Bill Irwin on That Time He Met His Idol Samuel Beckett

The Tony-winning actor and master clown brings his one-man show On Beckett to PTC on December 14th.

Bill Irwin

Bill Irwin

The first time I saw Bill Irwin perform Fool Moon in the 1990s on Broadway, with his co-conspirator and fellow clown David Shiner, my cheeks and sides ached from laughing so helplessly throughout the expert comedy improv — an audience-interactive masterpiece. I don’t mean like, gentle and occasional har-haring. I mean like they worked up the crowd into laughing so hard we were wheezing in a communal catharsis. The show drew patrons back again and again. It was that good, and also weirdly therapeutic.

But Irwin may be more familiar to fans from his Sesame Street character, the bumbling Mr. Noodle, or from his time on Northern Exposure as the ever-silent “Flying Man” Enrico Ballati, or his role in the indie tearjerker Rachel Getting Married. But he’s also a Tony-winning stage actor who’s spent significant time during his career performing Samuel Beckett’s bleak, darkly comic plays.

We caught up with the actor by phone in Atlanta as he rode to the set of the television show Sleepy Hollow, where he plays the not-so-nice Atticus Nevins to talk about Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and Irwin’s one-man show that pays tribute to him. On Monday, Irwin will read passages from his works and share anecdotes, thoughts and maybe even do a little clowning.

Bill Irwin once met Beckett near the expat’s home in Paris. It was 1988 and near the end of the famously terse Irishman’s life. Irwin, 38 at the time and already seasoned in the theater and in the circus, was still intimidated by his fierce-looking idol whom critics assert wrote the cornerstone of all of modern theater: Waiting for Godot.

“I was so shy, I could hardly pick up my eyes off the table. Surprisingly, he was too,” recalls Irwin of the encounter. “I ordered an orange juice because it was the one thing I knew how to say in French, but I don’t think I touched it the whole time. He was very courtly and shy, but I thought that he’d really rather be working than talking to me.”

Samuel Beckett | Photo by Roger Pic [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Beckett | Roger Pic / Wikimedia Commons

Despite Beckett’s glowering at the other customers, Irwin says he ended up “being the sweetest, kindest man.” That kind of special moment when you actually get to meet and talk with someone you deeply admire is rare. Rarer still, that it goes well and no one leaves disenchanted.

When Irwin met his hero, he’d already established himself as a gifted actor and clown. A graduate from Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College (as well as Oberlin College), he founded the Pickle Family Circus after graduation. By that meeting in Paris, Irwin had already won the National Endowment for the Arts Choreographer’s Fellowship, a Fulbright, a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”) as well as being named a Guggenheim Fellow. Irwin was no slouch, but still felt humbled around the avant-garde dramatist whose stature and mystique couldn’t have loomed much larger.

“There’s so much Beckett in my life and the works live with me,” says Irwin, who has performed Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, Endgame, and Waiting for Godot. ”Sometimes I wish I could get away from it a little more, but I’m immersed in the language and I deeply love it … His language is a complicated joy to speak.”

Despite how potentially gloomy Beckett’s material can be, it has a remarkable humorous underpinning that threads through the entire body of work. With one stroke of the pen he might give you an existential wasteland, but with the next he’d write a vaudevillian style exchange between characters. He was the master of tragicomedy.

“I don’t think that combination is surprising,” says Irwin. “The more time you spend with the language the more it makes perfect sense. It’s tempting to say it’s the Irish in him, but everybody all over the world asks the same questions: Who am I? What is the “I”? Where did I come from? Those questions circle you around, and you have to find a sense of humor to meet them.”

Though you won’t be able to find Irwin in any Beckett plays at the moment, you can see him January through March alongside David Shiner reprising their vaudeville-style 2013 hit, Old Hats, at New York City’s Signature Theater.

Bill Irwin’s On Beckett plays at Philadelphia Theatre Company December 14th at 7 pm. Tickets and more information can be found here.

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