Actor and clown Bill Irwin arrives for an interview in American Conservatory Theater's conference room wearing a baseball cap and sweatshirt. Tall, rangy, and blue-eyed, his Irish lineage evident in his fair complexion and clean-cut features, he might be mistaken for a Little League coach but for the dog-eared, Xeroxed copy of Samuel Beckett's Texts for Nothing that he clutches.
Irwin—recipient, among other awards, of an NEA choreographer's fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a five-year MacArthur grant—may be known primarily as a brilliant, Chaplinesque physical comedian, but he is in fact a serious actor. In a decades-long career, he has appeared in almost every theatrical format: on Broadway (his own, Tony-nominated Largely New York in 1989, plus Fool Moon with David Shiner, which the two will reprise at A.C.T. when Texts closes); on stages from coast to coast (notably New York's Roundabout Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and Seattle Rep, where he has developed original works); on the big screen (most recently, in How the Grinch Stole Christmas); and on TV (in Moisés Kaufman's upcoming The Laramie Project on HBO, in the PBS Great Performances series with his own The Regard of Flight, and on many sitcoms and series). A.C.T. has just awarded him an honorary M.F.A., and artistic director Carey Perloff expects him to be a big influence on the next generation of artists.
For Irwin, this current gig, in which he performs his favorite four of the 13 short prose pieces that make up Beckett's Texts, is a homecoming of sorts.
In the mid-'70s, passing through San Francisco ("I'm such a restless soul!"), he answered a newspaper ad—"Wanted: Jugglers, tumblers, and equilibrists"—and ended up, along with Geoff Hoyle, Larry Pisoni, and others, as a founding member of the seminal Pickle Family Circus. He also performed on the streets of the city and at the Renaissance Faire.
Prior to his Pickle stint, he'd been a theatre major at UCLA and gone on to CalArts, where he studied under avant-garde teacher and director Herbert Blau.
When Blau went to teach at Ohio's Oberlin College, he invited Irwin along as a member of an experimental company (later called Kraken) that included Julie Taymor, Sharon Ott, and others. Brenda Way, the founder/artistic director of the renowned dance company ODC (which has since relocated from Oberlin to San Francisco), remembers those nascent days, in particular "Bill's hair-raising performance in Herb's production of The Donner Party. His physical frame shrunk and dissolved before our eyes. He would tell the whole tale with his body. It was a frighteningly extreme performance, especially from one so young."
"I'll be forever grateful for the kind of work Blau did," muses Irwin. "But I wasn't crazy about the insular nature of it. I was desperate to do popular work." Way says Irwin was "brazenly interested in the possibilities of entertainment at a time when artists were by and large of the super-serious variety." (Later she was the first to produce his original solo material at a small Mission District venue.)
To the bemusement of Blau and the Oberlin gang, Irwin went to Barnum and Bailey for training. "There I was. Instead of being Orestes in strange postures and fending off the Furies, I was somersaulting. It was a challenging, happy time."
To go from classical red noses and floppy feet to the Pickles' new vaudeville sensibility to Beckett's existential yearnings was not as big a stretch for Irwin as it might be for a less gifted performer. "The circus world and the avant-garde world—they couldn't be more different, and yet in a certain sense when you distill it down it's the same thing," he says.
Grabbing his well-worn script, he bursts into speech: "'I say to the body, Up with you now… I say to the head, Leave it alone, stay quiet… I should turn away from it all….'" He taps the page with an emphatic forefinger. "The questions in here, although they were written in 1950, the year I was born, they resonate. Beckett's writing only gets more resonant and meaningful to me."
An Actor's Life
Irwin first worked on an early version of Texts for Nothing with theatre experimentalist Joseph Chaikin in 1981; Chaikin performed a conflated version of all 13 monologues. But Irwin, a decade later, wanted to perform some of the texts in their entirety, which he did initially at the Public Theater and, last year, at Manhattan's 180-seat Classic Stage Company.
A.C.T. artistic director Perloff took the red-eye to New York to see the performance. "I was exhausted, but I sat there and was so completely riveted," she says. "It's such a wonderful, comic meditation on one's own inability to get up in the morning—paralysis, moving forward, hope, despair. Bill is a complicated and fascinating person, and there are things in this piece that I think are true for him in this time in his life."
Irwin admits to being "infected" by Beckett. Irrepressibly, he runs across the room and leaps onto a table, his rubbery body assuming various poses and gestures, to demonstrate the physical advantages of doing the intimate Texts on A.C.T.'s huge proscenium stage for an audience of more than 1,000.
Sitting back down, he picks up the raggedy script. "There's a chunk of Text 11 that's among the hardest stuff. But it's also my favorite to perform and read and think about in the bathtub. The first line is, 'When I think…'" He pauses, shakes his head. "'…no, that won't work,'" he mutters. He laughs delightedly. "It's a revelation for all human beings, and especially for actors!" He thumbs to the end of 11 and reads a fragment: "…when comes the hour of those who knew me, it's as though I were among them, that is what I had to say, among them watching me approach, then watching me recede, shaking my head and saying, Is it really he, then moving on in their company along a road that is not mine and with every step takes me further from that other not mine either, or remaining alone where I am, between two parting dreams…"
"If that isn't a reflection of the lesser part of the actor's weird profession!" he exclaims. "You're sometimes thinking, I'm out there watching me, and I don't like that, I want to be connected with myself. Oh, God, I wish I weren't on this stage, because all I'm doing is imagining myself out there looking and thinking, Oh, I wish he hadn't made that gesture!" We laugh.
Is it true, as Perloff said, that Texts for Nothing is particularly meaningful for him at this point in his life and career? Very much so. "The actor's craft is so strange," he muses. "You have to make it not about yourself and yet totally about yourself. It's about my father and my mother and my son and my boyhood, about everything I know. So I'm doing the work step by step, and the words enter, although I still work at them daily. My hope is that they can come out with less effort, with a lighter touch and a deeper ring."
Waiting for Beckett
There is a knock at the door; Irwin is due at rehearsal. But first, one more story—Irwin's 1987 meeting with the legendary Samuel Beckett himself, the Irishman-turned-Parisian considered by many to be the greatest 20th century playwright.
In response to a letter of introduction, Beckett wrote to Irwin, "If I am in Paris at the time you will be here, I will certainly meet you without fail." "Without fail!" crows Irwin. "It was like a little Godot reference! Then he wrote and said, 'I am in poor health; I may not be able to meet you.' It was like one of his plays!"
Irwin ended up at a cheesy Parisian café, and the great playwright entered, tall and frail, with thick glasses. He was in his early 80s, about a year before his death. "He struck me as very shy," says Irwin, "and I was very shy. I couldn't lift my eyes from the table. I saw his hands, all gnarled with rheumatism, rheumatism being a thread in his plays. We both didn't know what to talk about so we ended up talking about Ireland, where I had just been, and cricket and sports. It was a bit like talking to a gallant Parisian, but also like talking to a frail, quintessentially Irish man at the end of his life. Gradually we talked about literature. I said, 'May I ask you a question about the Godot play?' And he said"—here Irwin intones in a deep, resonant voice—"'Ask, always!'"
Eventually Beckett was discomfited by some noisy café patrons. "He said"—resonant voice again—"'I'll leave you now.' There was great authority in that. It wasn't like, 'Gee, maybe I should go.' 'I'll leave you now.'"
Irwin grins. "I haven't had this confirmed, and I'm not sure I want to have it confirmed because I love this story: Much later, somebody at Grove Press conveyed to Beckett that they'd seen Waiting for Godot in New York in which I played Lucky [in the 1988 Mike Nichols-directed version at Lincoln Center with Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and F. Murray Abraham] and said that Irwin did well. And Beckett was said to have said, 'I wouldn't have thought differently.'"
Nor would we.
"I have to go now," says Irwin.
He goes. BSW