It’s strange how a world opens up to you when you start exploring.
In the 1990’s my emerging obsession with visual comedy led me down some bizarre avenues. One of these was buying a book called Modern and Post Modern Mime by Thomas Leahbart. It was such a strange title that I couldn’t resist!
That book was one of those gateway experiences. I could hardly believe the story that mime emerged as a political genre. I thought it was brilliant, but hilarious, that Etienne Decroux suggested that there should be a twenty year ban on speaking in theatre. And I was galvanised by the discovery that there was a collection of performers known as “New Vaudevillians”.
And then, of course, there were the photos. I’ve always been a push-over for a great visual and here were some great publicity shots of performers doing exactly what I thought I wanted to do.
A NEW TYPE OF CLOWN
One of the most striking images was that of Bill Irwin. Superficially, it was just a photo of a clown – a red nose, white face, a crazy wig, baggy trousers and big shoes, and yet, unlike all clowns that I had seen up until then, it had absolute class.
And that is the crux of why Bill Irwin is so extraordinary.
Despite having all the appendages of “creepy” clowns, Irwin’s clown was “done properly”. His make up was faultless, his clothing was made of superior material and somehow the proportions of his costume were spot on.
This attention to detail allowed me to see his clown in a new context. The usual prejudices that I have about circus clowns evaporated. Instead I saw the character itself: authentic, fun – and wild. The possibilities for this clown’s antics thrilled me. What would this character do in a show? What chaos would he leave in his wake? The traditional clown suddenly had meaning for me.
CONTENT AND STYLE
Irwin emerged in America in the 1970s and 80s when circus skills, mime and clowning were enjoying a renaissance. Also emerging at this time was the post-modernist movement. The traditional, familiar structure of circus was good fuel for the post modernists, allowing them a clear, recognisable format to deconstruct.
In 1982, Irwin had a huge theatre hit. It was a bizarre deconstruction of a vaudeville show, “The Regard of Flight”. It includes eccentric dancing, mime, slapstick and ukelele songs. It is esoteric, but it is replete with Irwin’s technical skill.
In fact, it is Irwin’s incredible physical skill that is the core of the show. Again, this was not just a performer who could do the usual tricks. It was a performer who could do these tricks better than anyone else you have ever seen!
ARTHOUSE OR FUNHOUSE
Bizarrely, Irwin is probably most famous as Mr Noodles in Sesame Street – possibly as far from arthouse post-modernism as you could get!
As Mr Noodles, he does a lot of the schtick that made him famous: climbing down the stairs in a trunk and getting dragged off stage by an invisible force. But, again, whereas I had seen many children’s performers do similar things, Irwin was absolute class.
This time, it was the final part of the Bill Irwin package that reveals itself: it is his warmth of personality that wins over the Sesame Street kids.
As a performer, Irwin is pretty unique. He is a great physical illusionist because because his skills are so exceptional. He is a great clown because of his wonderful personality. And his attention to detail gives him an alchemistic ability to make the ordinary extraordinary.
This clip shows Irwin’s skill in all its forms. It is from the 2011 dance event Voix de Ville organised by Cori Orlinghouse. Now in his sixties, Irwin puts most younger performers to shame.
We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here: