No More Clowning Around: For Vaudeville Clown and Mime Artist Bill Irwin, Writing Serious Plays Means Reaching into a New Bag of Tricks

By Miller, Stuart | American Theatre, October 2003 | Go to article overview

No More Clowning Around: For Vaudeville Clown and Mime Artist Bill Irwin, Writing Serious Plays Means Reaching into a New Bag of Tricks


Miller, Stuart, American Theatre


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Aman floats in the air, hovering for a moment, seemingly suspended between two worlds. He is attempting to leap from one to the other ... although he won't, can't completely let go of the first one. The man's home world is largely silent, an intensely physical place where his vocabulary is built on movement and his stories are told with body language and facial impressions. He's in total control there, a wizard who persuades his limbs and muscles to balance, stretch or move in ways we, his audience, never dream of. Yet as he reaches toward this next world--one built on words, language and storytelling narrative--the ground beneath him disappears, and he feels shaky, uncertain.

This leap, and the resulting turmoil, will soon be writ large across the stage as we sit rapt, waiting, hoping to see him pull it off: the transformation of the baggy-pants clown into a traditional playwright.

This is Bill Irwin in transition. Despite 30 years as an acclaimed clown and a burgeoning career as a serious actor, Irwin approaches his current season as Signature Theatre Company of New York's featured playwright tentatively. After all, Signature has already announced upcoming retrospectives by such established writers as Paula Vogel and August Wilson. "I remember the look on Bill's face when I told him--that was funny," says Signature's artistic director James Houghton with a laugh. "I don't think he saw this invitation coming."

Months after Houghton's announcement, Irwin is still unnerved. "The company one is put in is pretty daunting, and I feel my attempts are under the cloud of that context," Irwin says, adding that as he struggles with the form and structure of his season's most traditional offering, Mr. Fox: A Rumination, he often finds himself wondering, "'What would August Wilson do right here?'--which can be a handicap."

This is a natural fear for a rookie, especially for one who is also a perfectionist. "He's never satisfied and never cuts himself any slack, but that has served him well," comments Irwin's longtime collaborator Doug Skinner, a composer, pianist and ventriloquist. Though his constant self-doubt seems genuine, Irwin himself comes across as polite and amiable, not whiny or angst-ridden.

Irwin's season-long retrospective in New York is not a sudden arrival at a crossroads but a gradual transition, long in arriving. Houghton says that while Irwin is just now officially segueing into the world of playwriting, he has earned his place alongside Signature's other celebrated playwrights like Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson. "Bill is a playmaker and an incredibly gifted storyteller with a singular voice," Houghton avows.

Skinner agrees: "Bill's preoccupations are character and dilemma, which lend themselves to both clowning and storytelling."

This year's Signature season will highlight the patterns and stylistic leaps of Irwin's career. The first production, The Harlequin Studies, which opened in September and runs through Oct. 26 at Signature's Peter Norton Space, is a compendium of existing pieces that captures the essence of the young Irwin, including his "Clown Bagatelles"--Irwin as a marionette, as a waiter doing battle with a plate of spaghetti, as a nerd whose body is possessed by music and overcome by the urge to dance. Harlequin, which contains new dialogue and monologues, reveals Irwin as the thinking man's clown, providing context, perspective and even metaphor along with the laughs.

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Next, beginning in December, is The Regard Evening, an update of The Regard of Flight, Irwin's defining 1980s work that wove vaudeville and clowning bits into a larger narrative about the nature of theatre itself. Regard poked fun at the intellectuals and critics who tossed around labels like "New Vaudevillians" and analyzed theatre to death--and at the performers themselves, who declared themselves to be through with the old theatrical devices and crutches and were, therefore, breaking new ground.

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No More Clowning Around: For Vaudeville Clown and Mime Artist Bill Irwin, Writing Serious Plays Means Reaching into a New Bag of Tricks
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