About the author:
David Shiner is up to his old tricks (and a bunch of new ones, too!) in the world premiere of Old Hats at off-Broadway’s Signature Center, alongside his longtime clowning partner Bill Irwin. Shiner began his career as a street mime, before graduating to tour in Cirque du Soleil’s Nouvelle Experience in 1990. Three years later, Shiner met Irwin on the set of Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue, and an extraordinary collaboration was born. The duo has since created and performed the acclaimed comedy Fool Moon on Broadway in 1993, 1995 and 1999, which earned a special Tony for Live Theatrical Presentation. Below, Shiner recalls the connection he felt during his first collaboration with Irwin and explains why it’s important to fall—then get right back up again—while developing a new project.
When Bill Irwin and I first got back together, I was terrified. Our last collaboration was in 2002, when we did Fool Moon in San Francisco, and it’s wonderful to be working together on a brand new project—but at the beginning, the whole thing felt rather daunting.
We were starting completely from scratch, and the first few days, I had no ideas. What the hell are we gonna do? Am I good enough to do this? Will we end up boring people? Fool Moon was so great, and I didn’t know how could we possibly top it. But sometimes you just have to get out of bed and face the day—and as we started to work, my fears melted away, my confidence grew, and I really began to believe in the piece. I realized that it had the potential to be incredibly funny. I finally let go of Fool Moon, and we really started having fun.
We started the development process about a year and a half ago at the Signature Center. I’d fly over from Munich for 10-day sessions, and we’d start plugging away. We’d get up on our feet in front of a mirror with some props and our old costumes and hats, and we’d just start playing around. We each take on a distinct role in the rehearsal room: Bill is extremely disciplined and thorough in everything he does, while I’m a little spacey—I tend to do things at the last minute. I sometimes drive Bill a little crazy, but that’s just the way I work, and he respects it as much as I respect his working process.
The first time we met, Bill and I both immediately knew our connection was something special. In 1993, we were working on Sam Shepard’s film Silent Tongue, and we had to come up with a clown routine. Sam said, “Show us some stuff,” and the entire crew stopped and watched us, mesmerized. Even though Bill and I had never worked together, it just came naturally. Afterwards, we both said, “Holy smokes, that was pretty amazing.” I’ve never experienced anything like that. It all clicked so effortlessly.
Now, 20 years later, we’re both much more relaxed. We’re older, and because of our collective experience and background, we approach the work in a more laid-back way. Bill came up with the title Old Hats, and I love it. We tried lots of different names, but this one seemed very appropriate for a couple of old hats like us!
Next, the hard work comes: We have to start performing Old Hats in front of an audience. In comedy, you need to fall flat on your face a number of times until you figure out what the piece really is, and that process is very important. As painful as that vulnerability can be, we need to experience it. We need to figure out why the audience didn’t really laugh at that one part—why we fell flat on our face. What’s wrong? We have to figure it out again the next night, or do it a different way, or change some props. It could be so many combinations of things. Once we start feeling completely relaxed with the material, we’ll begin to add even more.
Old Hats features live music by Nellie McKay, and she’s absolutely adorable. It’s different than the collaboration we had with the Red Clay Ramblers in Fool Moon, but it’s very appropriate for Old Hats. We wanted to work with the Ramblers again, but we didn’t want to do Fool Moon 2. We wanted to try a different musical approach, and give our vaudeville and silent movie influences a new, modern edge.
Bill’s a really good clown, and I’m a really good clown—but together, we’re great. A golden match. I could never imagine working with somebody else on the level I’m working with Bill. And believe it or not, we’ve never disagreed or had an argument. There’s never been any competition or one-upmanship. Our characters do enough of that stuff on stage!