One of the world’s great clowns, is also an acclaimed actor, playwright and director, and recently appeared in their award-winning production of “Old Hats” with Bill Irwin at the Signature Theatre in New York City. On Broadway, Mr. Shiner and Mr. Irwin’s the two-man wordless show “Fool Moon,” featuring music by the Red Clay Ramblers, ran for eight years (Special Tony Award for Live Theatrical Presentation, Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience, Outer Critics Circle Special Achievement Award). Mr. Shiner originated the role of The Cat in the Hat in the stage musical, “Seussical.” He began doing street mime in Colorado, France and Germany, and then worked for various circuses including Cirque de Demain; the German troupe, Circus Roncalli; and the Swiss National company, Circus Knie. With Cirque du Soleil, he co-created and performed in “Nouvelle Expérience,” touring for nineteen months throughout Canada and the United States, and was the writer and director of “Kooza.” Mr. Shiner’s film and TV performances include “Lorenzo’s Oil;” “Man of the House;” opposite Bill Irwin in Sam Shepard’s film, “Silent Tongue;” and numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. He has also mentored and guest directed at Lilalu, a German youth circus program.
in Old Hats
Congratulations on your memorable performance in “Old Hats.” What has given you the greatest joy in returning to perform “Old Hats” with Bill Irwin at the Signature Theatre Company?
It’s hard to answer – I think the greatest joy always at this stage in my life is that I’m able to make people laugh – working with Bill and Shaina (Taub), she’s an incredible talent, the whole band, with everyone involved with the production. It’s really the whole experience at the Signature, what they manage to do, how supportive they are. I’ve never experienced anything like it anywhere else; Jim has created a ‘powerhouse.’
How was this show originally born?
Jim Houghton. He said to Bill and I: “Why don’t you both get back together.” So we said to each other: “Let’s spend a week together and see if we can come up with some ideas.” Jim kept after us. He’d bring us back together – for two weeks the next time, and before I knew it, we were together again.
in Old Hats with Bill Irwin
I had first come over, (from Germany where I have a home) in 2013. We must have met perhaps four times and did these two-week workshops. Bill and I would spend time in the studio finding out what is it that we’ve really come up with. After the second meeting, we said to each other: “We’ll do a show.”
in Old Hats with Bill Irwin
I don’t know what makes it work. I can’t see what we’re doing, I’m not in the audience. But we’re on the same wave length, we support each other, and I respect him as much he does me.
For me, before we met, Bill was the best clown in the world. And it just happened that we ended up doing a film of Sam Shepard’s – “Silent Tongue” that we worked together.
We had to come up with a clown routine instantaneously. It was actually quite brilliant, took very little effort. We both knew it was very special; it just happened.
What makes a good clown?
That’s a difficult question because there’s many different styles of clowning. For example, when I teach at the Acting Academy in Munich, I work with young German actors, and what I teach them doesn’t have to do with a clown technique. I’m helping them find out their own creativity, trying to inspire them to find their own separate voice, to face their fears, to do things they wouldn’t do normally do.
Anyone can learn the mime technique or basic dancing; you don’t have to be a brilliant to clown. But for me, it’s the ability to improvise, to have good ideas so at the end of the day you can ask: “What am I bringing on stage?” “What is the core thing that makes me communicate the way I do.” It’s all about communication.
I want to help students find their authentic self. What that is that really gives you powerful energy. I help them free themselves, to trust their own instinct, to find what makes then unique. I always ask the question: What is the fool? I talk about my feelings about what is the essence of a clown. It’s basically transforming pain into laughter.
You began as a mime. Were your parents supportive of your creativity?
My parents were always supportive. I come from a family of eight children and they couldn’t always keep track of all of us. When I went to Europe early in the 1980’s, I would improvise in the street but I never considered myself a mime. I really taught myself by constantly improvising; it became part of my physical vocabulary.
Were there artists who were inspiring to you at that time?
I was enamored by Marcel Marceau and that whole movement; they were great, great people. There was Claude Kipnis, Robert Shields, there was a whole bunch of people. And then I was in Geneva in 1982, and saw the Swiss circus Knie; that changed everything for me. I thought, “Now that’s real clowning.”
Were there other clowns that you were attracted to in the movies?
My heroes very early on were clearly Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Chaplin intrigued me, it was the poetry of his movement, his storytelling. He had so much poetry. His film, “City Lights’ is my favorite. It’s just brilliant – the idea of creating a powerful character only through a little movement, a little costume and makeup. It just intrigued me. I wanted to do that but I didn’t know why.
Before your joined Cirque du Soleil, you were also a part of several different circuses. How would you describe what all those experiences gave you?
I learned so much with the first circus I worked with in Germany. We would do twelve shows a week and because you’re doing so many shows you keep learning and experimenting. I had three numbers so I was forced to stick with my routine but in the afternoon shows I would experiment so I learned from doing so many shows every single day. We’d get in front of the audience and do it over and over and over until I began to understand what it was. With the Circus Knie, it was all a learning curve – listening to the audience, because they were paying for a performance.
On the street it was very different. I had to make sure they stayed and watched. I was learning about my technique, and my character would change dramatically.
With Cirque du Soleil you co-created and performed in “Nouvelle Expérience,” touring for 19 months, and then as the writer and director, you created “KOOZA.”
When I arrived at Cirque du Soleil, it was just a great experience. I wrote a lot for the company, directed some of it. My character was featured. Working with them was a wonderful time, everyone was wonderful to work with. It was a very really creative time – the ‘fervent years!’ It was also my introduction into this country; it was the first people saw me in America.
Your word-less show, “Fool Moon” with the Red Clay Ramblers wowed and enchanted audiences for years and years. Did it change over the years?
You’re always perfecting the numbers but there comes a point where you’ve been doing eight shows a week, which takes a lot of energy, you calm down. Bill and I would dare one another. I actually think I’m doing my best work now.
It’s interesting – you hit 60 years of age and you realize you don’t need to prove yourself any longer. It’s wonderful when the audience applauds but it’s not about getting a standing ovation. They will either like it or they won’t, so it’s very freeing. It gives me the freedom so I can improvise. At an earlier point we’re all terrified what others will think: Am I funny enough? But then you reach a certain period when you realize you just want to go out there and have fun.
as The Cat in the Hat in Seussical on Broadway
You also originated the role of ‘The Cat in the Hat’ on Broadway in the musical “Seussical. Why did you want to play The Cat in the Hat?
I don’t know why; I think it was a lark. They called me in for an audition. I had never auditioned for a Broadway show and they gave me the part. I doubt I’ll ever do another musical. I was surrounded by so much tremendous talent, people who can really sing and dance, all these great composers, lyricists, all really exceptional talents. I felt awkward. I think I did a good job. My wife said to me: “It’s not for you, you’re a clown.” but I got to try it.
Does the audience play a part in what you create? In the timing, and how far you might go with a moment?
Honestly, it really doesn’t have anything to do with the audience when you’re creating. You create what the timing will be and you create what you want to create, what you have to create. You figure out the timing and then once you’re on the stage the audience is either going to laugh or they won’t. They’ll let you know if your flying or you’re sinking. The same rules apply whether I’m create something for a show like this, it’s either funny or it isn’t. It’s the same when you’re creating for a bigger show, you have to apply the same rules.
You creating a ten-minute routine with a beginning, a middle and an end. You’re working to achieve attention and expanding it. Now you may have a lot more money to work with so you have to be careful, but you stay true to your vision. You have to have a vision of something.
But I think now, at this time in my life what is important is telling stories. It’s filling those who come with a story that has a lot of heart and soul. I’m literally on a search through the story, with a deep longing, to overcome fear, to find hope, it’s a hero’s journey if you will. It’s the search for identity, for meaning, the quest for understanding. It’s what everyone is longing to identity with.
I think the next show I direct may have something to do with this. I want to go and direct in Russia next year. I think I’d like to work with great Russian clowns and ballet dancers and acrobats and tell a beautiful story.
When you begin creating, are you seeing a broad picture of what a story is about?
I start with one idea. Let’s say it’s about this guy who has a problem and he’s trying to reconcile it, and his place in the world. At the beginning as he’s trying to solve a problem, he meets another character who can either impede him or help him in his search.
I love the idea of his longing for something that’s luminous, beyond the human mind, something of the heart and spirit, a longing to rise above the agony and pain of this earthily existence, not as an escape.
There’s something more, and I think everyone has a deep understanding that there has to be something more. There has to be. That’s what’s important to me. I want to do stories that have to do with love and hope and resolution and freedom, overcoming fear, fighting against the dark forces.
My favorite book when I was growing up was The Lord of the Rings. It was so intriguing. It was the story of a young man, small in size, an innocent, and he’s up against extremely powerful forces of darkness. But his heart is true, and he has a friend, Sam, and they triumph. It’s the way I feel that way about life. We need to have more innocence and hope, compassion; tenderness will always triumph.
I remember how moved I was watching Emmet Kelly and Red Skelton, two of our greatest clowns, and they also had a deep impression on you.
Yes, Red Skelton had that great Hobo piece. My hobo piece is not finished. It’s basically Emmet and Red Skelton. Skelton also did that wonderful character, Freddy the Freeloader. It was all quintessential Americana. I always wanted to do the ‘sad figure.’ I still have more ideas. I think I can have a better ending but it will cost money. I wanted to challenge myself and make the audience laugh and cry, to feel his longing, his loneliness because deep inside of us is the pain of separation, the pain of knowing, of sensing there’s so much more and it’s all the realm of the human heart. It can only be accessed through stillness and a quiet mind. I mean, can we begin to understand the realms of the human heart?
My feeling is what exists in the human heart would stagger the imagination. We spend so much time in our daily lives giving into fears. We forget to return to our heart. We become too busy and then we leave it to other powers. If we could contact our primal voice and find out what we’re feeling, we could access our emotions. We’re capable of feeling what’s inside us. It’s there all the time but we’ve become very selective, so we only feel in a limited way. This life seems so dangerous so a lot of the time we shut down.
This show is about pure joy, to come and laugh and have fun. What can be better than that? I play the fool so at the end of the day I can help others realize we can also sometimes act like fools when we take ourselves too seriously. The moment we think we know what we’re doing we can become foolish. It’s all relative, knowing deep down there’s something so much better. Every second we’re alive the challenge is to be still and embrace the moment with all there is. Whatever it is, I mean, we’re all here for a reason so I don’t fight it anymore. Something like that’s beating in all of us. That intrigues me more than anything else – the human heart.