Can Physical Comedy Work on Zoom? Bill Irwin Wants to Find Out

Can Physical Comedy Work on Zoom? Bill Irwin Wants to Find Out

Can Physical Comedy Work on Zoom? Bill Irwin Wants to Find Out

Can Physical Comedy Work on Zoom? Bill Irwin Wants to Find Out

In Bill Irwin’s lockdown performance space, his apartment in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, his laptop perches on a stack of books. Off to the side, DVDs from the Kennedy Center Honors make a platform for his iPad. As tech setups for live performance go, it all sounds a little precarious.

“Oh, I hope it holds together,” he fretted the other morning, between rewrites and rehearsals of “In-Zoom,” his new 10-minute play. Performed by Irwin in New York and Christopher Fitzgerald, in North Carolina, it will have its livestream premiere Thursday evening on the website of the Old Globe, the San Diego theater company.

A Tony Award-winning actor and the rare MacArthur Fellow who is also a clown, Irwin goes way back with the company’s artistic director, Barry Edelstein. A conversation between them set the play in motion. Remaining online through Saturday, it will be free to view, though donations are encouraged to support the Old Globe.

Already, Irwin has some favorites from this year’s nascent crop of digital drama: Richard Nelson’s “What Do We Need to Talk About?,” Michael Urie’s livestream performance of “Buyer & Cellar,” Theater of War’s “The Oedipus Project.”

“Doing theater, anxiety is the baseline, even in the most normal, benign of times,” Irwin said. “Now, we’re both trying invent a form and subvert it at the same time, and it’s just — yeah, it’s terrifying.”

His own play involves a video call between two unnamed characters who have been asked to record some inspirational passages. Irwin spoke by phone about using that to examine the potential for physical comedy and genuine human connection on Zoom. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’re such a physical artist. What does working in this medium do to the way you think?

Even before the pandemic surprised us — it shouldn’t have, but it surprised us — I was looking at these questions, like what is an elderly physical artist? How do you negotiate and embrace that?

Is that because you just turned 70?

Yeah, but I’ve been turning it for a long time (laughs). Pandemic times aside, boy, do you not want to be out there trying to tell a physical story when you don’t really have it to tell anymore. You want to quit before people are wishing you would quit. Or transition to different things. And now we have Zoom theater. It’s a form that’s only a few weeks old, but it’s already — the early things look so quaint now, what we were posting three weeks ago.

First, things were, “Can you just put something out there and respond to this as an artist?” You look back, a lot of it was kind of portentous and self-involved, but we were doing our best. And now, really sophisticated things are being done, so it’s not anymore where you just talk into your iPhone and let everybody know that we’re still together. We’re trying to look at what theatrical possibilities exist, and even physical possibilities, with this little window frame.

Your title is an inversion of “zoom in.”

It is. That’s the wonderful thing when you work in television — the immensely gifted and technically savvy bunch of people around you going, “You hold still, and we’re going to do this, and the camera will do this.” Well, now it’s all up to us. If you want a close-up, you bend your waist and get your head close. If you want a medium shot, you have to sort of sit back in your chair. It’s like the old cliché: We’re making the airplane while it’s flying.

Does communicating by video change the way we see one another?

I think it does. It must. We’re trying to tell a story launched from that question. When I first got on Zoom, I said, “How can I look somebody in the eye?” and one of the IT people said, “Oh, you can’t ever do that.” So we tried to go from there.

This Zoom medium, it’s pretty much just on your face.

Yeah, it’s pretty much head in frame. At one point in the play, they’re arguing and the younger guy says: “I think you’re operating under old assumptions here. The body, that’s a minor point. We’re heads talking in windows now.” The old guy, it touches a nerve, he says: “No, no, no, no, no, no. The body is not beside the point.” And then it launches a little speech which I probably have to cut in half (laughs).

Are you aware of your body in new ways in this moment?

We’re all hyper-aware of our bodies. We are thinking in whole different ways physically, and it’s kind of chilling. The way people walk down the sidewalk and sort of veer left or veer right. We have homeless people that live on our block; we try to give some soup every once in a while or say a hello. But, man, we’re doing it from across the sidewalk, and maybe standing in the gutter talking to the guy against the building now. It’s just a different human relationship.

You must think of pedestrian traffic in choreographic terms.

(Laughs) Yeah. And it’s really more possible to do that now, because you’re just looking at four bodies in space, whereas it would’ve been 40 not that long ago. So it’s not so much mass choreography now as it is individual trajectories. All the patterns have changed.

In your play, death — or, more properly, grief — is just in the next room, via video: Zoom shiva.

Yes. And what’s really deeply scaring me is, telling a story about plague times, how directly do you address it? I’m trying to figure out how you sound that note so you’re not telling a story about people who are totally oblivious. Death is always really nearby.

How do you think storytelling in this medium will change the shape of theater?

I hope it’ll be a little blip that, a year from now, we’ll all be going: “Remember when we were doing Zoom? Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha!” I mean, it’ll have resonance for a long term, but I hope we’re not doing it a year from now. I hope we’re back in theaters, on stages. I choose not to think too much about that question, I guess.

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