Saturday, March 21, 2015

Unplugged with Bill Bowers at Asolo Rep

You know it's getting to the end of the season when theaters start running their new play festivals. As a rule, these festivals feature readings of new plays rather than full blown productions. While the term "reading" implies that people (who may not even be actors) sit and read dryly through a script, my experience has been anything but that.  Although readings are not polished productions -- and there are no costumes or sets -- you get a real sense of the potential of a show.  If the story is good, I find myself just as drawn in as I might a show with all the bells and whistles.  And as a bonus, the playwright is typically on hand to get feedback from the audience.  It's exciting to feel like you're getting in on the ground floor of what might be the next big thing.

Bill Bowers
That's a long introduction to what was a truly fabulous night of theater/storytelling with mime Bill Bowers.  The event--entitled "Stories from the Road"--was the first of the Asolo Repertory Theatre's Sixth Annual "Unplugged" New Play Festival.  As soon as I saw that Bowers' work would be taken for a test drive, I knew Dorrit and I had to go. Last year we went to see a recital of sorts with the Asolo Conservatory students showing off their mime techniques after spending a week with Bowers.  It was a blast.  (Click here to read my blog about that experience.)  The chance to hear Bowers tell stories from his travels was too good an opportunity to miss. 

Jory Murphy as  Bowers' "lovely assistant"
Within moments of Bowers taking the stage, we knew we were in for a ride.  He informed us at the outset that he has changed the name of his play from "Stories from the Road" to "Nude Amish Hookers & the Mime Who Loves Them." Given the new title, you probably won't be surprised to hear that I was literally doubled over with laughter throughout the evening.

With the play still taking shape, Bowers had categorized his stories into seven themes, from "How Did This Happen to Me?" to "Weird Jobs" to "For Adults Only."  Each category was listed on a poster board with sticky notes about potential stories. He would ask the audience to yell out a category, decide which area was most in demand at that moment, grab a sticky note, and launch into his tale. Most of the stories dealt with people he had encountered while on the road giving workshops and performances, and I would be hard pressed to say which was the funniest. Was it the one about the woman whose rabbit took one of Bowers' workshops (and engaged in extensive email correspondence with him)?  Or perhaps it was the tale that ended with a young student guessing that Bowers wasn't wearing his white face make-up because it was after Labor Day?

It was a treat to listen in on a post-performance chat with Bowers, director Greg Leaming and the audience (which included both Conservatory students and a lot of folks who are clearly serious theater people).  Bowers shared that his other two plays -- "Under a Montana Moon" and "'Night Sweetheart, 'Night Buttercup" -- started in the same way; i.e., by telling the stories rather than from a written script.  "The alchemy of the audience and the stories tells me what the play is going to be, " he said.

There was a slight difference of opinion as to whether the final version of the play should have a clearer theme. To me, the play worked more or less as it was, in part because of the audience's participation. Our role put us in a position not dissimilar to that of the people in Bowers' stories. We too were there to learn about Bowers' craft, albeit from a different perspective.  And while I didn't leave with the ability to execute a leaning tower of Pisa, I did come away with a greater appreciation--once again--of the unexpected ways in which the arts can open our eyes to new worlds and ever-so-slightly change our attitudes and expectations.      

I was thrilled to hear that the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York has already signed Bowers on to present his new play there next spring.  I always love having an excuse to go to New York, and I can't imagine a better one than watching Bill Bowers in action. 

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