The Irondale Ensemble Project is as close as we come these days to the Elizabethan acting companies that once presented Shakespeare’s plays to the Earl of Leicester, Sir Francis Drake and the Virgin Queen of England. ...What is on offer is the miracle of the word made flesh. I wish you joy in it.” —Lewis Lapham, editor of Lapham’s Quarterly
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The History of Irondale, A Personal Reflection

Advice from the Master

Thirty years. Does it seem like a lot or the blink of an eye? I'm now in the place in my life where thirty years ago seems like yesterday. Yesterday was 1983. Back to the Future was two years in the future. Mac was in kindergarten. He can't possible be thirty-six. Terry and I had hair. Barbara looked the same as she does today. We'd all been paying our dues in the theatre, training with people like Lloyd Richards, Bob Hobbs, and Wilfred Leach. We'd acted as young members of the Long Wharf theatre at a time when their productions were winning Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony as the best regional theatre. We’d acted and directed in Kentucky, South Carolina, New Jersey, Boston and Poland; and now, in our mid-thirties, we were ready to strike out on our own--with naive confidence, 150 dollars, and a Pledge to commit to this Insanity for the long haul.

Yesterday, with our own Bible in hand--the Old Testament: Harold Clurman's history of the Group Theatre and the New Testament: Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theatre--to lead us out of the wilderness, we set off to create a theatre and more important an ensemble company. Twenty hours ago, in our first season we produced four plays--the Comedy of Errors As Performed By the Little Theatre of Dubuque, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Ethan Frome, and The Good Woman of Setzuan. Terry was in all four shows as well as managing all the administration work. Barbara with first grader Mac in tow was in three and ran our education programs. Ken joined up in November, designed the last three shows of the season and just stayed for the next thirty years. I directed all four pieces, taught with Barbara and trained the company. We also lost our theatre on W. 22nd street. We had spilled the milk, but we turned the carpet and moved on.

The next year, fifteen hours ago, we produced Jason and the Argonauts, a revival of the Jungle, Story Dance and Galileo. Five minutes later we lost our new theatre on West 18th Street in the middle of the season, just before we went to work on the Brecht. Annie-B Parson joined up and we made dance theatre pieces for nine years that went by in a long and often stormy evening.

In another five minutes we moved into a new theatre on W. 13th St. Five minutes after that we were about to get thrown out of this one--just after we opened Galileo, but a grant from CBS saved the day. A mysterious grant from the Art Development Committee for 10 thousand dollars arrived fifteen seconds later in June. We felt ever so rich. It got us through the summer and into the fall.

No one was getting paid a regular salary, but we'd all seen It's A Wonderful Life. Whatever money came in was parceled out to those who needed it most. If Terry's father slipped him forty dollars to make it through the week, he'd pass on twenty to me.  A half an hour later in the fall of 1985, we moved the office out of Terry's apartment and into a grade school on W. 78th Street. Paul Sills' daughter was a student there. We helped Paul build the school's new playground.

About midnight Phil and Paul Schwarz got us to Winnebago. We’ve been back once every five minutes ever since. At a quarter of three, when no one was in the place except Terry and Vicky, they proved you can come home again and that plays can begin at the top of the second act. And shortly before sunrise, Liam became the newest member of the Irish Greiss clan. This morning we moved to Brooklyn, settling down in the High School for the Arts. Jack Lush came by for tea and to play Peter Pan twice. Damen and Michael-David and Patrena and Maria stayed over night and at dawn we all sat down at the table to plan our move to Ft Greene.

All told we produced sixty plays, thirty yesterday and thirty today before dinner. We traveled three times to Russia and stopped off in Berlin for good measure all in the twinkling of an eye.

We opened our newest theatre, this one in Brooklyn a lamb’s shake ago in 2008. And just in the last five seconds Scarlet and Nolan and Michelangelo pushed their chairs back from this evening’s dinner table and smiled as they bade us good bye.

We have twelve years left on the lease on our theatre before it expires tomorrow in 2025. I’ll be almost eighty and still kicking, Terry will be taking summers off and vacationing in Ireland on the money from his latest raise and Barbara will be young and beautiful as ever and still providing the wisest counsel one human being ever gave another.

Where, where has it gone these thirty years and what will the next thirty hold? Will the years ahead be filled with great times? Yes. Will they be fun and exciting? Of Course. Will they be hard? Will they be easy? Absolutely. Will they be filled with triumph, and ecstasy and occasional heart break? Why wouldn’t they be? But on behalf of Terry and Barbara and myself we’re all going to hate to see that evening sun finally go down, thirty years from now tomorrow night.

Jim Niesen
Artistic Director, Irondale