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1: Intro2: Essay3: Essay4: Essay5: Profiles

The following is excerpted from Ron Jenkins' book ACROBATS OF THE SOUL.


The pattern is set up early in the show when Irwin makes the crowd guffaw by leaning forward at an impossible angle with no visible means of support. This stunt is followed by a dryly comic monologue in which the stage manager discusses the disadvantages of the lean-shoe device used to achieve the "cantilever effect." Irwin uses the lean shoes again when he appears high above the audience's heads and announces his intentions to flyaway from the limitations of the bourgeois theatre. Like that moment of self-referential suspension when the clown's feet are bound by an old circus contraption while the rest of his body reaches recklessly into the realm of postmodern free-fall, Irwin's entire performance teeters ironically on the edge between conventional and contemporary forms of comedy. He draws the audience into an innocent involvement with a naive clown at the same time that he entices them into a more sophisticated entanglement with a self-mocking experimentalist.

The multileveled structure of "Regard of Flight" reflects the diversity of Irwin's background. In the early seventies he immersed himself in the self-conscious experiments of avant-garde theatre as a member of Herbert Blau's KRAKEN ensemble. He developed his dance skills during the same period through occasional performances with the Oberlin Dance Collective. This experimental work did not satisfy Irwin's desire to make direct contact with the audience in a lighter key, so he enrolled in the Ringling Brothers Clown College in 1974 and spent five years as a traditional white-faced clown with San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus (1976-81). When Irwin left the circus and began creating work for the stage in San Francisco and New York, his experimental impulses merged with his love for popular entertainment in pieces like "The Regard of Flight." His unique combination of talents won him the praise of critics on both coasts, numerous television appearances, and a slew of prestigious awards including an Obie and a five-year MacArthur "genius grant," the first to go to a performing artist.

In the end Irwin always manages to do more than just survive. Whether he is battling pretentious critics, resisting the pull of technology, or taming a plateful of wild pasta, Irwin keeps his dignity as well as his body intact. His frustrated desires to fly express the dreams and fears of his audience in surreal passages of inspired buffoonery. Using aspirations for the impossible as fuel for slapstick, he is like Icarus with baggy pants, laughing at his melting wings as he prepares for a pratfall and thumbs his nose at the sun.

Source: Excerpted from ACROBATS OF THE SOUL by Ron Jenkins. Theatre Communications Group, © 1988.

Top banner photos: A close-up of Bill Irwin in white-face; Irwin in "Mr. Fox: A Rumination"; a scene from "Mr. Fox"; Irwin as one of his many personas.

Bill Irwin

Bill Irwin puts his broom to good use in "The Harlequin Studies."

Bill Irwin

In "Mr. Fox: A Rumination," Irwin inhabited the character of a celebrity clown who went insane.

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