For This Pair Of Clowns, 'Old Hats' Means New Laughs Theatrical clowning duo Bill Irwin and David Shiner haven't shared the spotlight onstage since the late 1990s. Now, with a collaborative theater project running at off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, they bring their zany brand of participatory slapstick to a new generation.
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For This Pair Of Clowns, 'Old Hats' Means New Laughs

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For This Pair Of Clowns, 'Old Hats' Means New Laughs

For This Pair Of Clowns, 'Old Hats' Means New Laughs

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And finally this hour, send in the clowns. Twenty years ago, two clowns, Bill Irwin and David Shiner, collaborated on a Broadway show called "Fool Moon." It was a giddy mixture of slapstick, improvisation and audience participation. "Fool Moon" was such a success it returned to Broadway for two more runs. Now, Irwin and Shiner have put together a new show. It's called "Old Hats," and it's received rave reviews off-Broadway.

Jeff Lunden has this story on how two famous clowns clown.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When I saw "Fool Moon" 20 years ago and saw the way Bill Irwin and David Shiner did their rubbery-faced, rubbery-bodied clowning, the old-fashioned shtick and the new-fangled use of technology, I was hooked. I went to see it again and again. So when I heard they were doing a new show, I decided to take on the ultimate challenge: silent clowns on the radio.

And Bill Irwin says as he and David Shiner have grown older, it's been a challenge for them, too.

BILL IRWIN: At a certain age, you're not the young lover anymore, and you can't even sort of pretend to be the young lover. You have to embrace the stage of life that you're at. So that's - hence the title, "Old Hats."


LUNDEN: Between the two of them, Shiner and Irwin have close to 75 years of clowning experience. Irwin, a MacArthur Award winner, and Shiner, who has also directed Cirque du Soleil shows, are passionate, articulate practitioners of their art. And this time, they've brought in the much younger singer/songwriter Nellie McKay to provide wry musical counterpoint to their antics.

Seeing them together in a rehearsal room on a cold January day with director Tina Landau gives some insight into the old saw that dying is easy, comedy is hard.

IRWIN: The last thing you ever want to do is show any effort. Even though there's a lot of work involved, you don't want to show any effort.

LUNDEN: The rehearsal studio is like a big playroom. There are all kinds of homemade props littered about, just in case Shiner or Irwin want to try something new. There are lots of percussion instruments to rudely accompany any physical act. And Shiner is trying out a new sketch, where he plays a sad-sack hobo on a park bench, a la Emmett Kelly. McKay improvises music to accompany him.


LUNDEN: But Shiner finds himself struggling. The props aren't working, and he hasn't figured out how to end the sketch. Still, Shiner says he's determined to figure out how to make it work.

DAVID SHINER: It just starts with an idea and, for example, I've always wanted to do a hobo. Always. And I never did it. And I thought, well, darn it, do it now.


LUNDEN: Six weeks later, Irwin and Shiner have almost finished three weeks of previews and are gearing up towards opening night. And the hobo sketch now has a sweet ending. But like all artists, they're worried about how it's going over.

IRWIN: This kind of work doesn't exist until you get it in front of an audience. It's just pure speculation when you're in the rehearsal room.

SHINER: It's so excruciating, because the first few nights, things that you thought were gonna work don't work at all, they don't land. And then you're ready to throw the whole piece out. You go home thinking, God, what a disaster this is. And you go through the whole gamut. It's just this roller-coaster ride of emotions.

LUNDEN: They needn't worry. The night I see it, the audience is laughing heartily at the sketches. One of the funniest - and one which cleverly melds video and projections with live action - is what Irwin calls "The iPad Sketch." He plays a modern businessman in an oversized suit who ends up in a battle with his own image on an iPad and smartphone.

IRWIN: The place these things have in our culture is so fascinating and so potentially useful for a clown that I just said, oh, we have to have piece in the show where a guy is totally mesmerized by his two pieces of equipment and then they take over his life, in a bad dream way, from thence.

LUNDEN: When Irwin and Shiner are offstage making quick costume changes, McKay sings some of her offbeat songs with a band. Sometimes she's playing piano, sometimes ukulele.

IRWIN: And she's totally wacky and incredibly smart. I mean, her songs, her lyrics, her music is so smart in the milieu of the wacky blonde. So it is a wild mix.


NELLIE MCKAY: (Singing) If you would sit, oh, so close to me, that would be nice like it's supposed to be. If you don't, I'll slit your throat, so won't you please be nice.

LUNDEN: The most unpredictable sections of the show feature audience participation, and they also happen to be the funniest. I have now seen David Shiner do his second-act sketch - where he takes four audience members onstage to help him make a silent movie set in the wild West - five times. By the end, he gets a man and woman who've never met to kiss each other, another man to have a temper tantrum onstage, while another guy plays a stagehand who scratches his butt.

It always works, and I actually know why, since the last time I saw it on Broadway, Shiner pulled me up onstage. But I'm not telling how.

SHINER: I love doing that stuff. I love bringing people up that are unprepared and don't know what they're getting themselves into and pushing them to the limits. I love walking a high wire like that. You know, trying to keep that whole thing in balance.

LUNDEN: David Shiner, Bill Irwin, Nellie McKay and random audience members will be performing in "Old Hats" at the Signature Theatre off-Broadway through April 15th. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


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