At age nine, Wolfe Bowart learnt to juggle and ride a unicycle, and by the time he became a teenager, he was carrying his friends on his shoulders while riding through town. He also developed a love for making Super 8 movies, creating and directing stories incorporating magic and illusion elements, such as making his turtle look like it was doing push-ups.
In high school, Bowart studied painting and thought about following in the footsteps of his grandfather, abstract expressionist Edward Dugmore. But his love for physical comedy — à la Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy — led him to study theatre to enhance his skills, which provided him a well-rounded and rigorous training that included doing Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett.
Today, Bowart travels the world to perform his solo shows, having enthralled young and old alike since his very first, LaLaLuna, in 2006. And though one would find it hard to describe what he does, it can perhaps be said that he brings to the stage an amalgamation of all of his boyhood interests.
“Looking back, even at that young age, I already knew what physical comedy was and all of that, though I never thought I was going to do it [as a career],” says Bowart. It nevertheless seems a natural progression for him, having come from a family of artists — his father was a writer, his mother a painter and his grandmother, a photographer.
“Being in the arts wasn’t forbidden, but if you were going to do it, you had to work very, very hard at it,” he says. “Subsequently, my brother became an incredible muralist and artist, one sister is a dancer and another, a photographer. So we’ve all gone into it.”
Bowart counts himself lucky to be one of the rare few who combine all of their interests in their work, be it building a magic prop or shooting an interactive film, as he did for his latest production.
But anyone who has watched his performance would know it is not quite a run-of-the-mill pantomime or child’s entertainment show, though he believes children tend to be the most astute of audiences. “They will let the artist know if they’re not very good, you can’t waste their time.”
That means a lot of focus is placed on making sure the pacing is good, with a lot of tricks, magic, juggling, puppet shadows and other different things. At the same time, Bowart says, “One of the things I work hard to avoid is have a trick or gag be there just for itself. It has to further the story, or the character arc of the play. That’s always the challenge.”
There is an innate artistry in Bowart’s craft. He notes, “I thought if I have this forum to do something with my art, I would like to say something important, albeit in a surrealistic way.
“Everything has meaning but I might not necessarily need you to know what it is, and I have a clear idea of what I’m trying to say, but I’m always open to other people’s perception of what it is. It’s the same way one would look at a painting or a poem.”
That would be one’s experience in LaLaLuna, which he describes as a visual poem about dreams, sleep and the moon. With Letter’s End, he takes on a stronger narrative, telling the story of a man remembering his life in the form of burning letters and packages. In The Man The Sea Saw, a man floats out to sea on an iceberg that gets smaller by the day.
And in all of them, Bowart compellingly tells his abstract and, at times, absurd stories without words. As one reviewer of Letter’s End described, “This is a man who produces roses from nowhere, who appeases his hunger with an apple picked from a picture in the wall, who turns a love letter into a string of hearts, who toasts his toast in a toaster plugged into his jacket pocket, who grows a tree in his shoe, and who climbs the tree to save some eggs in his hat … to drop them or to turn them into juggling balls … who tells stories with shadow puppets … and all this without a word, just with an expressive face and an agile body.”
That his work transcends language is one of the reasons why Bowart loves physical theatre. “You use a different part of your mind when you watch something visual. And if they do the right thing, you get swept up in the story and you don’t care that they’re not talking,” he says.
In his latest creation, Cloud Soup, the performer is telling a story about humanity. Having performed twice in Malaysia, Bowart has a strong affection for the country’s audience. It led to his decision to premiere the full show at the DiverseCity KL International Arts Festival 2018.
“The audience here is so eclectic and very giving, it’s exciting to be able to bring something new,” he says.
His smallest show yet, Cloud Soup is about a tailor who does laundry and the people that come to his door. The audience sees how he reacts to these unseen visitors, and learn who they are through that.
Bowart says he wanted to go back to his roots with a more minimal set, though he admits there’s still more than enough of set pieces involved. “LaLaLuna was a bunch of suitcases, and then it got bigger. In the last show, I said I’m going to make a really small show, but it became the biggest one instead, with a giant iceberg, a seesaw and a giant whale that pops up.
“So this time, with Cloud Soup, hopefully, I’m learning to have less, to find the quality in a moment, a prop or a scene, and not try to do a hundred things at once. To find honesty in the character and trust the audience and myself that we’ll go on this journey.”
'Cloud Soup' will be held on Sept 15 (11am and 3pm) at Menara Ken TTDI. Tickets are priced at RM89 and RM36 (children aged 12 and below). Click here for more information. This article first appeared on Sept 10 in The Edge Malaysia.