Skip to main content

At some point in the dark ages of the past when dinosaurs roamed the plains and when regional theatres were known as resident theaters because they all had permanent companies, the concept of collaborations between the theatres emerged. In the early days of the Resident movement it was thought that such companies would develop their own individual styles and ways of going about the business of making theatre. Healthy Competitions would arise between these theatres and the hometown audiences would root for their actors as if they were an athletic team, The underdogs of Minneapolis taking on the giants of the Lincoln Center rep and their new York money.  We had come out of the Long Wharf in New Haven which also contained Robert Brustein’s Yale Rep. The aesthetic approaches of the two theaters could not have been more different. The long Wharf was actor centered, intimate warm and excelled at American plays both new and from the classics of 20th century American theatre. The post-modern Yale team reinvented classics emphasized the European drama and brought in ringers like Andre Serban, the slugging Rumanian outfielder and iconoclastic director. Imagine what could emerge from a genuine artistic collaboration between two excellent but wildly different theatres such as these.

My naïve optimism was short loved when it turned out that by and large these ended up not being an artistic commingling but a producing one. Expenses would be shared by two or more theatres on one production  that would then play at both. The billing would read Hamlet a collaboration between the Theatre of Dubuque and the Springfield Repertory Company. 

When we at Irondale seek out collaborators we want to foster relationships that are deeper  than shared production credits. We ask potential artistic partners to join us in departing from familiar patterns and embracing the challenge of stepping onto new and paths and going down new roads. .

To be successful the mapping of this journey is one that takes some time to chart. Get it wrong and you drive off a cliff. We have had our misses. They always happen when you go faster than the conditions permit. As Paul Simon reminds us.”Slow move too fast.”  Here is an example of one where we did and “made the morning last.”

Nine years ago, Barbara MacKenzie-Wood and I traveled to Berlin for a Christmas holiday. We had heard that the Berlin theatre was first rate, and we decided to see for ourselves. We were indeed highly impressed by what we saw, especially by the quality of the acting, its physical commitment, specificity, and the bravery of the actors’ choices. The question we kept asking ourselves night after night was how are they doing this and how are the actors trained? An academic connection of Barbara’s led her to Peter Kleinert then the head of directing at Ernst Busch and sometimes Schaubuhne director. This led to our second visit to Berlin in which Peter arranged for us to see classes at Ernst Busch and meet with members of the faculty. He also arranged nightly theatre tickets expanding our knowledge of Berlin theatres to include companies like the Deutsches, the Berliner  Ensemble, the Gorki, and the Volksbuhne, major Berlin companies. Six months later, on our trip 3, we saw Peter’s production of Marat/Sade at the Schaubuhne and continued in talks which culminated in Barbara bringing Peter to the US to direct Good Person of Setzuan with her students at Carnegie Mellon.  Peter and I then began discussing the possibility of his coming to New York to direct at Irondale. We saw his St Joan of the Stockyards again at the Schaubuhne. We agreed that this should be the play he would direct with us. It would replicate the physical Berlin production, use the same number of actors but create an entirely new version rather than merely copying the original. It would be a new show, not a revival, because he wanted to see how actors from another theatre culture would change  Peter’s work was instrumental in opening new possibilities and ways of working for our actors. He continues to exert a strong influence on the company. This summer I spent a week with him working on the dramaturgy for our Good Person which will open in Brooklyn this February. 

I know this narrative has been somewhat long and ungainly, but I wanted to illustrate in some detail the value we place and the successes we’ve had taking a series of small steps to arrive at a very important place. Our work with Peter continues to grow. He will return in 2021 to direct Mother Courage the final piece of the Brecht in Exile trilogy.

When Barbara and I saw Third Generation, created by the Gorki Theatre, in Berlin, we came away with great admiration for this piece and felt the strong sense of connections between it and a piece like our To Protect, Serve, and Understand.  We wanted to know how Yael Ronen and the company had made it. What their process had been. We saw Ronen’s A Walk on the Dark Side a very different kind of play. Was it  created in a similar manner or through a very different process? 

I saw the readings of the Gorki playwrights in New York at the PEN World Voices 2019 and listened to the enlightening and informative follow up conversations conducted by Frank Hentschker and various members of the Gorki. My understanding of the workings of this remarkable theatre grew clearer.  Encouraged by Frank and welcomed by Christopher-Fares Köhler one of the leaders of the Gorki, I made the trip to Berlin,  where Christopher and Johanna Höhmann suggested that a model for us to explore might be for a Gorki writer to come to New York to work with us. We think that is definitely worth exploring, the next small step? They have to see what we do. We are inviting someone from the Gorki to visit us in New York so they can  they see first hand our theatre-its work, its actors, and its building. A small step forward, a step that could end in a closet or take us a step closer to bringing the work of the Gorki in some way, in some form, to Irondale

And that’s what’s on my mind today. Along with sitting here next to the napping, darling Barbara.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

More posts by Irondale

Leave a Reply