Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reader Meet Author

Chris Bower

I have never liked the word experimental. Whether it is used to describe music, art, or theater, there are so many problems with that description. First, without experimentation there would not be art. All creative output is in some form of an experiment. There is nothing to say that one is more experimental then another. The goal is to simply express emotion, tell a story, and hopefully entertain.

Chicago playwright Chris Bower is both an entertainer and a storyteller, and likes to try and find new ways of telling stories. Combing audio and video and straight performance with his fiction, poetry, and plays, Chris is able to consistently take the audience to new and unusual places. His most recent piece, "Promises to Keep: The Poems of Robert F. Kennedy", found him performing in New Orleans. A one man show, filled with the inner thoughts and struggles of RFK, glimpses of heaven, and oranges, "Promises to Keep" is a perfect example of the inventive work of Chris Bower.

Recently, Chris was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.

Orange Alert (OA): As a playwright, poet, and fiction writer, you have a unique look at all three genres. How does your approach to each differ? When you get an idea or see something that sparks your imagination, how do you pick which outlet you will utilize?
Chris Bower (CB): I just like telling stories and enjoy telling them in different ways. As to what becomes which and why, it's always the circumstance. I started writing poems because I had a broken computer program that would not allow me to type across the screen so I had to squeeze sentences in and was so frustrated with word-wrap-around that i just started thinking in lines, not in any kind of smart way but in a totally stupid way. Stories became poems accidentally. In a similar but different way, stories became performance and then plays mainly out of opportunity and possibly out of a frustration with getting people to publish my work. Publishing it publicly, throwing it out there seemed like a viable thing to do, and it became something I grew to love. These days, I am a little less naive as to what genre I am going to work. I am getting a lot less done that way. Sometimes the biggest struggle is trying to forget how everything works.

OA: Your plays are often called 'experimental'. What are your thoughts on that word? Is that a negative or a positive comment?
CB: Experimental is a word often meant to mean innovative, inaccessible and bullshit. Have I written shows that were all of those things? Maybe. Two of those things? Maybe. One of those things? Probably. All I know is that I try new things, new ways to tell stories. My last big show was an hour and half poetry reading with videos in between poems. Is that experimental? Possibly nobody has ever tried that before, but would I want to see that show? I am not sure if people called my RFK show "experimental", but I am sure they called it "weird." Robert Kennedy has hands made out of orange peels and lives on the outskirts of heaven in the skull of George Washington. It is weird but I am not satisfied with that, the struggle is getting back to being a show that is about something more. I am not an activist or overtly political in my work but I am overtly active in the politics of the sad and the ridiculous.

OA: You recently performed your piece "Promises to Keep" in New Orleans. What was the theater crowd like in New Orleans? What are your thoughts on performing in general?
CB: New Orleans is a gorgeous city. I find any excuse to go there. We (Found Objects Theatre Group) were lucky enough to get an invitation to do some shows out there. Our friend, former Chicagoan Michael Martin is a leader in the "store-front" theater scene in New Orleans and we went down there as a test to see if out of town acts could do well down there. Of course, coming in unknown into a city is a difficult thing, especially with limited press resources, but we did well, not every night, but overall it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for all of us.

I am not a natural performer. I am not an actor. I am shaky and don't like making eye contact. I am happy when a show is over. I use all of my bad qualities to help my performance become more uncomfortable for everyone and try to make that part of the show. I want them to stop looking at me and just listen. That never works in that people still look at me suffering but it seems to work for some people, the way I perform. In New Orleans, the audiences were not going to accept me doing that. A midwest audience will allow themselves to be tortured and consider it a feat. If they hated it, they will curse you over drinks after the show. A New Orleans audience will just walk out happy into the streets with their drink, 15 minutes into your performance. I am generalizing of course, a lot of people in Chicago drink on the street too.

For the New Orleans show, I had to drop a lot of the stuff I was doing in Chicago. I put a lot more energy into the actual performance. I made eye contact. I even interacted with the audience, showed them I knew how to tie a tie and demanded applause and shook all of their hands. I hated myself through the whole thing but it was a good thing for the show. This is why I am not an actor.

OA: What are your thoughts on the Chicago literary and theater scenes? Are they receptive to new voices?
CB: There are amazing people in Chicago in all of those areas. I think we, like all scenes tend to turn inside of ourselves. There are a lot of companies doing work I will probably never see, writers living in Chicago I will never read. With a huge amount of public readings and performances, those two worlds are getting closer. I wish people would go to plays more. I wish that about myself. I am very excited about the future of the literary and theatrical scenes in Chicago and I am glad to a part of them both.

OA: Why don't you have more of an on-line presence (i.e. a website, videos, etc)?
CB: I will have a website. It is called and it will be on-line very soon. The wonderful Susie Kirkwood is designing it for me and I just have not been able to get her any content to make it a website because I am a mess. The short answer is: I am not a computer guy and I am a mess. I do have videos on and some audio at

OA: What's next for Chris Bower?
CB: I am writing a new show for the Bruised Orange Theater Company which will be coming out this fall. It is based on Dostoevsky's White Nights and is also not based on Dostoevsky's White Nights. I was very fortunate to get involved with a really ambitious group of people. It has been a while since I have done a show with a company and with actors and I am really looking forward to it. Also, I am writing a show with Tim Racine about the shuttle disaster and rogue clouds that decide to ignore the wind. It is called Shuttle-cocked and will be at the Rhino Festival in January.

I Hate My Walking Stick

Bonus Questions:
Coffee? If yes, where can you find the best cup in Chicago?
CB: Yes, coffee. I don't know the best but the worst is on the third floor of 33 E. Congress at Columbia College. It comes out of a machine, the color of rust and comes in a cup that has poker cards on it.

OA: What type of music do you enjoy, and who are a few of your favorites?
CB: Anything that makes me both sad and crazy. Tom Waits, Goran Bregovic, The Clash, Ween and the best local band that does all of those things for me is The Bitter Tears.

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