‘Bye-Bye Birdie' Actor Finds It Odd To Have A Body

If you make it to Broadway this season, you'll find that for the first time since 1961, Bye-Bye Birdie is back. You just can't keep a good man down; maybe that's why Bill Irwin flies through the air in this production. Irwin plays Harry MacAfee, the iconic, overprotective dad from Sweet Apple, Ohio, who loves Ed Sullivan. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks to Irwin about his career as a clown and very physical performance artist.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

If you make it to Broadway this season, you'll find that for the first time since 1961, "Bye, Bye, Birdie" is back.

(Soundbite of song, "Normal American Boy")

Unidentified Girls: (Singing) We love you Conrad, oh yes we do, we love you Conrad, and will be true!

LYDEN: You just can't keep a good man down. Maybe that's why Bill Irwin flies through the air in this production. Irwin plays Harry MacAfee, the iconic, overprotective dad from Sweet Apple, Ohio, and of course lover of Ed Sullivan. Yes, it's a show of a certain era.

(Soundbite of song, "Hymn for a Sunday Evening")

Unidentified People: (Singing) Ed Sullivan, Ed Sullivan, we're gonna be on Ed Sullivan.

LYDEN: Bill Irwin is a clown, a Tony Award winning actor, a MacArthur Genius Award-winning performance artist, and someone you may have seen as Mr. Noodle on "Sesame Street." He's one of those, hey, I know that guy kinds of faces. He played another Dad in last year's film "Rachel Getting Married." Bill Irwin joins us now from our New York studios, and I have to say it is a great pleasure to have you with us.

Mr. BILL IRWIN (Actor): Jacki, thank you so much.

LYDEN: Although I kind of want you to be really with us and take a pratfall or something.

Mr. IRWIN: I'll do it here in New York…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IRWIN: …and it can be described to you there in Washington.

LYDEN: Now, when you vibrate, when you leap, when you tremble and extend and lower you neck, I'm always thinking…

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: …well, I think (unintelligible) this, you talked about the oddity of having a body, and if you think about it, it is an odd thing to have a body.

Mr. IRWIN: Strange, strange. Especially as we live more and more in our heads, this body becomes almost a vestigial connection to our past. But it is where we live and it's - I think we think with it much more than we realize. We communicate. We speak body language much more deeply and primally than we speak this spoken word that has come more recently in human development. And in that is a lot of meaning in the human story and there's a lot of comic energy too.

LYDEN: Now, Bill Irwin, you began as a clown, really, back in San Francisco in the '70s.

Mr. IRWIN: Right.

LYDEN: You started out with the Pickle Family Circus and you're a graduate of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey College, by the way. We once had an administrator here at NPR if you can believe it who was also a grad. Were the '70s a golden age for clowning?

Mr. IRWIN: There was something called the New Vaudeville Movement and most of us who got put under that rubric didn't care so much for the term, but it was a useful shorthand because a lot of people were going back to look at great artists like Chaplin and Keaton who had been kind of ignored by a previous generation because they were so common.

We always ignore what's close at hand. In the '70s a lot of people, not unlike - I guess I'm a classic example, I got tired of standing in line to audition for a play. I wanted to go out and work in front of audiences right away. So the street called to people. You could go out in the street and try a gag five times in 10 minutes and that's a valuable laboratory that's hard to come by today.

LYDEN: Let me talk about "Bye, Bye, Birdie" because it's in previews now and about to open.

Mr. IRWIN: Please do. It's so close to my heart.

LYDEN: How did you prepare to be Harry MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio?

Mr. IRWIN: You know, as an actor I'm so blessedly lucky. I'm playing Harry MacAfee now in this historic revival of "Bye, Bye, Birdie." It hasn't been on a Broadway stage since the early '60s, when it first came upon the public scene with the great performances of Chita Rivera, Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde. I'm also, for some strange reason, I'm reading "King Lear" at night. You know, the old actor's thing is how do you get to sleep after a show.

I'm reading "King Lear" and it just struck me the other night that these different styles of theater, these different modes, really call upon different muscles. They're in some ways different worlds, but in some ways it's the story-telling mission of an actor, so that Lear says, Thou marble-hearted fiend, how sharper than a serpent's tooth is a thankless child. Harry MacAfee says, Doris, we failed as parents. I never asked for much from my children, just respect, a little respect, that's all I ask for. Respect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IRWIN: They're not so far apart and…

LYDEN: Blustering fathers.

Mr. IRWIN: Blustering fathers.

(Soundbite of song, "Kids")

Unidentified People: (Singing and speaking) Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today! I don't mind the moonlight swims it's just the look, the look that hurts. Kids! Who can understand anything they say. Why don't they lower the draft age to about 11? Kids! They're disobedient, disrespectful oafs. I didn't know what puberty was till I was almost past it.

Mr. IRWIN: My wife and I we're in the empty nest syndrome era of our lives. Our son is a freshman in college

LYDEN: Hmm.

Mr. IRWIN: He lives in the dorm and not down the hall from us anymore.

LYDEN: My sympathies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IRWIN: But it's anguish and it's relief at the same time, but if you bring all that to bear, which is your job as an actor, there's a lot to go from, to make Harry MacAfee both pompous and ridiculous, but actually you have to have a lot of sympathy for the character you're playing.

(Soundbite of "Bye, Bye, Birdie")

Mr. IRWIN: (as Mr. MacAfee) I have tried to run this house on a democratic basis. I have extended the privilege of self determination both to the woman I married and to the children I have sired. His vote has been denied no one for any reason of age, sex or political affiliation. There has been no taxation without representation and open covenants have been openly arrived at. Last night I gave up my room to a guest who repeatedly referred to me as Pop.

LYDEN: Bill Irwin, your other Broadway plays though, it's - when I think of an actor-performer known for physical articulation the way that you are, and even though you won a Tony for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," I just have to think: what's going on with you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: I mean, what about George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" He's not someone that you can really have fun with.

Mr. IRWIN: Oh, I had immense fun doing that play with Kathleen Turner, David Harbour, Mireille Enos. Here's the deal. I think every play, no matter how many words it has, you take a look at King Lear or Hamlet or George in "Virginia Woolf," you can be overwhelmed by the number of words one would have to negotiate to play that part. But every play, no matter what it is, how much the character speaks or doesn't speak, is a physical play.

George in "Virginia Woolf" speaks forever and then there's a flash of violence in the second act and that's crucial to the story. If you didn't have that four-second flash of violence, the story wouldn't be complete. Also: George, he's talking endlessly on stage, but you have to present him as a physical character. So the guy who was weighed down defeated by the world, I always took the pleasure in finding the physical posture, and as we're talking here, I'm pushing down on my chest to remind myself of the sort of sunken chest, rounded shoulder approach to playing George.

You combine that with Edward Albee's verbal brilliance, and you know, you have a chance at telling that story to the audience.

LYDEN: Is anger the same whether it's in a serious dramatic role or the clown?

Mr. IRWIN: What a deep and profound and unanswerable question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IRWIN: I think at some level or at least the starting point, the actors…

LYDEN: Let's give it a go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IRWIN: Let's give it a go. The actor's resource is the same. The same starting point, then you shape the course that that takes as it informs the role, thinking about what's the material, what were the author's intentions. And most important for an actor, the responsibility is who am I speaking to, so when you go into the "Sesame Street" studio and they say, hi, so good to see you, let's get down to work because we have to shoot six little segments here in about eight hours, you have to think about the kids and their parents who are watching and what is the kernel of story that needs to be told when Mr. Noodle is the least bit angry, what's the kernel of story when George in Edward Albee's great play is letting his anger show, he's putting a lid on it. What does he want at that moment? And that's the old actor's question - what do I want here?

That will guide you. You know, students are often asking, how do I do this scene? Let what you want or what the character wants guide you. Otherwise you're thinking about - am I good? Should I be loud enough? Am I handsome here? And then you're dead.

But if you're thinking about what do I want from that person who's sitting across from me in the scene, then you have half a chance.

LYDEN: Let me just leave you with this, if I might. You are 59 and you said something recently that I thought was exquisite. You said it's such an interesting time in life because you literally can find yourself thinking one minute about dance steps and the next about where you'd like your ashes spread, and not abstractly in either case. And I hope you dance every day.

Mr. IRWIN: Oh, Jacki, may I dance until it's time to hand it over to somebody else. Thank you.

LYDEN: Bill Irwin, he's currently appearing on Broadway as Harry MacAfee in "Bye, Bye, Birdie." The show is in previews and it opens October 15th. Thanks so much.

Mr. IRWIN: Thank you, Jacki.

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