Irwin adds quirky humor, music to Renaissance Festival

Making up a song about such dissimilar topics as armadillos, tax audits and hurricanes within a matter of seconds is no easy task, but Andy Irwin does it several times each weekend as part of his performance with the popular semi-annual Georgia Renaissance Festival, held in south Fulton County.

Irwin, who came to Oxford College four years ago as acting director of theater, now works half-time in Oxford's Campus Life Division matching student volunteers with social service agencies through the Volunteer Oxford program. He also spends a good bit of his time assisting Oxford Chaplain Sammy Clark in organizing retreats, workshops and service-related trips with students.

Offutt the Minstrel

On weekends this fall, however, Irwin is spending his time coming up with songs based on random suggestions shouted out by audience members at the Georgia Renaissance Festival, suggestions such as armadillos, tax audits and hurricanes. The songs are part of Irwin's musical/improvisational comedy show titled "Offutt the Minstrel" [Offutt is his middle name].

"The very last song of the show is one that we always make up on the spot, taking three suggestions from the audience," Irwin said. "It's real risky. They might yell out anything. It's sort of like juggling. If it works, the audience loves it. If you mess up with any charm at all, they still like you."

Usually about 25 minutes in length, "Offutt the Minstrel" is a one-person show, except for what Irwin affectionately terms the "audience dupes" who volunteer to come up on stage and participate in certain segments. "I don't have a lot of equipment for the show," he said. "I do have a jug that I play. I'm probably one of the best jug players in Georgia, although I haven't seen any others, so it's hard to tell." He also has his guitar and costume, part of which he "stole" from Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center while writing, directing and performing comedy there with SAK Theater.

Each Saturday and Sunday from Oct. 7-Nov. 5, Irwin is doing four performances per day of "Offutt the Minstrel" at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. In addition, he leads the "Tavern Scene" at the end of each day, where "a bunch of the characters come together in the tavern and everybody takes turns singing," Irwin said. "I sort of emcee that and do a couple of songs. It's actually harder in some ways than my show. It's a much rowdier crowd. It's a drinking crowd, and there's no drinking at my show."

In addition to performing, Irwin has written and directed another show for the Renaissance Festival, an adaptation of "The Miller's Tale" from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. "It's really more silly than bawdy," Irwin said of his version of the notoriously naughty work.

Irwin began working with the Georgia Renaissance Festival three years ago after meeting the festival's musical director while recording in a music studio. "We were having a big, fun time just goofing around," Irwin said. "[The music director] said, `Wow, I wish you could be at the festival with us.' I knew what festivals usually paid, so I told her I probably couldn't afford to do it. She told me she could probably work something out. I started out as a street character, and now I have my own stage show."

Cutting the CD

The recording studio session that led Irwin to the Renaissance Festival three years ago was certainly not his last. Irwin's CD "Banana Seat" was released in June to critical acclaim in the metro Atlanta press. The CD, whose title is also the name of a type of bicycle popular during Irwin's childhood, is a mixture of songs and storytelling, much of which is based on experiences from his youth and college days.

In one number, "Clamydomonas," Irwin sings of a single-cell organism that can produce both sexually and asexually. "If they don't feel it's compatible, they just split," goes one line. The inspiration for "Clamydomonas" came when Irwin made a D on a biology exam in college. The day he received the grade, he took home the exam answers and wrote a song that included them all. The next day he sang the song for his biology professor, who promptly changed Irwin's grade to a B. "He said he couldn't give me an A because it was the day after the exam," Irwin recalled.

Also sprinkled into the mix are several fictional characters created by Irwin and friends, characters he also uses in a live show he performs regularly in the Atlanta area. One of those characters is Dr. Marguerite Van Camp, "an old lady who founded Southern White Old Ladies Hospital in Madison, Ga.," Irwin explained. In his most humorous Van Camp voice, Irwin explained that the fictional elderly women founded the hospital, "because all our husbands have moved on, and we were tired of the garden club and the bridge club and the ladies club. So Mary Frances and Julia and I all went back to medical school." In the surreal world of Southern White Old Ladies Hospital, the biggest complaint Van Camp and her physician friends have is that "we have to wear these rubber gloves all the time and we can't wear our jewelry."

Irwin has performed his live concert numerous times at the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern downtown, and is a monthly regular at The Freight Room in Decatur. His CD "Banana Seat" is available from Atlanta-based Echo Lake Records (333-2833). "Offutt the Minstrel" will continue at the Renaissance Festival through Nov. 6.

--Dan Treadaway