Campus News

Bill Irwin ’73 Shares his Creative Genius

April 30, 2014
Marvin Krislov

The dazzling depth, breadth and serious silliness of Bill Irwin’s lecture/performance/master class in Finney Chapel this past Sunday evening was great fun. It was also a vivid display of Oberlin’s unique creative energy. Where else would you find our students and a brilliant alum on stage blending Beckett, Albee, drama, music, dance, big shoes, baggy pants, physical comedy shtick, and lightning word play?

Many, many thanks to Bill ’73 for finding the time to come back and share his myriad gifts with us. Kudos as well to the event’s sponsors, OCircus, the Theater Department, the Dance Department, the Oberlin Student Theater Association, and, especially to chief organizer Will Passannante ’14, for making this happen.

Bill was the first performing artist to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly referred to as a “genius grant.” Watching him perform and listening to him explain what he was doing, and how and why, offered a fascinating glimpse of his creative process and performance prowess.

Nine other Oberlin alums have been named MacArthur Fellows—in science, music, and medicine—since the awards debuted in 1984. That’s an impressive number, and it speaks to the rigor of our academic programs and our conservatory, and the creativity, drive, and passion of our students.

Those things are also the driving force for OCircus, one of Oberlin’s largest student-run performance groups. Being part of a circus may sound like a silly thing for college students to do. But it isn’t at Oberlin. The participants meet regularly to master all kinds of circus skills—clowning, juggling, tumbling, acrobatics and balancing acts, rope tricks, and plain old shtick. Any silliness involved is often well-honed, as Bill Irwin mentioned on Sunday.

Several times a year these young people put on great shows. This being Oberlin, these shows always have fun, quirky themes, phenomenal choreography, terrific live music, and are sometimes a little risqué. The audience is always packed with students, parents, faculty members, and local families. My family and I always look forward to OCircus performances.

Think about what has to happen for the OCircus shows to run so smoothly. Scores of students have to work together, thinking, creating, writing, planning, organizing, scheduling, practicing, rehearsing, building props and sets, and then performing in front of an audience. OCircus members will tell you it is a lot of fun but also a ton of work.

From a teacher’s perspective, I see it as a tremendous, interdisciplinary learning experience. It is also an entrepreneurial enterprise created and carried out entirely by Oberlin students. And while they’re putting together the shows, our students are also doing what Oberlin students always do—the hard work of pursuing academic, artistic, and musical excellence.

Some other liberal arts colleges have circuses, but ours has a certain genius all its own. Bill Irwin didn’t found OCircus. But its roots stretch back to the carnival skills ExCo—featuring clowning, fire-eating, lying on nail beds, and other things I urge you not to try on your own—which he taught in the early 1970s. I’m told that on nice days back then he’d teach it in Wilder Bowl. And passersby would sometimes stare in amazement and applaud as Bill put the students through their paces. Just like we did on Sunday night. Thanks again, Bill, for being such a generous teacher and for a brilliant evening in Oberlin.

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