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“This Writing Really Calls To Me. It’s Huge in My Life. It Also Just Repels Me.”: Bill Irwin On His Irish Rep Virtual Theater Piece, On Beckett / In Screen

Bill Irwin in On Beckett / In Screen (Photo: Irish Rep)

Bill Irwin premiered On Beckett at the Irish Repertory Theatre in 2018. In the piece he explored Samuel Beckett’s writing by performing selections and offering commentary about the impact the Irish author has had on his life. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters, the Irish Rep turned to the internet to stream productions online. Recently the Irish Rep repeated its 2020 season in the Theatre @ Home Winter Festival, which is now streaming and extended through March 7, 2021.

For the festival, Irwin and his collaborators, including co-director M. Florian Staab and cameraman Brian Petchers, rethought the piece, which is now called On Beckett / In Screen. Irwin spoke to Filmmaker from Toronto, where he was working on a television show.

Filmmaker: You said you wanted to talk filmmaking without a camera.

Irwin: How do you talk about filmmaking when it’s just verbal conversation? It’s kind of ironic or absurd for me to being talking about this to Filmmaker at all because I didn’t shoot it, I didn’t light it — the lighting being one of the essential elements in its success to the extent that it’s had any — and I’m only one of three strong editing voices.

I’m not saying I’m a cog in the wheel because I did conceive the piece, but I’m not a filmmaker. I wish I could say I were, I wish I knew more about it.

Filmmaker: How did the On Beckett piece originate?

Irwin: Back in the innocent days — before pandemic — I developed an evening for the theater where I performed passages from Samuel Beckett’s work. In between those passages I talked about the place this language has had in my life over lots of years as an actor. I worked on it, it changed, sometimes it got better, sometimes worse. When theaters closed for the pandemic, the Irish Rep said “Let’s do it as a virtual piece.”

In the quick history of virtual theater, I think the first philosophy was to have the actors do as much as possible what they remembered doing. Reconstruct it as if you’re doing it to an audience, put a camera on it. You wind up with a video of actors performing as if to an audience.

If we had shot On Beckett / In Screen early on, like in April or May of the pandemic year, it might have turned out like that. But by the time the fall came around, I began to think that approach wouldn’t work. This needed to be compacted down in running time, that’s one thing. And it needed to be delivered into the lens of the camera, to speak to one virtual viewer at a time.

The piece is now also a portrait of the pandemic time. It’s partly just to fill up time while we’re all semi-quarantined, but it’s partly to talk to each other about what is going on. What is human life now?

Filmmaker: You filmed on the Irish Rep stage.

Irwin: I’ll give you an instance of collaboration here. My notion as I was writing outlines, vague shooting scripts, was that we’d see me enter the theater masked, I’d walk onto the stage and start. From time to time you’d see over my shoulder out into the house, where there would be three or four people in masks, maybe gloves just for effect, who were doing the recording. Somebody operating the camera, somebody holding a sound boom, somebody looking at a monitor.

My collaborators very wisely talked me out of that, partly from clarity of vision and partly from knowing that it would take a longer time. It’s simpler to just show empty seats.

But that choice became a really important visual element. “…I’m standing here where I stood two years ago in front of audiences…” And now all those green velvet seats are empty.

Filmmaker: You take a co-directing credit for this.

Irwin: Florian M. Staab, but everyone just calls him Staab, started out as a sound designer, which he was on the stage version. He quickly became a co-director.

The videographer, Brian Petchers, I had never met before, he was hired because he’s very good at this and had done other things for the Irish Rep — and because he owns a camera. The lighting designer, Michael Gottlieb, is a very meticulous artist and a filmmaker in his own right.

Ciaran O’Reilly, who’s one of the artistic directors of the theater, was there all the way through and never hesitated to share thoughts, frequently very good ones. And Charlotte Moore, one of the founding members of the theater, she has been in St. Louis for the whole pandemic. She was virtually peeking in the whole time from her laptop. That’s how stuff comes together in this era.

Filmmaker: What advice did they give you?

Irwin: Ciaran said early on that there’s a magic length of about 70 minutes. That really struck me. So we wrestled this down to about 74 minutes. That compression suggested to me a greater urgency. So instead of talking as you would to 300 people in a theater, I’m talking into a lens, with an urgency that the emergency nature of this era seems to call for.

Filmmaker: You say you’re not an auteur, but you were ultimately making the decisions about what this would look like.

Irwin: There’s nothing wrong with being an auteur except that I don’t think anybody actually is very often. It’s a communal effort, that’s been my experience. Filmmaking seems to carry an auteurist aura with it, but I’m primarily an actor in this format. I get told where to stand, I get told to sit down for a while so they can get the lights right.

From any vantage I’ve ever been part of working with a camera, you’re always battling time. There’s never enough time. No matter how much time there is, it isn’t enough. So one of the rules here was, Bill’s not going to be the auteur who says, “Okay, cut” to go look at the monitor. Because that would mean stepping out of the light, down off the stage, putting on a mask, having somebody else move over so that we were six feet apart.

Filmmaker: You must have made decisions. If a monologue wasn’t going the way you wanted, for example.

Irwin: Yes, but I used the old TV style where you just go back two lines.

Filmmaker: I’m not clear how you perform this piece to no one. What were the choices behind camera placement and lenses?

Irwin: I always tell myself every time I have a job that I’m going to sit down and learn about lenses. I have a vague notion of what the difference between a 15 and a 75 is, and you adjust to that as an actor, but it isn’t a really detailed knowledge.

Early filmmakers like Keaton and Chaplin had an instinctive sense that the best basic viewpoint is from, say, the middle in row six or seven of a nice theater. The best seat in the house. Speaking with Peter Bogdanovich, he said, “Keaton always knew where to put the camera.” He talked like someone in a priesthood, some people get it, some don’t.

You start from those heroes, shoot from the best seat in the theater. But we actually moved closer so it wouldn’t feel as if we were just recreating theater. So we put one camera on a platform at the edge of the stage. Another occasionally in the balcony. No matter how many years I’ve spent making my living in front of the camera, I still think in theater terms, that’s my first orientation. But this pandemic took me to another point of view, the notion of how we now live in our laptops. So my sense was to lean in, to kind of pour myself into this lens. Again as part of the urgency of the times, as part of the needed urgency in talking about Samuel Beckett’s work, his language. Also, I’m 70. I’m talking about being 70 as an actor, as a human being, the different sense of urgency than when you’re 35.

Filmmaker: So is there an ideal audience you’re imagining?

Irwin: There are portraits of early TV watching, a living room full of people, family, a guy with a pipe and his tribe. Sometimes people gathering together to watch a sports event.

But more and more in this pandemic virtual era, I think the audience is one or two people. Maybe not consciously, that was what I was thinking of. Not playing to a lens per se, because real fast that becomes an empty exercise actors fall into. “I’m doing a lot of focus on the lens here, what does that mean?” When you watch later, it didn’t mean much. So more a sense of looking through the lens trying to reach somebody. Who is that person? To address your question, more and more it’s one person looking at a laptop. Maybe two people looking at a laptop.

Filmmaker: Beckett faced the same issue: who was he writing for?

Irwin: I met Beckett toward the end of his life briefly. It was set up in Paris through intermediaries when I was about to play in Waiting for Godot. I so wasted that opportunity, that conversation. I was so caught up in myself in my 30s, and I didn’t have the knowledge of his writing. There are so many things I would ask him now, and that would be one of them: who are you writing for?

One thing I try to say as clearly as possible in the piece: This writing really calls to me. It’s huge in my life. It also just repels me. I mean if I could get away from the writing, a big part of me happily would.

But who was he addressing? When you immerse yourself in it, you sometimes catch him being a little bit of a poseur maybe, like he’s writing for his Left Bank friends. But those are only moments in a great body of writing — addressed to any reader.

Filmmaker: How much time did you have for this?

Irwin: Two-and-a-half shooting days. I know enough about filmmaker habits to say we could have used that half day, or we could have used a fourth day. Time is always a pressure.

For lighting and efficiency, we shot the talking parts separately, I think on day one, and then moved to the performance parts on a separate lighting setup. It was tricky, talking, talking, talking, doing only the talking parts.

Filmmaker: It’s hard to believe you didn’t shoot chronologically, because you’re building up from a conversational tone to actually performing selections of his writing.

Irwin: Fortunately I had the skeleton and the practice of doing it on stage. But as an actor I’m not that good at working out of time. In television I will realize, “Oh god, we’re doing this scene, and I didn’t really entirely clock the importance of this when we shot the following scene weeks ago.”

Filmmaker: How did your concept of the piece change during its transition to virtual?

Irwin: Shortening it made it more personal. But here’s a nuts-and-bolts example of my naïve journey. To make it shorter, I lopped things away. That worked on stage, but I kept the idea that it would be without jump cuts virtually, even though we weren’t shooting in sequence.

Then during editing, we saw that on stage the time it takes to slip into that coat and watch a transformation take place doesn’t really work on camera. It just feels like we’re taking too long. So we started before an action and jumped to where I’ve already completed it.

It was hard for me at first, it violates my sense of watching a thing unfold. But it was so much better than trying to create the illusion that it was in real time. It reminded me of, I think, Bertolt Brecht talking about Chaplin’s The Gold Rush: “There’s a bad guy, an avalanche comes, and he’s out of the story. Other dramatists would have taken three scenes to get rid of the bad guy.” Chaplin knows you just erase him with an avalanche.

Filmmaker: How long was the editing?

Irwin: Longer than I think anyone intended. It’s amazing how bad communication can be online. I learned again how important eight frames of film can be in storytelling.

Filmmaker: Can you take a minute to talk about your Rikers Island campaigns?

Irwin: We’ve gotten involved in small ways and are trying to support the people who really lead this thing, many of whom were formerly incarcerated. They say this is a facility that has to come to an end because it’s not doing anything it was designed to do. It’s inefficient, it’s expensive, it’s inhuman. I think it will get torn down eventually.

Do you know anything about the history of Rikers Island? In early colonial times it was the place where captured slaves were often held. It has such a toxic history that it is the last place where an incarceration facility should be.

Rikers is about as far away as you can get, which is part of its rationale: let’s keep it out of people’s minds. But that’s one of the things that makes is so inefficient. For an incarcerated person to get a lawyer’s visit takes twice as long and costs three or four times what it should, because it’s so hard to get to. And the movement to close Rikers is closely intertwined with the bail reform movement. There are people on Rikers for years who have not been convicted of anything, they are still awaiting trial. Let’s close it together – New York will be better.

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