Character actor’s speech teaches and entertains

Every morning, Tony award-winning actor Bill Irwin wakes up, dresses like a clown and walks down to his basement.

“Mainly I go down there just to remember what got me excited in the first place,” he said. “The way the body language works and those baggy clothes are a cultural memory.”

Irwin, a character actor who has played everything from a sociopathic serial killer in CSI to a doting father in the recent movie Rachel Getting Married, spoke at USF on Tuesday night about the art of clowning and character development on stage.

“The manipulation of a single object is so important,” said Irwin as he picked through various wigs and clown pants on stage. “And when you do something, the rest of the body takes the message.”

Current and former USF students were in the audience, such as Gi Sung, who majored in theatre.

“Even just waiting before he came out and seeing the suitcases and the hats and the pants, I just got so excited,” she said. “To see his physicality and him actually talking to the students was a dream come true for young actors.”

While sharing insight on how to develop characters for stage and film, Irwin changed characters rapidly by using wigs, pants and glasses. He demonstrated “baggy pants comedy,” a type of vaudeville comedy. Irwin resembled silent film star Charlie Chaplin as he circled the stage with a long string of spaghetti, encouraging the audience to hum a tune while he demonstrated his knack for improvising. Irwin even unexpectedly pulled Paul Willms, a senior theatre performance major, on stage and coaxed Willms to mimic his gestures.

“It was very cool just being on stage with him,” Willms said.

Senior theatre performance major Brent Reams performed a scene with Irwin from the 2005 Broadway play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which Irwin had a starring role and won a Tony.

“I met him today and rehearsed for probably a half an hour. He is the most natural performer I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading with,” Reams said. “No wonder he has done so well.”

Irwin will speak one last time to graduate theatre students in Theatre II today.

“I’m talking to the future,” said Irwin. “I love the theater, it will be around forever, and this is the future.”