The best teachers never stop learning—the same is true for actors and directors. And, for UM-Flint Theatre's William Irwin, that means continuously honing his comedy craft. In 2016, he spent time with the Upright Citizen's Brigade (UCB) in New York City, learning important lessons on bringing laughter to the stage. Those lessons came in handy as he directed the last theatrical production of the 2016-17 season: The Importance of Being Earnest.
The UCB is a theatre and training center for improvisational and sketch comedians, writers, and actors. It is known for launching the careers of network television and Hollywood greats.
"I have had the real privilege of studying comedy at the UCB on a few occasions with Michael Delaney – an actor, writer and director of comedy for over 20 years," noted Irwin. "The UCB prides themselves on being the only accredited comedic improvisation and sketch comedy school in the country with alumni including writers and performers for Saturday Night Live, Key & Peele, and 30 Rock, among many other hit television shows and movies. While there, I participated in a graduated series of over 30 exercises devised to explore and demonstrate the whole range of comic possibilities open to a performer."
"One of the many critical concepts I took away from my experiences at the UCB is that comedy is based on simply distorting expectations and pattern recognition," continued Irwin. "Distorting a pattern or distorting what we've learned to predict or expect is still the number one element that triggers human laughter."
Teaching Comedy in UM-Flint Theatre
When teaching or directing, Irwin starts "with clinically defining what [comedy] is, how it works, why it works, and the universal mechanics of it. After we have broken it down into all its parts, we experience [it] again through this new lens of details by watching comedies (from classic to modern) and cultivate a deeper awareness of all its parts while discussing it in specific terms. Then, we play. We experiment. We test our understanding of it by employing the tools and techniques we have identified. Even though it's comedy, it's serious work… but it's also a lot of fun!"
On set, Irwin works individually with his student actors to make sure each scene reaches its full potential. The changes can be subtle—drawing out a word, the position of an arm—but they can make or break the comedic impact of the situation. After each suggestion, en emphatic "thank you" can be heard from his actors.
For The Importance of Being Earnest, noted Irwin, "I believe the students are simply enjoying the opportunity to dig in and tackle this iconic play. It's fundamental material for any actor to know, but it's a greater treat to have an opportunity to play a role, speak Wilde's words, and bring it to life for an audience to experience."
"I think the students are also enjoying how relatable and relevant the play is to their own lives and the current state of the world," Irwin continued. "It's also been nice working on a play that provides a bit of tonic for all the troubles that seem to be plaguing us all these days."
Directing a Classic
The choice of The Importance of Being Earnest for this season's comedy production was a natural one. "It is arguably one the greatest comedies of all time," said Irwin. "Since its highly successful debut in London on Valentine's Day in 1895 and after constant revivals around the world over the past 122 years, this comedic masterpiece continues to entertain and delight audiences. Why? It runs the gamut from eloquent sophistication to outright absurdity and from biting satire to outright slapstick. It's about three couples that are desperate for sensation, love, and sex while being confined under certain prescribed codes of conduct and oppressively conservative views. [They] are simply aching to be their authentic selves. In this regard, the play is also deeply human, relatable, and awfully relevant as a farce on peoples' foibles/desires as well as a satire on the pseudo moral."
When asked what marks he's leaving on this iconic comedy, Irwin replied, "The production leaves more of a mark on us. Our job is simply to ask questions about what Wilde was after with this play, study it, play with it, and make some choices about how to bring to life. Our shared impression is that Wilde wanted something lively, lavish, and fun – with a few sly jabs peppered throughout."