Ken Rothchild comes as close as possible to being a charter member of Irondale without having technically been a founder as it is possible to be. He came in to “hang out” and design our second show Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Like the iceman, Mr. DePinna in Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t take it with you, Ken showed up for dinner one night and just stayed. In the thirty-seven years since he came for dinner, he has gone on to design more than eighty shows for us including, The Good Woman of Setzuaan (two different productions) The Uncle Vanya Radio Show, Brecht’s Conversations in Exile (American Premier), Peer Gynt the Movies, Three Penny Opera, Happy End, St. Joan of the Stock Yards (two different productions), The Seagull, Jungle of the City, The Seuss Show, Alice, Alice, ALICE!, Color Between the Lines, 1599 (four plays by Shakespeare performed in a single evening), and Brecht in Exile. He has also served as Irondale’s Education director and is currently our president of the board of trustees. Now, this week, he is making a guest appearance as the author of this week’s What’s on Jim’s Mind. We’ve been thinking a lot about history here lately and how understanding Irondale’s history means a lot in terms of understanding its present-its ethos, its aesthetic, and what makes it so unique and complex that we find it virtually impossible to express under the time constraints of today’s “elevator pitch.”

So, here’s Ken on this subject with a few fascinating and informative by-ways thrown in for good measure:

Anyone Can Play: “Hanging out” at Irondale

“Anyone can play” has been a mantra of Irondale since the very beginning. The idea has its roots in the Spolin idea that there is no such thing as “talent”; rather “talent” is actually just a capacity for greater experiencing. While many of the students I have taught this concept to have an initial tendency to hear the word as “experiences”, “experiencing” is the correct and more exact term. It is essentially being ever more open to what the immediate moment has to offer, to being open to more and more of what the “environment” is offering up to you, as a performer and as a person. And since being open to experiencing is a skill that can be learned, everyone has “talent”; everyone can “play” and grow in their ability to be open to the environment.

This was the jumping off point for Jim, Terry, and Barbara, when they formed Irondale. For the initial “season” they asked a number of people they had recently worked with in New Jersey to join them. The first show was “The Comedy of Errors” as Produced by The Little Theater of Dubuque, Iowa, circa 1936 and it was hilarious and successful. The second show was an original production, a story theater version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In true story theater style, there weren’t any assigned parts, rather the actors took up the thread of the story in an advanced version of give-and-take, improvising dialogue, taking cues from the need to advance the story to particular plot points, songs, and dances. It was difficult work, but alive in so many ways.

At the end of that run, many of the actors Jim and Terry had invited to join felt that the work was too particular, too quirky, and that the shows likely to be chosen wouldn’t showcase their work to the commercial directors and producers they hoped would hire them for more “high profile” productions. A big meeting ensued, and it became clear that there were two distinct and competing visions of what the “Ensemble” should pursue. For me it was characterized by an exchange I had with one of the actors in that meeting. I said “I assume we all agree that to create good theater there needs to be a point-of-view”; and the actor said “I think that’s a lot to assume…”

Those that felt a “point-of-view” was unnecessary left the company – and so 4 months into producing existence, we had our first schism.

A tangential digression: I think “Point-of View” is what is now often referred to as “vision” and/or “mission”; but those latter terms are ones imposed on the arts by corporate culture. It’s the hegemony of commerce that makes corporate speak the Lingua Franca of society, and so we use the speech of business as way of translating what we do in terms that Commerce understands. But like all languages, the translations aren’t exact. And there is a culture divide: Commerce and Art are oppositional forces; and the Arts speaks commerce-speak to business to obtain the funding needed, since government so often fails to fund essential societal needs (like culture and arts). And there is an irony in these “partnerships”, as illustrated by our funding by the Pinkerton Foundation. Here we are, educating the future scientists of America with blood money earned through the violent suppression of labor movements in the late 19th-early 20th Centuries; look at our hands – are they dripping red, just a bit?

So, Point #1: Irondale has a POV – it is anti-establishment, anti-commerce, anti- “received wisdom”, anti- “best practices”. (“Best practices” is another corporate term/concept – it means “do it this way so we won’t get our pants sued off”…). But you can’t put that into a vision statement…

It sounds like Irondale is only “anti-“, but there is something we are “for”: “Questioning”. We constantly question the assumptions and proscriptions of corporate/commercial society. (Interestingly, much of the recent TCG Fall gathering featured BIPOC artists pointing to systemic racism as a central aspect of [white supremacist] corporate culture).

What happened after that first schism is Irondale was joined by a number of actors who had found that the system wasn’t going to cast them, that they wouldn’t be asked to “play”. And if you knew them, it would be easy to see how they did not fit into the easy commercial mode of casting then and today. But Irondale’s mantra of “anyone can play” brought them in. The only requirement (but it was a big one) was to be willing to show up – day in and day out – for rehearsal; and if they could, show up for work in the office, and/or work in the schools. There was no money (except for work on productions: “one week” of rehearsal, and four to six weeks of performance). People were literally “hanging out”, ordering their “day jobs” and lives around the self-imposed imperative to be “in the room”. The realization that there was a place for them, a place that would let them “play”, to be more than an automaton told to move here or there, made it a “self-imposed imperative”. It helped that we were creating devised work, but devised work played to the strengths, and obscured the weaknesses, of that particular cohort. The sacrifices were willingly made.

Until they weren’t.

A number of things brought this about. This was around 1989-1990, about 6 to 7 years in with most of the above folks, and things were changing. One of course was age. People were getting older, and their needs were changing – financial sacrifices made in one’s early 20’s were increasingly less palatable, and people wanted more a little more ease and comfort in the endeavor. The AIDS team was created, outside people hired, and paid, so the long-time members needed to be compensated for “hanging out”. And the focus of the work was changing more towards storytelling/acting, and turning away from the “post-modern”/abstract dance/theater Annie-B wanted us to focus on. Finally – and this will sound familiar – the long-time members were increasingly frustrated by the “newbies” assuming that they should have the same “rights” – to equal compensation, to equal input on work – as the long-timers, because they interpreted “anyone can play” as meaning “everyone is equal”. The long-timers felt that their earlier years of sacrifice entitled them to greater consideration in all aspects.

The “solution” decided upon for that last issue was to form a 3-person committee of people who were trusted as not having a particular “dog in the fight”. The result, after about 5 months of work, was a document called “The Document”, which outlined what being a “Member” meant, what were the various rights and privileges accrued to certain levels of service – essentially outlining a 2-tier level of “membership”. It would nice if a copy of that document existed somewhere; it might help illuminate our current issues. But I suspect it was lost sometime during the move from West 18th Street, to Dean Street in Brooklyn.

Did the Document help? No; somewhat shortly after its creation, a significant portion of the long-timers left with Annie-B, some to join her and Paul Lazar in Big Dance, their very successful dance/theater company, others to other personal endeavors. “The Document” failed for a number of reasons, but primarily because it was a “big organization” solution (a corporate solution) to a problem that was essentially about what people expected/wanted Irondale to be, as opposed to what it was. Metaphorically, they had agreed to play a game of rugby, and expected it now become American football – but Jim and Terry still wanted to keep playing rugby. And if one could see that it was still going to be rugby, but just wanted to try football, well, you left. (Feel free to substitute your own sports analogy here: cricket/baseball; soccer/rugby; tennis /badminton; etc.)
It was the second big schism.

This dynamic has played out many times, in many ways, over the years. Sometimes individuals leave; sometimes groups; and it is always for some variation of the “playing” being no longer fully satisfactory; being sufficiently unsatisfactory (the negatives outweighing the positives) that going elsewhere, creating something elsewhere (which many have done) becomes the only logical solution. To continue the sports analogy, we are still playing rugby – and anyone can play, as long as it’s rugby you want to play. If you are willing to “hang out” you can join the side. But hanging-out doesn’t make one a Commissioner, with the ability to change the rules…

Point #2: Corporate solutions are poor mechanisms for anti-corporate entities.

The “solution” to defining what it means to be in Irondale, if there is one at all (and there may not be), resides in being open to what is, to the experiencing of what it is that makes Irondale anti-corporate, anti-established “rules”, different. It probably means “hanging out”… because information flows not through any document, but through “being there” without filter, expectations, or preconceptions of a “best practice”.

 

 

Jim Niesen

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