Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Bill Irwin - Circus & Theatrical Clown

by Bruce Johnson

Bill Irwin graduated from the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Clown College™ in 1974, and the next year he became an original cast member of San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus where he created Willy, his whiteface character. He collaborated in creating routines with Larry Pisoni and Geoff Hoyle, the other two original alley members. Their best remembered routine was the Three Musicians. The three clowns also created Three High, a theatrical clown show.

In 1979, Bill left the Pickle Family Circus to pursue his own unique vision for theatrical clowning. Bill created a more naturalistic appearing clown character for his stage shows. He developed Not Quite/New York, The Courtroom, and The Regard of Flight with Doug Skinner and Michael O'Connor. They performed The Regard of Flight on and off Broadway, throughout the United States and Australia, and on PBS Great Performances combined with Bill's Clown Bagatelles. The waiter scene from Clown Bagatelles has been widely copied by clowns entering the master category at clown conventions.

Bill's own original clown show Largely/New York was seen at City Center and the Kennedy Center, ran on Broadway, and received five Tony Award Nominations. It was also granted the Drama Desk award, Outer Critics Circle, and the New York Dance and Performance Award. He also has appeared in Fool Moon, a two-man show developed with clown David Shiner, on Broadway, and in Los Angeles, Vienna, and Munich.  In 1999, Bill Irwin and David Shiner received Tony Awards for their clown show, Fool Moon.

An eccentric dancer, Bill was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Choreographer's Fellowship in 1981 and 1983. In 1984 he was named a Guggenheim Fellow and awarded a 5-year MacArthur Fellowship.

In 1992 he performed Mr. Fox: Ruminations on the Life of a Clown, a biographical work-in-progress based on the life of famous clown George L. Fox at the Seattle (WA) Repertory Theater. He developed the show in collaboration with Geoff Hoyle.

He received a Theatre communications Group/ Pew Charitable Trusts grant funding a three-year collaboration between Bill and the Seattle Repertory Theater. In 1995, as part of this collaboration, he directed and starred in a Seattle Rep production of Moliere's Scapin. He adapted the play with Mark O'Donnell.

In 1996, he was prominently featured in the closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, Georgia.  He played the part of a marching band majorette whose band wouldn't follow his directions.

In addition to his theatrical clown productions, Bill has appeared in comedy roles in several shows. His television credits include Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, The Cosby Show, Northern Exposure, Sesame Street, HBO's Bette Midler, Mondo Beyondo, and PBS's Great Performances 20th Anniversary. In England, he appeared on the Paul Daniels Magic Show.  He is featured on Sesame Street as Mr. Noodle in the Elmo's World Segment.  His movie credits include Popeye, A New Life, Eight Men Out, My Blue Heaven, Scenes From A Mall, Stepping Out, Hot Shots, Silent Tongue, and Grinch.  He was also the live action model for the title character in Stuart Little.

Bill has said, "I get these bugs to be a straight actor, but I also don't want to leave behind the magical larger-than-life clown realm."

Steve Smith said, "People like Bill Irwin are the bright lights. He respects our heritage, where we've been, and continually tries to take clowning to new levels of crafting it as an art."

Bill Irwin was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1999.

Excerpted from The Clown In Times

© Copyright 2000 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson.  All rights reserved.


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