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Friday was the day we unveiled the first installment of our Pop-up Democracy Project. If you’ve been following along with my letters you know that Pop-Up Democracy is the Irondale take on the old living newspapers-theatre grabbed from the headlines and responded to on stage as quickly as possible. At Irondale we choose each of our major plays because they are about right now and present the play that we believe most demands to be heard at this moment in time. But now the times are changing so much faster than Dylan could ever have imagined. So, we’re going macro and micro. Macro for the big projects that address issues of the era we are living through and micro for the scream we hear this week. And we all know what this frightening week has been about.

So, we set out to do this piece about the importance of the fourth estate and the important role it plays in preserving democratic institutions. In 5 days of rehearsal we created the story of what news was like when we all agreed on the same set of facts and honored the reporters and correspondents who moved heaven and earth to bring it to us.

Murrow/Shirer/CBS Part One told the story of CBS News from its creation in 1938 (the first time Ed Murrow and Bill Shirer went on the air) to the end of World War II, what might be called the days of innocence. We put it together in five days of rehearsal followed by two weeks off for individual reflection (with a zoom video chat right in the middle) and one last day together again to make a show out of it. This is the story of that last day:

The call was set for 11 with a curtain at 7:30. The beginning of the day was delayed because there were important last minute documents that needed to be sent over to the Pinkerton Foundation, a very important funder of Irondale. But by 11:40 we were up and running-or rather seated around a table where we assembled the actual text for the evening and heard for the first time as a group all the scenes that the individual members of the company had created on their own. The reading soon evolved into a group edit. New lines were thrown out and rejected or approved or as we worked together to create a unified story on the spot-made possible by the strong group agreements shaped in that one week of research/rehearsal.

By 4pm we had finished the table work-edit-read. And thanks to Joey’s lightning fingers, a produced script. We had 3 and a half hours to go. We took a thirty minute break and went back to work.

We know from the first that this would be a staged reading – scripts in hand -, but we also wanted it to be a genuine theatrical event, not a dry airing of a text. We decided that the whole event would be a radio broadcast. In the classic days of broadcasting in radio and even TV, news reporters read from scripts. But they kept their heads up and spoke directly to their listeners and later their viewers. (Murrow wrote the reminder in his scripts numerous times over the pages: Make Eye Contact). Max brought in Microphones for us and studio musicians Erika and Sam – just back from Mexico City and working only from the knowledge of our one hour FaceTime brainstorm – were lending theatricality and class to the whole event.

7:15. The house was opening and we hadn’t staged the last 12 pages except for talking them through at the morning read/edit.

But this bunch was so cool. “You know it. Stay in the moment. Don’t worry about what comes next. Just do it. The music started. Sam and Erica came in with a killer instrumental intro, and they did it.

A week of perfect moments culminated in a perfect evening that got even better the next morning: the doctors at Sloan Kettering told Barbara she was getting out on Monday. And she did promptly at noon.

And I’m writing this from our new temporary digs a lovely little apartment at Hope Lodge on W 32nd Street, courtesy of the American Cancer society. We’ll be in this semi-sterile environment for the next few months while Barbara new immune system grows into maturity. And all this is what I’m thinking about as I write this from 132 W. 32nd St, just around the corner from the Pennsylvania Hotel.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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