Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dinner with Bill Irwin

Monday night I shared a burger with Bill Irwin. We watched the Mets lose again, and we talked for hours about topics which mostly began with one of us saying "Between you and me…". I am therefore sworn to silence. However, one topic is definitely available for public consumption- Bill is writing a book about practical thoughts on the craft of acting, which will include his anecdotes from the trade. He briefly touched on a few of these thoughts and anecdotes, and it is very clear this will be a fascinating book.

For those of you who are not familiar with Bill's work (is there anyone who is not?), he is a Tony Award winning actor, dancer, performance artist, producer, director, writer, choreographer, and the greatest vaudeville clown of his generation. He has starred on Broadway, in films and on television for decades. Other than that, he hasn't really done much.

I photographed Bill last year when he graciously agreed to pose for my Dancers Among Us series. We shot in a mall, and he improvised vaudeville dance while listening to headphones in a music store. After, he felt like clowning around (cheesy pun intended), so he threw on his clown suit and we went for a walk.

During our dinner, I told Bill a story about my son. He had just won the game ball in his T-ball league (proud dad moment- click here to check out my son's awesome swing!). As I looked at the ball later that night, I got teary. I felt the sentiment I know will be attached to that ball in the years to come. I fear the loss of his innocence and the loss of this magical time of his life. This began a discussion about the content in Bill's book. He considers a sense of loss as an essential element in understanding a character. In an overall sense, he feels the actor's job is telling the story of loss.

We continued our discussion through email, and this struck me:

"What is any character's sense of loss? Loss is -- paradoxically -- often a more useful story to an audience than joy or satisfaction (though they're important, too, and maybe harder to play). Useful, but it can also trip us up as actors -- the wrong kind of preoccupation with the idea of loss. How to keep from letting it do that...."

I used to be an actor, so I can appreciate the complexity of this approach. I worked with gifted actors and directors at Circle in the Square, where I studied acting intensively for two years and was never exposed to an approach like his. For any actor (or publisher, for that matter) reading this blog, know that Bill's book will be invaluable.

If you only know Bill as a clown, you've just scratched the surface of his talents. Start by renting Rachel Getting Married, and you'll see an actor dealing with a character's sense of loss. His performance blew my mind.