Bill on Beckett: An Interview with Bill Irwin Part Two

By Simon Hodgson

With On Beckett opening at The Strand Theater tonight, we caught up with master clown and A.C.T. favorite Bill Irwin to talk about his five decades immersed in the words of Samuel Beckett. Back in December 2015, Irwin performed On Beckett in a brief engagement of three shows—all of which sold out. Now he’s back at The Strand for a longer run. “The Strand is a good box for this package,” he says. “It’s a space with a good sweet spot in relation to the audiences’s seats. It feels right in size, physical contours, and checkered history. It’s the right spot for the sharing I have in mind.”
Bill Irwin. Photo courtesy of Concept Artists.
How does your clowning experience inform your performance of Beckett’s work?
It’s as much instinct as anything else. These two threads of work—baggy-pants comedy and Samuel Beckett’s writing—they just seem to connect. Beckett and his family went to the variety theater often; a point which his biographers make. His descriptions of physical business, his stage directions, and his description of characters’ costuming often seem to echo the business of music-hall comics. When it came to casting, Beckett was interested in baggy pants practitioners: Chaplin, Keaton. He was not a “clown-writer”—he wasn’t writing for clowns—but he seemed an aficionado.

What has been your favorite Beckett-related experience?
I don’t have a single favorite experience—but sometimes speaking his language, and combining it with motion, or certain character movement through my body, can begin to feel strangely right—joyful even. It feels it may be reaching an audience in a way that I’d like it to, perhaps in a way Mr. Beckett might.

I wouldn’t presume to know Mr. Beckett’s intentions in his writing—he famously said that he doesn’t claim to know them either—but sometimes things feel close to something valuable. The passages I’ve included in On Beckett are mostly passages that I’ve had in my head, that I’ve worked with as a performer for a long time. I want to share them with audiences. I hope to share the place they’ve come to occupy within me.

On Beckett runs January 10 to January 22 at The Strand Theater at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Check our website for tickets.

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