On Friday night in the Adams Memorial Theatre, Bill Irwin presented a packed house with much lengthening and shortening of his body, putting on of different hats, and descending into boxes. All of these displays comprised what he called “The Clown Lecture.” Irwin preferred this title to “The Art of Clowning” by which his performance/lecture had been advertised by its sponsor, the Lecture Committee. The event itself was a hodge-podge that showcased Irwin’s physical comedy and choreographic skills, as well as his intellectual side as a theater artist who takes his craft extremely seriously. The event defied easy classification, being part lecture, part review of the history and elements of clowning, part presentation of Irwin’s favorite bits, and concluding with a look at pieces that he is currently developing.
After an introduction by Professor John Limon of the English department, Irwin took the stage with his accompanist and long-time collaborator, Doug Skinner. He began the lecture by noting that their plans for the performance had changed dramatically after last week’s tragic events in New York City and Washington D.C. Choosing to tone down elements of comedy, they re-examined the performance, stripped it to its essentials, and trimmed what was at first an extended spoof on academic lectures. Irwin asked the audience to consider the evening a sharing of what he and Skinner had done with most of their lives and an affirmation and celebration of the human spirit rather than an exercise in the denial of tragedy.
Irwin, accompanied by Skinner on piano, performed many short pieces from his extensive repertoire. In a hilarious piece based on Shakespeare’s “The Seven Ages of Man,” Irwin used his talent of shortening his body within over-sized clothes to portray a man progressing through the stages of life, as listed by Skinner: “infancy, adolescence, the prime of life, middle-age, old fart, and cranky old fart.” In another classic bit, Irwin played a character who is pulled into the wings by an unseen “inexplicable” force. Skinner explained the steps of the piece as Irwin performed, dissecting its anatomy and putting a new spin on this sketch.
Earlier, Irwin had given a short history of clowning by demonstrating and speaking on past greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, looking back as far as the harlequino character of commedia dell’ arte. Irwin’s explanation of comedy was appropriately simple and profound. He quoted Buster Keaton, who said, “you take a guy, you give him a problem and there’s your comedy.” He then demonstrated how he follows this simple equation of character and dilemma. Irwin added that clowns portray characters who fear loss of dignity and loss of life and limb exactly equally.” Irwin also shared some wisdom that he developed only after years of clowning: that the character’s recovery after solving a dilemma is a wonderful time both for the performer to catch his breath and for the audience to react.
In a slower and more thoughtful mood, Irwin presented ideas for a new theater piece based on the life of George Lafayette Fox, an American clown of the mid-nineteenth century with whom Irwin feels a special kinship. Irwin explained that Fox was one of the most successful performers of his time and continued to perform even after losing his mind near the end of his life. Irwin, now in his fifties, shows few signs of slowing down, but his work on the life of Fox indicates he has begun to consider the day when his clowning will be done.
In tribute to Fox, Irwin demonstrated the procedure by which a white-face clown applies his make-up. After adding a classic red nose and red hair, Irwin returned to the stage to present some of his own gags from his early days as “Willy the Clown,” using hats and a bowl of rubbery spaghetti as comic devices.
Bill Irwin’s career has taken him from clowning into almost every medium of performance, including stage, screen, and television. Irwin began working in the theater, attending the Ringling Brothers Clown College, from which he graduated in 1974. He soon began producing original work, including the pieces Not Quite/New York, The Courtroom, and Regard of Flight. Irwin has since performed in several works by Samuel Beckett, including Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin and Robin Williams in which he played Lucky, and later in Texts for Nothing, directed by Joseph Chaikin. At one point in “The Clown Lecture,” Irwin spoke of his continued attempts to grapple with the opportunities and challenges that Texts for Nothing offers for both interpretation and performance.
On television, Irwin has appeared as the confused Mr. Noodle in the “Elmo’s World” segments of Sesame Street and has made guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, and Northern Exposure. His film work includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Popeye, Hot Shots, and most recently, Jim Carrey’s The Grinch. Irwin has been decorated with numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a five-year MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 1984. In 1996 he was featured in the closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, playing a marching band majorette in a piece that he directed and choreographed.
“The Clown Lecture” was the first of three lectures sponsored by the Lecture Committee dealing with the theme of comedy. The next will be a lecture by best-selling author and NPR humorist David Sedaris on Nov. 6.
Although the performance tended to drag at times, especially while Irwin made costume changes and during his extended examination of Fox, the event was a great success overall. Throughout the evening, Irwin had his audience howling with laughter and holding its breath in anticipation. The event provided well-needed relief and laughter after a week which offered little for the Williams community to laugh about.