I’m ever going to study with him, I need to do that. And so, I would leave The Lion King, I went off with Marcel Marceau for the next, or parts of the next three years, and the year after that he died, so I was very glad I took the leap.

It’s such a unique art and particularly in the US, there’s so few people doing it. One of the things Marceau really stressed was that if you don’t pass it on body to body, it will disappear, it will just go away. So I took that kind of as my mission and I’ve been on the road ever since.

In New York City there’s a handful of us that are working as mimes and I think part of the … what’s changed is that since Marcel Marceau died which was 10 years ago this month, he was kind of the hub of the wheel and there’s no “there” there anymore. And so, I think modern mime has to kind of reformulate and find what it’s going to be next. I’m confident it will continue on, I think it might change shape. You know, we see a lot of mime technique in freestyle dance and hip hop dance, which I think is fantastic, I just think it’s moving forward in some new ways.

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