Skip to main content

The first play I was ever in,vaside from the Robin Hood operetta that my mother wrote and directed for our Cub Scout pack (“For he’s called little Robin Hood, poor little Robin Hood, gives to the poor all he takes. Kind little Robin Hood, he’s so misunderstood”- well you get the idea. These lyrics were set to Gilbert and Sullivan’s music for Poor Little Buttercup by the way) was my high school’s production of You Can’t Take it with You. Thornridge High took its drama very seriously. The season for the year in question was Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, The King and I, and the aforementioned You Can’t Take It. I had a one-line walk-on in the Eliot and my performance received a drubbing from the school’s student drama critic. So, I knew I had best do my homework if I was to succeed as the Russian ballet instructor Kolenkhov.

A visit to the library was in order. I still remember exactly where the drama section was and, on that day, which turned out to be one that changed the whole direction of my life, my eyes landed on a smallish grey book bearing the title “Building a Character” by a man named Stanislavsky. Never heard of him. But I took him at his word and proceeded to the check-out desk. Voila! Problem solved. I took it home. Read it. I liked the book; it was an odd but compelling story about a young man’s first year at a Russian drama school and the trials and turbulations he endured under the tutelage of the stern, master acting teacher Tortsov. But I couldn’t find one word in the book that told me how to act in a play and be any good. It was in there of course, but I was oblivious to its lessons. Let’s just say I didn’t fare well under indirect instruction. I needed to be TOLD WHAT TO DO!

I moved on to other books and magazine articles. Somewhere in there, I found an interview with Marlon Brando. Everyone said he was the Great American actor. This was 1963. All I knew about him was he had become a big star acting in a dirty play. I hadn’t read it, but I knew it was dirty. It had “desire” in the title. There was a line in the Brando piece that stuck with me even though it made about as much sense to me at the time as the story of the young student actor in Building a Character, who, having failed as Othello, sat alone in front of his dressing room mirror removing his Moor make-up, slathering his face with great gobs of green cold cream. Suddenly a character emerged in front of him in the mirror – a horrible monster that he could suddenly embody with his whole being. He instantly became the character he saw in the mirror. He/they merged and became alive. He returned to the stage where he had failed and where another student was now performing, interrupted the action, and hurled vile insults from the stage at his teacher. “Bravo,” Tortsov yelled back at him. “Do you know what you did? You found yourself in a moment of Inspiration. Remember that word!” I didn’t, but I did remember this advice from the Marlon Brando piece. “Acting is like fishing. You put your line in the water, and you wait for the fish. When he takes the bait, you reel him in.” That didn’t make a lot of sense to me either at the time, but now I get it.

At Irondale, we say, “Don‘t think it up. Don’t make it happen. Let the idea emerge as a whole piece – the aha moment. Be surprised. Throw something out to your partner on stage and be surprised by what they throw back. Get out of your own way, keep the tension on the fishing line. Enjoy the back and forth and when the moment appears, bam! Reel that big one in. Or if you’re the fish, feel that hook in your mouth and respond. That’s the great fish story we all know about and whether you reel him in or he slips off your hook to fight another day, that is theatre.

We’ve been after this fish called Mother Courage for some months now. Just a few old Irondale fishermen who know the stream well and have the patience to wait for each tug on the line. With the theatre shut down and no opening on the horizon. It was easy to resist plotting out our strategies too many steps in advance just because we couldn’t. But we could take our script, our bait, stick it on our hook and wait for the fish to show up.

These old-time irondalers, Terry and Steve and Ken and Vicky, came with their own poles or stood by with the creels. Barbara dropped by to kibbutz. Each Sunday we got in the boat for a couple of hours and rode the currents. More often than not we got a nibble. Then the big ones start showing up drawn to something in the swirling water that indicates something is going on in the river. Here’s a catch that got fished out yesterday. “Mother Courage is a tragedy wrapped in a farce.” That’s not a phrase we thought up or planned, I just took the hook and it jumped up out of the water right in front of us. Here’s another bite we got: the realization that Mother Courage could make a great radio play. That fish showed up when I just happened upon an NPR story about Alan Ayckbourn, Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright, and director, writing and directing a radio play of his own because “too many Zoom dramas end up looking suspiciously like bad Swedish movies.” Special times inspire special solutions. Leave it to Ayckbourn to come up with an ingenious dramatic form that brings theatre to life during these dark days.

What’s unique about his radio play Anno Domino is that all of its eight characters (ranging in age from eighteen to mid-seventies) are performed by Ayckbourn and his wife, Heather Stoney. Our radio play Mother Courage will have the sixty characters of Brecht’s play performed by a company of five. Both the Ayckbourn and the Irondale will have more than one scene in which one actor ends up playing a scene opposite themselves. Jeff Lunden, the man responsible for the NPR feature, has become another big fish who wandered into our net. We called him looking for advice. He has now joined our radio project. I hesitate to say we reeled him in, but he’s there every Sunday contributing his enormous skills and knowledge.

And so we waft our pole this way and that, twisting the angle of the bamboo, trying really hard not to get ahead of ourselves, to just focus on waiting for that big fish in the river to strike and to relish the in-between moments when the company on the boat is so good we don’t notice that the worm has been off the hook for half an hour.

Thanks, Marlon Brando. My Uncle Ed once told me the most important thing about fishing is gin. Wish you were here for a martini.

Oh, and here’s another fish begging to be landed. Just don’t know what fly to use. Two days ago, I stumbled across this video while searching for the proper pronunciation of Mother Courage’s daughter’s name.

It shows a kind of book club in the Midwest, and the novel they were discussing (as they called it) was Mother Courage. The participants referred to its chapters rather than its scenes. And the intelligence and knowledge of the text with which they discussed and debated the question of whether or not Mother Courage is courageous led me to consider them, not as members of a book club, but as Citizen Dramaturgs. The video will follow at the end of the letter.

Maybe we could have something like this bunch here at Irondale? Let’s see what emerges, what jumps into the boat.

Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

More posts by Irondale

Leave a Reply