Encore: Bill Irwin
Monday, September 22, 2014
Interviewed by Laura Brueckner
Bill Irwin, Actor
Many know Bill Irwin as a clown. He was a founding member of the Pickle Family Circus; his film The Regard of Flight is an oft-cited inspiration to a generation of New Vaudevillians; and he and David Shiner won a Tony Award for their physical comedy fantasia Fool Moon. And he's reached the pinnacle of cultural significance: being on Sesame Street (as Mr. Noodle).
As Bill Irwin the Serious Actor, his Broadway turn in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won him a second Tony. His Beckett outings include not only Waiting for Godot but also Texts for Nothing, for which he won an Obie Award.
What's at the center of this whirlwind? An artist with tremendous skills, striving to create new pathways for human connection. Following this impulse has taken Irwin from the parks of San Francisco to the bright lights of Broadway and all around the world...and now back to SF, where he and Shiner are performing Old Hats at ACT.
Do you come from an arts family?
Yes and no. My maternal grandfather was a schoolteacher and county school superintendent, but he loved putting on theatricals. My father was an aerospace engineer for 35 years, but he also built sets for the community theatre.
You're a father yourself. What's it been like balancing parenting with a performing career?
The amount of travel in this profession means you're away a lot. But you'd have to talk to my son about that. He was often asked [to perform] in school, but declined. He's been clear since about 8th grade that he's not interested in performing; his quiet assurance was impressive. He's a photographer, and follows other interests.
What was the first performance that really affected you?
Wow, this goes into way-back-fuzzy-memory time. I remember when we got a television set in the '50s. I'm of that generation that grew up on Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. I remember trying to learn how do to a handspring from watching that on TV.
Performing is strenuous. How do you maintain your instrument?
I have to be pretty religious about it. It takes daily strengthening and stretching. Then I have to get down into my little basement studio, every day, and do something. It's a joy, but sometimes it's also like pulling teeth.
What do you look for in collaborators?
Performance is a way of reflecting the world. People who aren't in the performance world sometimes think it's all about ego gratification and making people clap. But beneath that is a desire to have some way to organize and view the world and offer it back to an audience.
Looking for somebody to work with often starts with short-range concerns, like, "this guy (or gal) can play the piano!" But more long-term? David Shiner and I are still—after decades of working together—trying to figure each other out. We fit together, somehow; one critic compared us to peanut butter and jelly.
How did you meet?
We met in 1991; we were cast in a movie together: Sam Shepard's Silent Tongue. It was a terrible movie, but a great stroke of luck! We were a medicine show duo and had to come up with bits together.
I knew he was this huge hit in Cirque du Soleil, and he had seen my film, Regard of Flight, so we were both kind of in awe of each other. We went to a restaurant in the Village called the Harlequin—and the only things we agreed on was that the food was horrible and he looked great in top hats.
He invited me to see him in Cirque. Through his whole act, my mother, sitting next to me, was in hysterics. I thought, "I don't remember her ever laughing that hard at anything I ever did!"
What advice would you give your younger self?
It takes immense work and talent and dedication and good luck and all that, but every gig is just one person doing something. When you're young, you can get intimidated and think, "Solo work on a Broadway stage—I'm not ready for that." But no one's ever ready for that, until you find yourself doing it. Everything's a matter of giving it a go. Don't take on too much more than you're capable of, but don't take less.
What do you see in the theatre field now that excites you?
Anytime somebody's putting up a show, that's hopeful. It's hard. There's this certain thrill I still get sitting in an audience, especially when I see young people doing things that are fresh and strong—that's exciting. And so is being part of a continuum. When my bills are all paid and I've been shuffled off to the old actors' home, people will still be doing shows. It gives you a purpose.