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Bill Irwin sees life after the circus

Actor Bill Irwin attends the Broadway opening night

Actor Bill Irwin attends the Broadway opening night of "High" at the Booth Theatre in New York City. (April 19, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

See, Ma, you can turn out OK after running away with the circus.

That's what actor-

director Bill Irwin did, helping establish the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco after graduating from Ringling Brothers' clown college in the 1970s. From there, he went on to create, direct and star in a series of Broadway shows ("Fool Moon," "Largely New York") where he barely uttered a sound but captivated audiences with his agile, athletic foppery. Someone decided the dude could actually speak onstage, and he began nabbing Broadway roles in "Waiting for Godot," "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (for which he earned a Tony Award for best actor in a play).

On-screen, he has popped up in "Rachel Getting Married" (as Anne Hathaway's gentle dad) and episodes of "CSI" (as a psychopath).

Oh, yeah, and along the way, he snapped up one of those MacArthur "genius" grants.

In the latest production of "King Lear," which opened Tuesday at the Public Theater and runs through Nov. 20, he's back to his rubber-limbed tricks, playing The Fool to Sam Waterston's Lear.

Irwin, who is married with one son, spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio about clowning, baggy pants and the dark secret of Waterston's "tight buns."

 


Why were you eager to play The Fool?

This is the first Shakespeare play I read all the way through. I grew up partly in L.A. . . . but went to high school in Belfast. We did the best approximation that 17-year-olds can do of the play. It's lived in my mind for a long, long time. I shamelessly begged to be part of it. I really wanted to do this role . . . and work with Sam Waterston.


What's he like?

He's got the energy and tight buns of a 30-year-old actor. I can say that because we have to carry him offstage, and I always think, "Jeez, trim little set of hamstrings." He's amazing. He's in the theater wanting to make everything better each day.


He must be fit. Besides the energy it takes to play Lear for three-plus hours, then he comes onstage carrying a cast member, and he has to stand there -- then sloooowly lower himself to the floor. The man's doing sit-ups or something.

Here's the dark secret -- he's got a rowing machine at the Public. He's religious about it. And he knows Shakespeare backward and forward. He's played so many roles.


So what's with you and baggy pants? Many characters you've played clearly use the same tailor.

Well . . . [He laughs.] Baggy pants say something. They're intrinsically funny -- they change the shape of the body. But they also hearken to an unconscious cultural memory we have from the silent film era and previous traditions. Chaplin, Buster Keaton, they all experimented with clothes that were too large -- or too small. I just love baggy pants.


Can I confess something . . .?

Uh-oh . . . let me just guess.


I've never liked clowns. As a kid, I always felt bad for the sad clown, or the one who gets abused. I never got the joke.

Wow, it's nice you have some sympathy. Most people don't bother to feel bad for clowns. It's amazing the number of people who say, "As a kid, I hated clowns," but with an edge. [He chuckles.] Like this particular practitioner they're talking to is somewhat responsible. Here's what I find interesting -- if you formed a committee to sit down and create an image for comedy and children's entertainment, the clown is the last thing you'd create. And yet that's what we have, coming down through time. And then there's coulrophobia -- the clinical term for fear of clowns. If you go on the Internet, you can find a video of a woman crying, "HE'S NOT GONNA COME IN HERE, IS HE?" It's sad, really.


Guess she saw you on "CSI." There's an unexpected role for you -- psychopath.

That's the actor's life. It's a profession that resists planning.


So . . . you're a clown . . . married to a midwife. Interesting combo.

They bolster each other, sometimes. She'll be attending a client who has two other kids and . . . sometimes, Mr. Noodle, my character from "Sesame Street," has been called upon to distract. . . . You know, being around birth, even vicariously, it's great.


Then the kids grow up and you have to make them laugh. I heard you worked as a clown with kids in public school kindergarten classes.

In the '70s. Oh, did I learn a lot. There's a sort of calculus always going on in your mind -- "I'm losin' 'em, "I'm losin' 'em." There are various techniques to get 'em back again. But if the clown you're playing isn't interesting to them, they can do lots of other things with their energy.


Sounds way worse than a Broadway or Off-Broadway audience.

Oh, it's much more primal.

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