Skip to main content

We’ve been taking a lot of walks this week, or as the Word of the Day app informed me a few hours ago, we have been peregrinating. This has led us to some fascinating, unexplored even unknown and always surprising sites around Pittsburgh. We’ve visited the graves of Josh Gibson, Honus Wagner, Pie Trayner, Lillian Russell, and Stephen Foster. We’ve also tracked down the packing crate in a maintenance lot of Schenley Park where the statue of Stephen Foster which once stood in front of the Carnegie Library, has been stored since it was removed for its culturally inappropriate imagery in the spring of 2017. We’ve also discovered some amazing vistas and dense deeply wood forest trails that seem almost out of place 15 minutes from downtown.

Along the way we talk. We discuss our new discoveries along with more mundane topics such as the weather, the steepness of the trails, and whether the majority of the other infrequent hikers we come upon are masked or naked faced. (I think majority masked) We discuss politics and, of course, the theater and what the prospects are for the future of each, what a new country or theatre, might look like and what we can do to productively transform our forced recess into a period of bountiful productivity.

At one point one of our conversations returned to someone I had mentioned in a prior letter to all of you – Stephen Bachelor. Speaking on NPR. He had an exchange with On Being host Krista Tippett that I found significant enough that I’m repeating it here.

“KT: I did want to come back to the notion that you described from Buddhism, wisdom being something one does for oneself and compassion something one does for others.

SB: Acquiring meaning for oneself is acquired through wisdom, discernment, reflection, whereas acquiring meaning for others is through how you embody that wisdom, that reflection, in speech, in acts, in collaborative endeavors or whatever it might be, and the understanding, also, that for the awake person, the two have been totally and utterly integrated. You have become, as it were, wholly human”

So, it would seem right now might be a time for nurturing wisdom. Rather than trying to reinvent the core idea of theatre, which is the act of live story telling taking place in a single room or location, it might be beneficial to spend this enforced new solitude in pursuit of experiments that are not designed for performance itself, and may or may not become a part of a direct line from initial inspiration to opening night.

After all, Brecht wrote his finest works during his exile, when for the first time he had the luxury of returning to nascent plays over and over in a time when he had no hope of actual production. What he came up with was so rich in substance that it sustained him for the rest of his life, they becoming the core works of his new company the Berliner Ensemble as his focus shifted to directing, leading his theatre, and creating a number of adaptations of classical work for his actors to perform.

Another example of the benefits of working in this way can be found in the early days of the Schaubuhne.

“The group said that sometime the company should do Shakespeare. Company Director Peter Stein said he didn’t want that yet, but later in Berlin the dramaturg, Dieter Sturm, said that we must begin such a project-and well in advance. They called it a workshop seminar and began by reading Shakespeare’s texts themselves. They read together all the plays rather than related material, seeing what the actors found foreign and what they found beautiful. Most plays were eliminated from consideration for performance because the company wanted to choose one suited for the complete casting of the ensemble, with a fair part for each person, and with no older leading roles-since the ensemble was made up of younger people and didn’t want to bring in an actor from the outside who hadn’t been in the developing group all along.

“Then they began studying more about Shakespeare’s time and the cultural natural science, philosophy, theatre practice. Each actor chose subjects that interested him and did independent research that he then shared with the others in the weekly staff meetings. Each actor began training in several skills new to them-alone, with private teachers, or in groups. One woman learned the lute, another group studied Gesualdo madrigals-practicing for more than half a year-circus skills, acrobatics. But they had no set plan, and the more research and training they did, the more they realized the immensity of the task.

“Recognizing the need to synthesize and share what they had discovered, the ensemble decided to create an event for an audience. Stein, drawing from the tremendous amount of research, skill development and scene work being done, concocted the first outline for a possible series of events.

“Just watching and making observations is my favorite kind of rehearsal.” Said Stein about this phase of their work, “The actors must find the esthetic form-the director cannot do this.” But it was only through having created the proper conditions and having brought the proper ingredients together that Stein could afford to be an observer. He had prevented the project from blossoming prematurely, and he then guided Shakespeare’s Memory into existence-through choices of elimination, as well as through encouragement when actors felt uncertain about presenting such privately explored material to an audience.

“Whether Shakespeare’s Memory is to be considered a theatre event in its own
right, or whether it was only a preparatory function, for both actors and audience, in relation to the Shakespeare play to be attempted later, the facts are that the performances were sold out for months in advance, and that Shakespeare’s Memory was invited to the “Theatretreffen” (Germany’s largest yearly theatre festival) as one of the most important plays of the season.” This extended quote comes from Elke Petri a member of the company.

Is this kind of work a way forward for us at a time when unlimited time to reflect, and experiment is our most precious, and perhaps our only, asset?

I honestly don’t know, but this is on my mind today May 5, – a day that also happens to be the birthday of a wonderful friend of Irondale’s, Norman Frisch. Happy Birthday, Norman!


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

More posts by Irondale

Leave a Reply