Bill Irwin in Scapin
(© Santos Irwin)
Bill Irwin in Scapin
(© Santos Irwin)
Bill Irwin has been making audiences laugh hysterically -- and sometimes even cry -- for over 30 years, ranging from his work with The Pickle Family Circus to his Tony Award-winning turn as George in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But one of his favorite plays has long been Moliere's classic comedy, Scapin, and he's once more playing the title role -- the wily servant who tries to outwit his foolish master -- at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, September 16-October 17. Irwin recently took time from rehearsing the play -- which he's also directing -- to answer some questions from TheaterMania.

THEATERMANIA: What first attracted to you to adapting this play?
BILL IRWIN: This play of Moliere's seems to invite adaptation more than his other plays -- it seems to require it. Or at least that's how it's always struck me. Maybe it's just that I felt such a strong impulse to do an adaptation that I have come to offer this as a defense. Ideas for adapting haunted me -- they sort of tumbled out -- when I first read it over 20 years ago. But it was the Seattle Rep that put me together with Mark O'Donnell to form an adapting team. He has a feeling for the comic line, like few others, and he has enough French to work from the original. I keep telling the company as we rehearse here that certain O'Donnell lines require a pause for laughter or a careful ear for the possibility -- a line may seem like a cue to just pick up and keep tight, and then you'll find the odd rhythms and constructions hit people a hair later than some jokes, and then they're laughing.

TM: What is it about the character of Scapin that has made you want to play him over and over?
BI: The Scapin character is sort of second nature to me, and sort of not. The devious, amoral, servant is actually a reach from the sympathetic American clown character that I've always found natural. But I'm hoping that we've found a meeting place of the two.

TM: Why do you think audiences respond so strongly to anti-authority figures like Scapin?
BI: Why do people like unscrupulous servants? I don't know; maybe it's that we're a republic that likes to remember its roots in rebellion against ordered hierarchy -- no matter how bourgeois we get.

Kathleen Turner and Billl Irwin
in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Kathleen Turner and Billl Irwin
in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
TM: Does it feel different playing this role now, as opposed to 15 years ago when you did it Off-Broadway?
BI: I'm an older and, we hope, wiser theater guy now. I have Edward Albee experience to bring to this play and this role -- and yes, it actually applies. I love that this is a play with wonderful roles -- not just one or two but nearly a dozen -- and everybody has to get the featured energy for the requisite parts of scenes. It dies if you don't pass the ball.

TM: How do you feel about working with this cast, especially your longtime friend and Pickle Family Circus cohort, Geoff Hoyle?
BI: Yes, Geoff Hoyle and I are alluding to things we used to do 30 years ago -- sometimes we decide they don't apply, but sometimes that they do. Jud Williford is just an amazing comic actor -- he's natural, but he knows heightened reality. Rene Augusen has what Moliere's company must have called the laughing role -- she works the subtle but exhausting laughing schtick --and makes it look very easy.

TM: Did you ever think about asking someone else to direct the production?
BI: I probably should have -- but I've always hoped my instincts on this would get us there. The company is very patient with me.

TM: Some people consider you the world's greatest clown. Who is your favorite clown of all time?
BI: My favorite clown is Buster Keaton. And what's interesting here is that I've brought my admiration -- and my larceny -- for Keaton into this, like everything I do. It's not really a Keaton role; it's a little more aggrieved, and a little more -- well, now of course, a little more middle-aged -- than the Keaton persona in the great silent features.