You say potato and I say potato
You say tomato and I say tomato
You say mime and I say mime

This is somewhat confusing to read unless you know the Ira Gershwin lyric and how it sounds when sung to his brother’s timeless melody plus the ancient feud between members of the San Francisco political theatre who, depending on which generation of the company you happened to be a part of, never seemed to be able to agree on whether they were the Meme (pronounced with a long “e”) or the Mime (pronounced with a long “I”) Troup. Does calling these sounds long vowels date me? The Mime/ Mime dispute may be somewhat apochryphal, so I would love to get the real story from anyone who was actually there. Denny and Steve, are you reading this, and would you like to chime in?

Now back to Irondale and the history of our name. As you may know because I’ve told you so many times, the Irondale Project was spun off from the Long Wharf Theatre when Edgar Rosenblum decided to end the educational “Access” school program. During the year we were together in Connecticut,Terry, Barbara and I had become fascinating with theatre games and improvisation and how their use in rehearsal enhanced text and brought it to a unique sense of aliveness.  At the Long Wharf, we created, along with Barry Willerford and Terry Sherman, an improv performance piece, which we played at the theatre in rep with our story theatre play created from exact translations of oral folk tales as documented by the Grimm Brothers who needed the information for a dictionary of German Folk idiom they were compiling. Both pieces toured to schools, libraries, nutrition projects, and nursing homes. The nursing homes could be tough but the schools and libraries, being in Connecticut, were quite hip with their suggestions and appreciation. We got a typical reaction one night when performing for a deaf audience north of Hartford, the sign interpreter asked me to slow down. I answered, ”Keep up or I’ll break your fingers.” She laughed and promptly signed my comment to the audience who gave me an even bigger laugh.

Back to the history. After the fall, Long Wharf gave us a season of bookings which they had already set up but could no longer fulfill. We took on the project, but we needed a name for our new venture, since Long Wharf was no longer apropos. We were doing a series of daytime school performances throughout the Darien Junior Highs at the time, which necessitated Terry and me catching the 6am train from Grand Central to Greenwich where we would be met by Barbara who was still living in New Haven. We would then proceed to our morning performances and workshops which would be followed by first rate lunches in the homes of our various Darien hosts. Then we’d be off for another performance or two in a different location or two before the day ended and Barbara would drive Terry and me back to the train station for the return trip to New York. On the ride, Terry and I would talk shop over a Coca Cola for a few minutes before passing out for the rest of the trip. A reoccurring topic of our discussion was “What are we going to do about our name?” The sponsors had us billed temporarily as the Improvisational Theatre Company which none of us liked much. We would fall to entertaining ourselves with silly, and often inappropriate, appellations. Among them: Theatro del Ed (ucation), and, borrowing from Bob Newhart, The Grace L Ferguson Storm Door and Theatre Company. In between our silliness, we also talked more seriously about the need a new piece in order to go back to the same schools for another season of early mornings and first rate lunches. We wanted to do something that would incorporate the story theatre techniques we had developed at the Long Wharf, into the improv format. We wanted to get more literary without losing the sense of spontaneous play that had become our bread and butter. I had recently read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, an idyllic account of midwestern summers in the 1920’s. This led us to the notion of doing something about our own childhoods to see if our audience of children and teenagers could relate to our stories (or even believe that we had once been actual children.)

Like Bradbury, I had spent my childhood summers in an idyllic, midwestern small town Irondale, Missouri, “seventy miles southwest of St Louis on roads so bad you were guaranteed to blow out a tire before you even got near Highway M”, at the home of my grandparents in the house my great-grandfather had built before the Civil War. Each morning my grandfather and I would  stop in at Mr. And Mrs. Nelms’ drugstore for a 6:30 am Dad’s Old Fashioned fountain root beer before heading down to the Missouri Pacific train station where we would pick up the morning mail and visit with Billy Martin the station agent before heading home for breakfast. Almost every day I would buy as many comic books as I could carry home from the Schmaltz’s little store at the top of the hill, and later I might buy a new cap gun for my always growing collection, from Bus Robinson at his hardware store-where he also sold comic books, shoes, children’s clothing, bamboo fishing poles and, in the summer of 1955, Davy Crockett caps and t-shirts. Ah, I thought, these memories all contain the stuff of great theatre.

I would go home to Brooklyn at the end of each day’s work and try to put it all down on paper, which I had no idea how to do. I did eventually get some understanding of “country” story structure from watching reruns of The Waltons. The work proceeded slowly-very slowly.

But on one fortuitous trip home, following the usual Ed’s Acting Company banter, Terry asked me as we were about to doze off lulled by the clicks of the train wheels, “How’s your Irondale project coming along? We were suddenly wide awake. “That’s it,” we said speaking with what I swear was a single voice. What did the name mean exactly? I couldn’t have said at the time, but I know now. Irondale is our metaphorical Eden, the place, the theatrical laboratory where Terry and Barbara and I could have our root beers before breakfast and relive the unfettered joys of our childhood, and conduct theatrical experiments central to our lives, without being responsible to anyone except us. It was to be about our experiences and for us. Terry and Barbara had their own Irondales. Terry’s was Hendersonville, NC where he went for his summers , Barbara’s were about the little town of Wayne, Illinois, a place so near perfect you didn‘t want to go away for the summer. If we had to do it over again maybe we should call it the Irondale, Hendersonville, Wayne Local Railroad. Railroad because it keeps moving ahead and on its own schedule – just like Number 4 bringing in the afternoon mail to Irondale and “Local” because the stops on the journey, each growing out of extraordinary personal circumstances, make up our reason for being and dictate what we do and how we go about it. Or, as Orson Welles once said to Truffaut, “the work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it. Take it or leave it; this is what I feel, believe, want. And now share it.”

 

 

Jim Niesen

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