Editor’s Fanfare Vol. I, No. 9

An Illusionary Market


Over the years of publishing Spectacle magazine I have spoken to many clowns and physical comedians who have espoused the idea that Bill Irwin had opened a market for solo performances like those they aspired to create as well.  The years have proven this not to be the case, I think, at least not in the Unied States.  Not only for all those clowns and physical comedians who cherish the idea of doing one-man shows, but for Bill Irwin as well.  He has in recent years moved further and further from solo clowning and clowning in general into straight acting in serious mainstream theatrical productions.  The only venues that I know of where clowns and physical comedians can show their wares are the Variete theaters and festivals of Europe to which Barry Lubin has recently defected.

If we look at Bill Irwin’s career, we shall see that his break-out performance in his one and only one-man show Regard of Flight was the first of several stepping stones he took that led him to where he is now, a premiere actor sought after for dramatic as well as comedic roles, a far cry from the silent solo clown it is believed he set out to become.

Before attending Ringling’sClownCollege, Irwin studied acting on the West Coast with Herbert Blau. (Blau eventually proceeded him East for a stint as the director of the Lincoln Center Theater Co.)  After graduating from Clown College and turning down a Ringling contract Irwin went back to San Francisco and joined the Pickle Family Circus, applying some of the technique he picked up at ClownCollege.  Here, with Larry Pisoni and Geoff Hoyle, he became a part of the greatest clowning ensemble of the contemporary circus, an honorific that remains unchallenged to this day.

But it became increasingly clear that clowning was not Irwin’s first priority, and he eventually abandoned his white face and the West Coast for New York City where he created his now legendary one-man off-Broadway show.  This was followed by his Broadway production of Largely New York which was already an ensemble piece featuring, among other clowns, Jeff Gordon, whose head-first dive into the orchestra pit brought the loudest screams followed by the biggest laugh of the evening.  On the basis of these two performances Irwin was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius” award, which came with a handsome monetary award, in effect leaving him free to pursue whatever creative endeavors that occurred to him with no strongs attached.

Although he had left off the clown white makeup in these performances he was still a silent clown.  Even in Samuel Beckett’s “intellectual” black comedy Waiting for Godot, he assumed the part of the play’s one silent character opposite the more verbal Steve Martin and Robin Williams.

His last true clowning effort was Fool Moon in which he appeared with David Shiner, performing many of the bits he had perfected in his earlier work.  Other acting and directing work eventually led to his playing the role of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  on Broadway, and in the process winning a Tony Award, the highest accolade the Broadway theatre can confer on an actor.  No doubt it occurred to Irwin soon after Fool Moon that there was no where to go with the idea of silent solo clowning.   He is still a genius, just one of a different sort, and if one wishes to follow in his footsteps today, it would be wise to understand exactly toward what goal those footsteps were directed.

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I have included in this issue reprints of several interviews that were run in the print versionof Spectacle  several years ago.  The reason for doing so is because I believe they are relevant to several of the performances reviewed in the current Passing Spectacle.  Two of these reprints, an interview with Felicity Simpson, producer of the Columbian circus that appeared in New York’s New Victory Theater and another with Mark Gindick, who presented his solo show in New York, provide some insight into the aesthetic and artistic goals of the artists involved.  A third reprint, an interview with Daniel Cyr, the man who created the Cyr wheel, is relevant only to his performance in the Big Apple Circus’ current production and not to the production as a whole and appears, therefore, as one of the two feature articles rather than as an accompaniment to the review as do the others.