BWW Interview: OLD HATS' David Shiner Tickles Audiences

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David Shiner peered into the audience of a recent performance of the off-Broadway hit Old Hats and his rubbery face contorted into a series of disapproving grimaces. He sparred silently with his co-hat Bill Irwin, trading loud body language in a mock political debate that escalated into the absurd. The audience lapped it up like cream. By the time the bit concluded, the applause was thunderous.

It's not the first time the duo has had this kind of stage success. FOOL MOON, the 1993 hit that had two revivals and scored a special Tony in 1999 after touring internationally, was a similar crowd-pleaser-an old-fashioned entertainment of physical humor and (mostly) PG-rated shtick.

Shiner and Irwin crossed paths in 1993 when they were cast in a movie, SILENT TONGUE, written and directed by Sam Shepard. The two had already been established as clowns in their own right.

Shiner, lithe and angular, typically played the peeved and put-upon character while busking in Colorado. "About 1980 I started working on the streets as a clown," he said. "In the beginning they hated me. I was just awful. I didn't know what I was doing."

But one day, he said, "out of frustration, I got a cop to get out of his car and I started to frisk him." The crowd laughed approvingly, and Shiner at last found his comedy niche.

Shiner was drawn to acting while in high school and later in college, but he was not enamored of higher education. "I studied theater in college for two years," he said. "I didn't enjoy it. It was kind of boring."

Shiner worked on the streets of Boulder and later, Paris (among other avenues) to perfect his routine. "It was a very special time in Paris," he said. "It more or less allowed me to be a street performer." Shiner was enthralled by performing in front of an audience and he never looked back.

In Old Hats, Shiner pays homage, with the character of the sad clown, to the beloved clown Emmett Kelly whose portrayal of Weary Willie won him international acclaim in the 1960s. Shiner's version of a morose chump, wheezing and teary, inspires empathy and evokes hilarity as he battles the weather, garbage and puppets.

"I like the hobo a lot and I know the audience does, too," Shiner said. "Most of the time there are good audiences." One routine that carried over from FOOL MOON is a Wild West segment that depends on audience participation. "I love bringing people on stage," he said, "and sometimes the kids are just wonderful. It's hard work." But the pay-off is tremendous. "We like it when the audience is raucous. When they're quieter, we don't like that as much."

Shiner believes that audiences love the miscommunication, rivalry and slapstick goofiness. "I think they see themselves in us, and everything we do is very open hearted. You really have to love people," Shiner said. "There's very little ego for me and Bill. We're just two guys being absolutely ridiculous and having a wonderful time doing it.

"When we laugh at our human weaknesses it draws us closer," he said. "At the end of the day, we're both very good friends. We work well together and have a tremendous amount of mutual respect. It's a perfect marriage: tolerance, respect and understanding." Not to mention hijinks.

The duo is complemented by the witty and disarming Nellie McKay, who is also the music director of Old Hats. Her ensemble wanders through the audience at times, singing and chatting with the audience.

Shiner, a vegetarian, meditator and yoga practitioner, is at one with his persona's un-hipness. "I brought up onstage some rock star and the audience went wild. I didn't have a clue," he recalled.

"It's really exciting to be working together with Bill. There's no greater gift than to do what you love."

OLD HATS is at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street at 10th Avenue, through June 9.

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