If you haven’t heard, we’ve been reprising Color Between the Lines online. The live stream series, which adds Good Trouble to the original title, airs Thursday evenings at 7 pm EST. The whole event is just a little over one hour long with one of four sections of the play (about fifteen minutes each) followed by a forty-five-minute panel discussion, led by long-time Irondaler Damen Scranton. Each week Damen’s joined by two or three guests. The first week included New York Attorney General Tish James and Deborah Schwartz, President of the Brooklyn Historical Society. Last Thursday, Damen was joined by Rob Fields, Executive Director of the Weeksville Heritage Center, along with Irondale co-founder Terry Greiss. Irondale’s Michael David Gordon was on both panels and will return tomorrow night when he will be joined by Barbara Mackenzie-Wood and me. Between the four of us, that’s a lot of years of Irondale. A hundred and six to be exact. Hope you can make it tomorrow, but if you can’t, you can watch the recording later on. (More information can be found on the Irondale website – www.irondale.org/goodtrouble)

The video of the original performance is a first-rate film, and the two follow-up conversations we had so far have been first-rate: passionate, informed, stimulating, and always a bit surprising. (The Attorney General of New York joining in with Michael David for a chorus of Purple Rain in Episode One gives you a bit of the idea.)

All of us panelists were asked to provide a short bio for the publicity of Color, and I’m used to knocking off such things in about five minutes since I never seem to find the earlier versions in the messy file cabinet that disguises itself as my laptop. Inspired by Dr. Seuss and his Oh, The Places You’ll Go, I decided to take a geographical approach this time, listing the places I’d gone with an Irondale show, or to teach Irondale skills, or to represent Irondale as part of an international delegation or, most importantly, to see and learn new stuff that I can bring back to Irondale – stuff that has over time been absorbed into our way of doing things, and become vital and integral to how we create theatre at Irondale and what you see on our stage. The work we do here is born out of many years of seeing new things, of testing new ideas, and, ultimately, increasing the knowledge that guides us as we have worked to develop the unique thing that we call the Irondale process – the something that makes our performances and programs different. This is not a methodical scientific or academic process but begins with a simple “that looks interesting” or, even better “How in the world did they do that? I’ve got to know.” And so, we spend years in a lot of places (so far led by twenty-two trips to London and eleven to Berlin) soaking up their performances and picking the brains of some of the people who make them. And then, like Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, “We steal.”

Of course, all good theatres are unique in their own ways, and each could probably tell similar stories of how they got there. Mabou Mines, for instance, spent five years learning in Europe before they launched their first New York work. Bill Rauch spent years developing his aesthetic at Cornerstone, and continued to do so in his time at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, leaving his enduring imprints on the art and company culture of both theatres.

Theatre like these arrive at their individuality after going through their own unique, often slow, and always arduous process of morphing inevitably. Over thirty-seven years, we have gone from a theatre that was at first essentially an improv company, based in theatre games searching for the answer of how to make an evening at a live performance as alive as real life. The morphing continued to something of a modern dance troupe, to a text-driven theatre focusing on the challenging work of classic writers.

Color Between the Lines, which the ensemble created in 2012, encompasses all of the above lessons we learned about making theatre in the thirty-plus years prior to its birth. It, in turn, passed on its legacy to newer Irondale Projects like 1599, and Brecht in Exile, that even with a greatly reduced permanent company pass their lessons along.

“Write about what you know,” I’ve been told. And so, we have and continue to do so – on a journey that has taken us to, among other places, Russia, Paris, London, South Africa, Palestine, Berlin, India, Santiago, and Shang Hai. Some of what we know, what we can “write about” now, has taken the better part of a lifetime to absorb – can you really learn anything in less than ten or even twenty years? Well, Orson Welles did make Citizen Kane at twenty-six, but he had a lot of help from people like Herman Mankiewicz and Greg Toland.

Or maybe he’s just the exception that proves the rule.

Or maybe I’m just slow.

Or to put it another way. At seventy-four, I wish I knew what I know now, at sixty-five.

And that’s what’s on what I perceive to be my mind today.

 

Jim Niesen

 

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