Bill Irwin and David Shiner

I watched Old Hats on PBS last night, and that has inspired today’s post here at MDD Speaks: a look back at the careers of two of my all-time favorite clowns and performers, Bill Irwin and David Shiner.

Little-known fact: I appeared on Broadway with these two gents. It was my longest run on Broadway, in fact (approximately 12 minutes).

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Yep, I was in Fool Moon. I appeared in the cowboy movie sketch, which is the centerpiece of Act II (and is repeated in Old Hats). I played the Clapboard Guy. It was one of the most unforgettable and delightful experiences of my life. I remember Shiner telling me sotto voce not to worry, just to make it big. And I remember Irwin standing right at the edge of the wings, displaying a hearty thumbs-up whenever I attempted to follow the complicated directions that Shiner pantomimed for me and the other hapless audience members who were part of this hilarious sketch. (There’s a version of the sketch on YouTube.)

But let me get back to the beginning. Like a lot of people, I didn’t know anything about Bill Irwin until he turned up on the Tony Awards, particularly when he did a long performance from Largely/New York in 1989.

I guess I remembered this when I was in NYC during the summer of 1993 and decided, on a total whim, to see Fool Moon during its initial Broadway run. I saw it again two years later; on this occasion I brought along my niece Julie. We had front-row seats. I was determined to get her into the show: there’s a segment that Irwin does at the top of Act II which involves a small child chosen from the audience.

Well, Julie didn’t get picked… but I did. (See above.)

When Fool Moon came back to Broadway in 1998, I saw it again, and this time I wrote about it.

Then Fool Moon went on tour and came to the Kennedy Center in DC (where I was still living at the time). I maneuvered to make a trip to a matinee the team-building event for my department at Marriott. And the whole family attended the show one evening, where once again, Julie didn’t get picked… but her younger sister Sarah did.

We went to the Green Room after the show and waited for Bill Irwin. When he entered from his dressing room, he walked over to our young star, yelling out “Sarah!” and giving her a big theatrical hug. A fond memory for the entire Denton clan.

Both Irwin and Shiner went on to other projects after Fool Moon. Shiner starred in Seussical (and I thought he was terrific in it, though I had some reservations about the show: here’s my review.) Irwin starred on Broadway in The Goat and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, winning a well-deserved Tony for the latter. Irwin was also off-Broadway at CSC in Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, which I adored; and had his own season at Signature in 2003-4, headlining his own plays The Harlequin Studies, The Regard Evening, and Mr. Fox: A Rumination. (I wanted to like Irwin in the 2009 revival of Waiting for Godot, but sadly that show didn’t work for me very well at all.)

Separately but especially together, Irwin and Shiner almost unfailingly make me happy when I see them on stage. They made me happy again last night in Old Hats, which I saw in its earliest incarnation at the Signature in 2013, in the front row–where I got to take part in the group hug that David Shiner has with members of the audience. Another fond reminiscence.

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