A look at boyhood, manhood....and fatherhood
The catalyst for Bill Bowers' "Beyond Words" was a poem titled "What is a Boy?" that was pinned to his blue baby blanket when his mother brought him home from the hospital in 1954. For Bowers, who is gay, the stereotypical image it depicted became the creative seed for a show about boyhood and manhood, examined though his unique blend of mime, monologue and movement, that debuted in New York last October.
But he didn't know when he began the writing that 2012 would bring a life-changing event, one that would expand the topic in a totally unexpected way.
Bowers became a father.
"As I started on that subject of being a boy ... I had a boy," says Bowers, by phone from his New York City home. "It's something I had never in a million years planned, but it became a part of my new show."
Despite decorating a room of his vacation cabin years ago with cowboy paraphernalia from his native Montana and designating it "the little boy's" room, Bowers never actually thought he'd have one of his own.
"I love kids, but I never thought my lifestyle would allow for that," he admits.
Then, several years ago, Bowers and his partner of 16 years (and spouse of a year), Michael Growler, were asked to be sperm donors for a lesbian couple who are close friends. Bowers ended up becoming not just the donor, but a dad.
While he and Growler, a personal assistant to the actress Laura Linney, have no legal or financial commitment, 2-year-old Max, who lives with his mothers close by, has become an integral part of their daily lives. Bowers is "Daddy"; Growler is "Pop."
"My family teases me that I got the best deal in the world," says Bowers, laughing. "I have a kid in my life, but I see him when I want to see him. It's a great arrangement."
His new parental role has been incorporated into "Beyond Words," the show he will present at the Historic Asolo this week as a part of the "New Stages: Narrative in Motion" series. It succeeds "It Goes Without Saying," an exploration of the silences around growing up gay in macho Montana, which he performed here on two previous visits.
When he began writing "Beyond Words," Bowers also didn't suspect that its topic would be so timely. With gay marriage and gender issues brought to the fore by President Obama, and with the issues surrounding the recent shooting in Newtown, Conn., at the forefront of the nation's consciousness, the play has taken on a relevancy he never anticipated.
"I guess my mind has been on what a lot of others have been on," he says. "A lot of people are looking at this idea of manhood and masculinity. There's such anxiety over men's fear of losing power."
Given their subject matter and the fact that they include highly personal autobiographical material, both of Bowers' shows have been known to provoke startling post-performance revelations from audience members.
"A lot of times a young person will be trying to figure out how to come out to someone," Bowers says. "I can't tell you the number of times I've been that person. Because I'm the guy from somewhere else, people feel it's a safe place to put it."
Such "true confessions" have prompted him to think about whether he has an obligation that extends beyond the stage by publicly examining such sensitive, and often confidential, issues.
"What happens is it brings up this other part for me, which is, what is my responsibility now?" he says. "What am I supposed to be doing with my life?"
Since Bowers makes most of his living from teaching (mostly acting students), he is considering extending the performance material into workshops or classes that could speak to students outside the theatrical realm.
"That's part of what I want to add into the teaching I do," he says, quickly noting, "though I'm not an expert at all."
During his stay in Sarasota he will not only work again with students from the Asolo Conservatory acting program run by his longtime friend, Greg Leaming, but also do a presentation at the North Sarasota Public Library at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. The "informance," as he calls it, is free.
Arlen Bensen, who is in charge of the library's youth programs and was a fellow graduate student at Rutgers, says his friend's inherent nature makes him an exceptional and approachable communicator.
"He's great at empathizing with people," says Bensen. "You combine his compassion with his artistic sensibility and creativity and you have a great synthesis of body, spirit and imagination. And I think he genuinely loves everyone too, which is a great part of his teaching."
Bowers is already thinking about a follow-up to his current show that would address the question of "What is a girl?" He envisions it as an ensemble piece rather than a solo, or even as a series of workshops.
No doubt his developing relationship with his son will provide additional fodder he can't yet begin to anticipate.
"He calls me 'Daddy' and hugs me and it knocks me over every time," Bowers says.
Then he adds, chuckling knowingly: "But I'm sure he'll hate my guts at some point."
BILL BOWERS, part of the Ringling Museum's "New Stages: Narrative in Motion" series at the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401` Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7-9. $15-25. 360-7399; www.ringling.org.