An Unfinished History

The theatre company came long before the theatre space. It started with the people. It really started before it started, in New Haven Connecticut at the Long Wharf Theatre in 1978. Barbara Mackenzie-Wood, Jim Niesen and Terry Greiss started making work together at Long Wharf, every day for a year. Then, in 1983 following six years of continuing to working together at theatres all over the country, we decided it was time to create the kind of theatre that could only come from the work of a true ensemble – artists coming together over long periods of time to explore the nature and uses of theatre. On a February evening (actually at Jim’s birthday party), Irondale became a “thing”.

From the earliest days, we were convinced of theatre’s ability to educate as well as entertain. Education, engagement, outreach, became central to our mission of creating good theatre. We found audiences in public schools, prisons, shelters and so many other non-theatres. We have taught thousands of workshops from Staten Island to Cape Town and our work has been seen from the Lower East Side to the former Soviet Union.

Our first explorations from about 1984 – 1999 focused on improvisation and its application to text, both classical and contemporary, with the goal of bringing a strong sense of improvisational aliveness to scripted performances. Shakespeare, Chekhov and especially Brecht were the “company playwrights in residence” — our source material — and we performed their work regularly, on and off text. Now, having some 60 productions under our belt, the company’s work ranges from precise, accurate versions of classics to radical reinterpretations of the same. Much of what we do today is still strongly influenced by the devising processes of the first years. And now, of course we have our own theatre. When we opened the Irondale theatre, developed from an abandoned 152-year old church Sunday School, in 2008, it marked a sea-change for the company. Now we present our own work and the work of other companies we admire. We even present an annual dance festival, FLICfest. We rent the space out and offer subsidies to emerging and under-served artists, so that their voices can be heard.

We still work in public and private schools but now we offer multiple in-house youth and education programs, with our flagship program being the Young Company teen ensemble.

Other accomplishments we’re proud of: 3 tours to Russia; the part we played in creating the Network of Ensemble Theatres and the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance, mentoring other ensembles and seeing our alumni create their own companies, including Big Dance Theatre, Epic Theatre Ensemble, Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, Letter of Marque, and the Irondale Ensemble Project of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

One final word, since almost everyone asks where the name Irondale comes from:

In about 1980, Jim and I were on a train coming back from Ct after doing improv shows in Ct. We were searching for a name for the “company”, because we were being honored for our work by the Ct. Arts Council. Jim was writing a play about childhood, centering around his grandparents who lived in Irondale Missouri. I casually asked him “How’s you’re Irondale project coming along?” He said, “That’s a good name”. The rest is history and it continues…