Clowning Around with Technology

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

by Projection Designer Erik Pearson

Bill Irwin and David Shiner
in Signature Theatre's Production
of Old Hats. Photo by Joan Marcus
I grew up in Santa Cruz and had the good fortune of seeing productions at A.C.T. as a kid. I became involved in the theater myself when I was very little and family visits to the city to see a play left a big impression on me. I live in Brooklyn now and work as a director and designer in New York and regional theaters around the country. This is my first time returning to the Bay Area for a project since moving east. Old Hats is just the sort of A.C.T. show that inspired me when I was young and I can’t imagine a more perfect project for my return.

I first became involved with Old Hats a couple of years ago at Signature Theatre in New York. Bill Irwin and David Shiner had started developing ideas for a new project that would be a follow up to their wildly successful Fool Moon. There was no show yet, really—no director, no title—but they had a lot of ideas. Many of these ideas involved the imaginative use of projections and video. I joined Broadway projection design legend Wendall K. Harrington in taking on this challenge and began collaborating with the clowns in a series of workshop rehearsals at Signature.

Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin in
Signature Theatre's production
of Old Hats at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater.
Photo by Kevin Berne
My work focused primarily on a new solo piece Bill was creating, called “Mr. Business.” He had an exciting idea for a new technology-obsessed character and his misbehaving tablet computer. Bill envisioned a complicated struggle between a man and his gadgets in which the tablet takes on a life of its own. We began developing ideas in a rehearsal room together, trying out gags and experimenting with surprising ways for Bill to interact with the tablet.

At the same time, I was working behind the scenes to figure out the technology necessary to support the performance. As far as I’ve been able to tell, no one had ever attempted anything like what we were doing, and this led to many unique challenges. To run the tablet computer for the New York production I created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of computers, wireless routers, off-the-shelf software, and an iPad, all connected together to bring the tablet to life. The completed system allowed us to wirelessly send video to the tablet in Bill’s hand as he performed. When it worked correctly, it was as if the image on the tablet interacted with and responded to Bill just as a live actor might. Unfortunately the system was not entirely reliable, and on some nights Bill’s electronic companion would misbehave. It was as though the other actor in the scene would sometimes forget his lines and Bill would have to improvise to keep the scene going. Bill and I shared many a laugh over the way life was imitating art; our efforts to get the technology behind the scenes to work properly mirrored the struggles of Bill’s character to control his tablet. Thankfully returning to the show for a second time at A.C.T. has given us an opportunity to fix some of the bugs we encountered in New York.

For this production we’re working on a new and improved version: “Mr. Business 2.0.” Before rehearsals even began, we shot all new video for the tablet on stage at the Geary, improving on our original ideas—going for new laughs and expanding the story. We also brought in a local programmer, Dave Orton, to work with us in creating a brand new piece of software to run the tablet. This new app makes it possible to run “Mr. Business” with a single computer and Android tablet—no more Frankenstein’s monster! Our hope is that this version will be much more reliable.

As with all of Bill and David’s work, the comedy in “Mr. Business” is inspired by the kind of human struggles we all encounter in our day-to-day life. While technology may continue to seduce us with its promise of making things easier, it often seems that for every problem solved another is created. In Old Hats, Mr. Business leaves the stage having triumphantly conquered his gadget dependency. Having faced and overcome our own technological demons, we’re thrilled to share “Mr. Business” with A.C.T. audiences!

Performances of Old Hats run through October 12! For tickets and information visit

A Heavy Dose of Liveness: An Interview with Director Tina Landau

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Heavy Dose of Liveness
An Interview with Director Tina Landau

Bill Irwin (left), Tina Landau (center), 
and David Shiner in rehearsal for 
Signature Theatre's 2013 production
of Old Hats, photo by Gregory Constanzo
“The Coolest Project Ever” was the subject line of the email Tina Landau received from her agent, asking her if she would be interested in working with Bill Irwin and David Shiner on their new project at Signature Theatre. Landau, who had seen Irwin and Shiner in Fool Moon about twenty years earlier and was a huge fan of their work, jumped at the opportunity.

Although Old Hats is unlike anything Landau had ever worked on before, she was particularly well-suited to direct this physical show, as she coauthored The Viewpoints Book with Anne Bogart. Viewpoints is a method of theatrical composition that heavily focuses on physicality, movement, and gesture. “I feel very comfortable in Bill and David’s world, because I always think of my theater work in a physical way,” Landau says. “It surpasses the verbal.”

What is it like directing two clowns?
Bill and David had never worked with an official director on one of their projects together. I agreed to a one-week workshop, and for the first three or four days, I went home thinking, “Wow. They’re amazing. I could be a fly on the wall forever watching them work, but they do not need me in the room.” But I also very intentionally didn’t go in thinking of “directing” the way I usually do. I just wanted to observe and see what their process was and see if I thought I could be helpful. Before I knew it, they started saying, “What do you think about that? What does that look like?” Very slowly, we realized that it was a wonderful match and I should continue with the project.

How would you describe a clown’s relationship to the audience, compared to that of a more traditional actor?
I think ultimately the goal is the same, which is to connect and to engender feeling, and thereby ask us to take a new look at our own lives or help us find a moment of solace. The goals of a clown are very similar to the goals of performers in general, but the means are different: a clown uses primarily laughter. Clowns are quite clear on the fact that people laugh at misfortune and failed attempts and mistakes, so they elicit what ends up being a very joyful evening through moments that are filled with human foible and error and sadness. There has to be some pain in the comedy. That’s what it is born out of.

David Shiner (left) and Bill Irwin in
Signature Theatre's 2013 production
of Old Hats, photo by Joan Marcus
What effect do the nonverbal elements of the show have on the audience?
When we hear words, a part of our brain engages that only allows us to hear what is being said, but not necessarily how it’s being said. We glom onto meaning, and the meaning is very prescribed by how we understand that word. A picture is worth a thousand words. It leaves the individual audience member open to access a part of the mind that is more associative than literal.

What was your favorite part of working on Old Hats?
Often as a director, at some point in previews, I start getting tired or bored or scared of my own work, and I often find an inability to see it afresh. I never for an instant feel that with these guys. I could watch them every night of a long run and know that something is actually happening in this theater tonight that did not happen last night and won’t happen again tomorrow. That’s the kind of theater experience I think we all long for: a real, strong, heavy dose of what I’d call “liveness.”

Landau’s directorial work includes several shows in New York, including Bells Are Ringing and Tracy Letts’s Superior Donuts on Broadway. Landau is also a company member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and has directed numerous shows there. Most recently at A.C.T., Landau directed The Time of Your Life, by William Saroyan, in 2004.

To read more of Tina Landau's experience and to learn more about A.C.T.'s production of Old Hats in our latest edition of Words on Plays click here.
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