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Something a little different today. Each year as a part of our National Endowment for the Arts application, I have to write them a letter. So, I’m offering this year’s to you. It’s what’s on my mind today, and also what I’ve been thinking about long term for the last five years or so.  


Jim’s Letter to the NEA 2020

Irondale is a theater of people, a permanent company, many of whom have been here since our beginnings 37 years ago. We  make challenging, demanding, and above all, entertaining theater, and we complement this work with learning and community based programs and projects designed to ensure that the venture  of Irondale becomes as significant to both the next generation and to people who may not think of theatre as being a vitals and necessary to their own lives. 

Beginning with the 1599 Project  Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet, the 4 plays Shakespeare wrote in that year of tumultuous uncertainty for the British empire, and which we adapted to reflect the similar uncertainties facing the US in the present time) We determined that going forward similar outsized “Event” projects would form  the heart of our artistic work and would define our educational and community work. The plays would be presented as “intimate epics” with the emphasis on the actor not large scale physical production and performed by a company no larger than six. 

The choice of each new epic project  begins with a question. What is the one play or series of plays that most needs to be seen at this precise moment in time. As our country and our world spin more and more out of control, and many of us feel overwhelmed by  the accompanying feeling of helplessness, our thoughts turned to the plight of the European artists of the 1930’s, and specifically the artistic journey of Bertolt Brecht. And so was born Brecht in Exile

We began this project one year ago with Galileo, perhaps Brecht’s greatest play. He completed the first draft in 1938 as Hitler was advancing into Austria, he rewrote it in 1945 following the dropping of the Atomic bomb, and a third time after his return to Germany as he was coming to grips with the false promise of reform following the death of Stalin, In each case, Galileo  became a pointed response to the most pressing problems of the day. In our own time it became a response to the notion that blind faith is superior to knowledge. 

Galileo  formed the first leg of a three-play trilogy that now includes our current The Good Soul  of Setzuan and next year’s Mother Courage, all written in exile without the promise of production.  They have come down to us as three of the most significant plays of the 20th Century.

Like Shakespeare in 1599, Brecht wrote the first drafts over a short period of sustained creativity-November 1938 to November 1939-and Like the 4 texts of 1599, thee plays can be read as a sustained investigation of current events with one overarching thematic development.

Galileo is the story of a man who believes he can overcome obstacles through the power of reason. In the end he is able to finish and smuggle a final great work, but in doing so loses the larger battle of creating a humanistic world was on the verge of coming into being. 

The Good Soul faces the world with openness and generosity before becoming  the most ruthless of the three protagonists. Her duality leaves her hopelessly stuck in a world in which the desire to do good cannot survive and she is reduced to a final desperate cry of “Help!” a cry that echoes around our planet today. 

Mother Courage, despite its seeming bleakness, is Brecht’s greatest tribute to the indomitable human spirit. Despite losing everything, despite living in a world without meaning, she somehow has the courage to push on the courage to endure.

Mother Courage will be directed by Peter Kleinert, a frequent director at the Schaubuhne in Berlin. His production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle is currently in the Schaubuhne repertory, He was last at Irondale in 2015 when he directed Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards, the last play Brecht wrote in Germany before he fled into exile.


Jim Niesen


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