Some very good news these past few days.

First, all the good positive words on the radio about not just one but TWO vaccine breakthroughs. Fingers crossed on this one, but the MSK doctor, who is not prone to over-excitement, thinks will be looking up by Spring, and that patients like Barbara should be at the top of the list. We heard this report from him yesterday on the occasion of Barbara’s monthly check-in, which they told us her white cell count has reached 4.8, which is higher than it has been in at least ten years. She crossed the one-year anniversary of her transplant, is ready to start getting all those childhood innovations that were wiped out and how only has to be seen by the team up there at David Koch every other month. Thank you to all your wonderful people up there, every last one of you up there who should have a song written about them so we can sing their praises. “Who more than selves their patients loved…”

Onward.

For some reason, I made a promise to myself that I would take the time to sop whatever I was doing to look up the definition of every word I came across that either I sort of knew what it means or was clueless about its definition. This came in very handy right off as having finished Vernon Subutex (highly recommended) I am now taking a leisurely stroll through The Magic Mountain. So far this morning I have learned the exact meanings of “viaticum” and “etui” while clarifying “insipid,” “concierge,” “sympathetic chord,” and the age-old grammatical dilemma of whether commas go inside or outside of the punctuation.

“Commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks in American English; dashes, colons, and semicolons almost always go outside the quotation marks; question marks and exclamation marks sometimes go inside, sometimes stay outside.”

A Morning Edition piece about the heated controversy at the Baltimore Museum of Art over the sale of Andy Warhol’s Last Supper among other works led me to take a second look at the definitions of “curator” and “museum.” And I came away with the new understanding that Woodstock falls into the category of “a curated exhibition at a pop-up museum of contemporary music.”

This in turn led me to contemplate whether Irondale is a “studio” or a “museum.” This distinction is not intended to use either term pejoratively but to offer a distinction – a studio being “an artist’s workroom” while a museum is defined as “a building or place in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.” Most of the original regional theatres, all of whom were auteur-driven and featured permanent companies of actors would then be “studios” led by an artist (a director or an actor “leading from the floor.”) On the other hand BAM, St. Ann’s, TFANA, and the Public would be museums led by producer-curators.

And what are we? How do we fit in? Like Russia, Irondale is something of “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” When we are at our best, I would describe us as a hybrid: a studio/museum with the work of the studio leading the parade. I confess it has not always been easy to follow the direction of our artistic path. Assumptions are not always clear even to those viewing them from the inside as active participants in the adventure.

Last week one of our actors Joey Collins, whom you know from Dead End, 1599 and Brecht in Exile wrote to me asking what I envisioned for the year ahead. How did I see us moving forward in creating our own best of all possible worlds in such (insert your own adjective here I can’t say confusing or challenging again) times?

Here is my reply.

Hi Joey,

Thanks for reaching out. I’m not always the best at this, especially when I’m out of daily contact mode. Nonetheless, my summer and fall have been busy and productive. I’ve just about finished my adaptation of Mutter Courage. I’ve been studying German like crazy, so I could go back to the original text when various translators disagreed. Amazing what you can find in the real words.

Now I’m thinking about the next steps for this text. My biggest concern about Irondale is that in many ways, and, driven primarily by financial concerns, we have been losing the particular way of continuous workshopping, performing, and living in the theatre that makes the acting and directing style and overall aesthetic of our theatre so unique. I fear that like many theatres we are sliding into a uniformity, brought about by the absence of permanent company and long-time working relationships. Like so many theatres, we’re jobbing in too many people and bringing them together for ever-shorter rehearsal and preparatory periods. The result being that very often we are left with very fine actors who only have the time to bring to the stage what they already know and a way of working that could be found at any regional or New York theater.

A friend of mine came into Pittsburgh a couple of years ago to direct Anne Frank at the Public. It was a very respectable, professional production, as the work at the Public usually is, but it could have originated anywhere from the Goodman to ART.

“How long was the rehearsal?” I asked.

“Two and a half weeks before going into tech.”

“Two and a half weeks? What did you do?”

“Mostly got people on and off stage.”

“Did you have any conversation or individual work with the actors?”

“I had one conversation with Anne. She had just come out of a Broadway musical and I had to calm her down a bit, get her into the world of the play.”

And that’s what I’m trying to figure out right now. Luckily there’s a lot of time to ponder, although the days go by so quickly and there’s still never enough time.

In the attempt to better understand what we had at the beginning of Irondale and what could be useful moving forward, I’ve spent time running the words of my Courage translation by a few people who were there at the beginning of Irondale and who have been there the whole time, either participating in or closely following along – by Terry and Vicky who, along with Barbara, of course, probably understand my ways of thinking and working better than anyone. After working with Terry for 46 years and knowing Vicky for almost 30, they’d better. And MD and Steve Cross, who add another forty years of “lived Irondale experience.” From these “salons”, the next step I’m envisioning is to do a radio staged reading of the play, kind of an end of term transition exercise. We’ve talked to Jeff Lundun at NPR and I think he can help polish the exercise up a bit. You would be interested in joining these salons. Our salon meets once a week for two hours on Sunday afternoons. I don’t know how this would fit in with your busy schedule, but if it does and you’re interested, we’d love to have you along. No date or anything yet for the reading or how that will work, it’s just starting to emerge as the inevitable, intuitive next step.

I know the most important thing though is to get the company together on a regular basis, doing things the same way, and taking up a stronger presence in the building-workshopping, acting, and teaching together. Even if it means a process of small steps, continuing and slowly expanding the salons, working together once or twice a week without the thought of production, just working and playing together.

Maybe a good starting place would be going through the whole Spolin book together as we did when we first started Irondale, then moving on to sections based on other creative studio studies we did as a company. And that will lead to new and inevitable places. We know so much more than we did when we began in the spring of 1983. And each study leads invariably to a new obsession and of course to some really big questions. How long does it take to understand how Shakespeare works on the stage or Brecht? Right now, I’d say four or five years minimum for each. The newest question I have, which seems to be the logical next step to the Shakespeare and Brecht studies: what are the styles that are particular and unique to the great American writers, the ones from whom so much flows? How does the approach to Williams differ from that to Miller? And just as important, like Shakespeare and Brecht, how does the approach change as the writers grow and mature and how do these studies contribute to the inevitable flow of our own body of work?

I don’t know if I answered your question other than responding to what I’m thinking about right now. But I hope this helps.

Best,
Jim

And best to all of you who have been on the journey with me today.

Winston Churchill

 
Jim Niesen

Irondale

Author Irondale

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