Kurt Anderson, Gunga Din, The Blues Brothers, “taxicab” as a verb. How do all these things connect in a single, hopefully coherent, letter? I think there’s a theatre game at the heart of this question, one that we used to play at Irondale in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Irondale was a scruffy band of young theatre rats who rehearsed in borrowed spaces, sang for their supper, and performed in a church basement in the east village, where I once saw a man eating a slice of pizza at the outdoor counter of the pizza place on the corner of Second Ave and Seventh St, while at the same time calmly urinating on the sidewalk. What dexterity and small muscle coordination. As a recent émigré to New York, my first thought sprang forward in an instant of quiet amazement at such a feat was, “Jim, “you’re not in Kansas anymore.” My second thought was, “No one else is paying the slightest bit of attention.”

Kurt Anderson has a new book out. He’s a good writer. He has a good program on NPR too, which is why I picked up his book. Right there on the first page of his introduction, he talks about the waves of history. “The big ways in which the world has or hasn’t changed, both the look and feel of things and people’s understandings of how society works. Stick around long enough and you get to see and sense arcs of history firsthand, like when an airplane reaches the altitude where the curvature of the Earth becomes visible.”

I find this to be a useful means for looking at things both personal and global. The JFK assassination, Viet Nam, the Reagan Revolution, and the current turmoil we are living through today. That’s the big march of time that I’ve observed in my more or less adulthood. The somewhat comforting adage of the ancient sages which emerges from all of this and which I find myself returning to right now is: “This too shall pass.” Though in the middle of all these there was also a small quiet voice of doubt. “Maybe this time it won’t.” Get back to me in a couple of weeks.

Moving on to the personal.

The impulse that led to the creation of Irondale was very much a product of the sixties, or at least my personal version of this time. Putting aside all the social upheaval, turmoil, and tragedy, it was also an age of almost unbridled optimism – people on the moon, the war on poverty, Medicare, and a mini Guthrie theatre in every American city small or large, whose ambition it was to emulate the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Each theatre would be built around a director and a permanent company of actors, and it would develop its own individual style. The English would come over to get us started and, in drama school, we were taught a particular kind of stage speech that would enable us to blend on stage with our mentors from London. But in time each theatre and city would develop its own style and pass on its legacy to the next generation.

And then the money dried up, the audiences moved on, and most of the permanent companies disappeared.

And a new wave came into being. Irondale wasn’t the only group to ride in on this second wave and were scarcely the first to get into the water. Mabou Mines was there, and the Wooster Group and the Circle Repertory Company.

I’m dating our beginning to the moment when Terry, Barbara, and I cut loose when the Long Wharf ended their forty weeks a season contracts and started meeting in Terry’s apartment on 98th St, teaching ourselves every game and exercise in the Spolin book. We had a reason for this obsession: we wanted to learn how improvisation could be wed to text in the quest for a greater spontaneity in the acting style, and to form the basis for a universal acting style for our about to be born company. Based on Spolin, our actors would be chosen for their ability to say “yes”– both to another actor’s choices on stage and to the challenges that arrived daily to a theatre that had no reason to exist, other than the determination of its company. When one is invited into a new enterprise, it’s difficult to know what it really is until it moves from the theoretical to the actual. After six months of daily workshops and two plays, most of the actors had seen enough. “This isn’t the theatre I thought it was going to be. Make it this..or this..or that what I want, or I’m leaving.” A big meeting followed. Then tears and a few angry words were shed and spoken. And most left. Ken, Terry, Barbara, and I stayed. And continued on.

Reagan by now had given way to Bush I. The tenor of the times was changing, and we were evolving as a company as well. The constants that remained: The permanent company, a classical repertoire, and going into the schools not to teach (how we hated that word) but to shake things up, and raise a bit of hell while we were doing it. The company had more and better improvisers, and we added Annie-B Parson as a full-time choreographer. And then this flow ebbed, and it was time for another shake-up. Annie-B wanted more dance. I wanted more text. And she and a significant number of the company departed. Sometimes, things work until they don’t.

Shortly thereafter, Terry, Ken, and I traveled to Montreal to see the Theatre du Soleil, at the time a theatre considered by many to be the finest ensemble in the world. The great Mnouchkine herself agreed to meet with us between performances. At some point in the conversation, I asked “What’s the most important thing to know about ensemble?”

“Its life span is seven years. After that, in some way it must be reinvented, or it dies.”

That group, which besides Terry and Ken and I, included Maria Michael-David, Damen, Patrena, Sven, Hillarie, Jack, Scarlet, and Nolan as its core, lasted a lot longer than seven years, it evolved, but gradually, so subtly that at times you didn’t even notice.

And then it too came to an end. By now we had gone through Clinton and Bush II. Rents in NY had gone up. Subsidies had gone down. We were starting to live in the gig economy. The idea of a company seemed to have lost its allure and charm. We continued to produce, doing some of our finest work 1599, Galileo. But we could no longer workshop and train together on a daily basis. And with its demise, something very powerful and important had been lost.

It’s taken the enforced solitude of the pandemic to bring this into focus for me.

What’s the move forward this time? Can we find a way back to the future? The optimism and naivety that started all this forty-three years ago whispers in my ear, “Yes,” “maybe,” “Yes.” And I hear the voice of John Belushi saying, “We’re bringing back the band!”

And I didn’t get to Gunga Din or taxicab as a verb. Maybe next time.

 

 

Jim Niesen

Irondale

Author Irondale

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