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Sometime it’s really good to get back in touch with an old friend and discover that even though you’ve changed and your friend hasn’t (at least in a noticeable way) you still have so much in common and you’re hearing what they have to say in such new and inspiring ways. This can be as important with books as it is with people.

I’m sitting here right now with our much battered copy of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. There’s a big water stain on the front cover. The cloth binding is intact, but like in the old man’s trousers, it is now loose fitting and sag from the binding at the waist. It’s heavily marked with notes on what we considered to be significant passages. Those from the ‘60’s are underlined in pencil. The ‘80’s with the confidence and permanence of ink, and the ‘90’s with various shades of bilious highlighters whose color distinctions were intended to bring out different themes or degrees of importance. A glance at the frontispiece reveals that this is a first edition.

This is what jumps out for me today. Brook writes of visiting devastated cities of Europe shortly after the end of World War Two. Talks of seeing the Barber of Seville in the burned out shell of the Hamburg Opera, and crime and punishment in a garret in which the audience sat knee to knee with the actors for 4 hours

“by sheer necessity, all problems of theater style vanished: here was the real mainstream, the essence of an art that stems from the storyteller looking around his audience and beginning to speak. All the theaters in the town had been destroyed, but here, in this attic, when an actor in a chair touching our knees begin quietly to say, it was in the year of 18- that a young student, It was in the year of 18— that a young student, Roman Rodianovitchi Raskolnikov… we were gripped by living theatre.”

Recently I heard Richard Schechner speak of an indian play  that he has seen on numerous occasions and is writing a book about it lasts 31 days and is always a major and important event in the life of the society that supports it and enables it to continue to exist.

This greater society itself has to say yes, this is something we want, we are happy that we have these people, meaning both the people who are doing it and the people who are watching it.

What does the society need from you and what you can offer it? What can you willingly give with your whole heart?

New York theatre is in crises to become vital again, it must ascertain where and in what condition its society finds itself.

Like the city itself. We at Irondale are often whistling in the dark – trying new ways, exploring new themes and forms. To be a vital part of the great city in which we make our artistic journey, it’s important to remember on a daily basis that this  journey may not be taking it where we thought we wanted to go, but it will be where you need to go. As the punchline to an old joke about the tornado goes, “Hold onto your hats, we may end up miles from here.”

Where did we start and how did we end up miles from there? In the beginning, 40 years ago. We knew we wanted to do as probably most of us did in those days, to create performances of great classical plays with great acting and do it within a permanent company.

What we have become (at this point in our evolution – we’re a project, remember, never finished) is a visceral means for exploring story telling – people in a room together sharing.

We do this in 3 ways: through our professional company, whose work and selection of repertoire of plays always begins with the question: What play and what story is most important for us to tell right now. What story do we need to tell and what story does our audience crave to hear.

This same notion extends to our community projects where we bring  members of our diverse city’s population together to argue with and to learn from the “frightening other.” The most important expression of this work is our ongoing project “To Protect Serve and Understand,” each edition of which brings together 7 New York police officers and seven civilian members of our community for 10 weeks to break bread, learn the rudiments of devised theatre and to make a play together.

Similarly our education programs, offering free classes taught by professional Irondale actors brings this message to the next generation. There they learn theatrical techniques and the philosophy behind Irondale and each season create two productions of their own in which they express in their own voice the important stories that need to be told now, in the present.

And these are the thoughts I needed to present now on this the last day of July 2019.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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