CHEERS OF A CLOWN
|Bill Irwin, photographed in New York City. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz. Kennedy Center Honors founder George Stevens Jr. writes an appreciation of our great clown for his brilliance as a performer and audience member.|
BY GEORGE STEVENS JR.
We go to the theater to be surprised, and for 40 years Bill Irwin has been on a steady quest to surprise us. Strangers rarely stop this chameleon-like artist on the street, because his own persona is so well disguised within his extraordinary gallery of characters. Irwin studied at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College before turning to the stage. We often discover him wearing extremely baggy pants, black horn-rimmed glasses, and an item from his storehouse of bizarre hats on his head. His training and versatility gave him tools to enchant us in offerings ranging from Fool Moon and Old Hats, with his fellow clown David Shiner, to Waiting for Godot, with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and King Lear, playing the Fool, a performance New York Times critic Ben Brantley described as “insolent, fearful, desolate and touched with the antic brilliance of madness.” Then he surprises us by turning up in The Good Wife, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Rachel Getting Married, with Anne Hathaway, or as a serial killer on CSI. Or at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as a drum major marching with a band that would not follow his directions.
Most recently I encountered Mr. Irwin at the Kennedy Center. On this night our surprise was to see him enter in one of his baggy-pants ensembles with a bow tie and derby hat, only to be joined by acclaimed ballerina Tiler Peck in a pas de deux that juxtaposed Ms. Peck’s balletic gifts with Irwin’s charm, humor, and considerable dancing skill. His bulky shoes seemed crafted to inhibit graceful movement, but he took on the qualities of the ballerina with his shape-changing eccentricity. It was a beguiling partnership.
Irwin has been a regular at the annual Kennedy Center Honors, performing onstage from time to time, but I rank him as our all-time most valuable audience member. We edited the Honors for television, and whenever we cut to Bill he was responding in perfect pitch, enhancing the viewer’s appreciation with the sensibility that works for him onstage, all natural, everything coming from inside.
In 2007, he gave me my favorite surprise. I went with a touch of skepticism to see him as George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Irwin’s clown took the night off. His seemingly mild, slightly stooped academic in a sweater-vest was so true to a college professor that his emerging rage and scarring wit were chilling and powerful when he tangled with Kathleen Turner’s boozy Martha. It is the best rendering of George I’ve ever seen, and it earned him a Tony Award for best actor.
Bill once said, “When you’re onstage, part of you wants to be off as fast as possible. And once you’re offstage, everything is in anticipation of the next time you’re on.” We’re waiting, Bill.