The fall of 2009 was something of a nightmare, even for Irondale — which as some of you might know has seen a lot of them over our 36 year history. Just a little more than a year after moving into our wonderful Irondale Center, it felt as if the newly renovated wall and ceiling were about to cave in on us. Our seats and lighting equipment still hadn’t shown up, we were getting by on unemployment insurance and our beautiful theatre was feeling more like a cavernous void than an inspiring place to create magic.

But like so many Irondale stories, this one too had a happy ending. Money came through, we got paid, and Barbara, who also had endured a challenging fall directing the best Grapes of Wrath ever at Carnegie Mellon, and I decided we needed a trip-somewhere we’d never been before.

It got down to Vienna and Berlin. We flipped a coin and Berlin won. We arrived December 23 and in the next 6 days saw 5 plays including Hamlet on Christmas night, Mother Courage and Three Penny Opera at the Berliner Ensemble and the Wild Duck at the Deutsches. And in that week my understanding of and approach to making theatre changed-dramatically.

We came home and went to work on Irondale’s Alice in Wonderland. I confess now that the mad tea party scene was virtually stolen from the Schaubuhne Hamlet except that we had more beer can smashing than they did. The daring of their stage design led us to the decision to stage the play in every nook and cranny of Irondale and revealed the potential of each as viable playing space. And finally the sheer bravery and daring of the German actors continues to inspire us to this day.

Ever since that first Berlin adventure I’ve been looking for the sequel, the next big game changer. The quest has taken me (and almost always Barbara) back to Berlin for 12 more visits, to London 15 times, to Vienna (when you go make sure you see something at the Berg Theatre), Turkey, India, Spain, Chile, Austria, and Italy. Each one has been exciting, fun, educational . . . but I’m still looking for that next Berlin.

Which leads me to this: tomorrow night I’m getting on a plane for Shanghai. I’ve been invited as one of three American theatre professional to speak at the Shanghai Theatre Academy’s joint conference in conjunction with the CUNY Graduate Center. All I know about it right now is I have to talk for 20 minutes on the place of the theatre in great cities, that I’ll be there 5 days, and that I get to see a production of Brecht’s Galileo-in Chinese, of course.

I’ll keep you all posted.

And that’s what’s on my mind this morning.

 

Jim Niesen

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