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Irondale, 1989.

This is a photo Barbara came upon this past weekend – the Irondale Ensemble Project, Fall 1989. Everybody’s here I think, twelve actors, three designers, a choreographer and me. Gerry Goodstein, who was and still is our company photographer, set up the photo and then jumped into it. That’s him in the baseball jacket and mustache kneeling in on the right.

This is the group who worked together every day, eight days a week (more about the Beatles later on) for some eight years, creating some truly, in what I confess is a proprietary parental statement, fascinating and unique pieces of theatre. “Collision” pieces we came to call them in retrospect. Our work was rooted in the Viola Spolin construct that Ken elaborated on last week: “Anyone can play.” You just have to show up everyday day and be a bit patient while you figured out the somewhat complex rules of Irondale rugby. It helped if you could make yourself useful, but even that was something of an optional requirement.

The Collision piece being rehearsed at the time of the photo was “Flying Underground” in which we collided Barrie’s Peter Pan with Abby Hoffman’s life as a Vietnam protester/political clown and subsequent fugitive from justice hiding out in the Thousand Islands. The company then was a somewhat eclectic group. Hardly anyone was a trained actor in the conventional sense, but everyone had learned, improvisation, and dance/movement through the daily training that was a part of the rehearsal process. Few had been through a conservatory, but they brought other skills – intelligence, imagination, and backgrounds in music, choreography, and writing, all of which led to the creation of the Collisions.

We took great plays (we were always rooted in the classics) – Ubu Roi, Uncle Vanya, Peer Gynt, the inspector General, As You Like It, and we made them with the skills of the people who showed up. “Can’t handle the text?” “No worries, we’ll make it a dance.” If you look closely at the photo you might recognize Terry, Ken, Hillarie, Steve, and me. Thirty-one years later, these diehard gym rats still playing Irondale rugby, though not eight days a week. Right now, along with new kids Michael-David (29 years on the roster) and Joey (7 seasons and counting), we’re all hard at work on our radio show version of Mother Courage, the final installment of the Brecht in Exile trilogy.

There’s a theatre game that we experimented with a bit back then called “If Not This, This” which I didn’t really understand at the time. You can play it in several ways. The first is an empowerment tool which we used in our educational projects, played with it in our Brecht rehearsals, and is at the heart of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. In Boal’s version, a player tells of a personal experience, a moment of injustice that made them feel like something the cat dragged in and wished they could get a “do-over.” The player then gets a second chance to tell an audience what they wished they had said or done in the original moment.

A second version of the game uses the actual text of a play in rehearsed creating two distinctly different versions. The words don’t change, but the playing and interpretation do. In Mother Courage, for instance, the question is whether the play ultimately about a mother desperately trying to ensure her family’s survival under the most trying of circumstances, or is it about business and deal-making in a time of a world in crises, crises that cannot go to waste. Either way, things don’t turn out too well for Mother Courage. But that’s just the plot, not the deeper story we want to tell. And whichever interpretation we ultimately choose, the other interpretation remains hidden beneath the surface because it has been implanted in the consciousness of the actor and will peek through from time to time like an aging palimpsest.

The dramaturgical decision to be made is: “How do we want to leave the audience as they watch that final moment of the play, when, alone, with all three of her children dead, Courage hitches herself up to her cart and trudges on?” While this moment may sound bleak in my description of it, Tennessee Williams called this final tableau “one of the most inspiring moments in all of theatre.” So, is the audience to be left with inspiration, or a grim warning. Here’s where “Not This, But This” comes in. Courage doesn’t know her oldest son is dead. He may still be out there someplace and the love that she expresses in what may be the most important line in the play “I’m glad about peace, never mind if I’m ruined. “At least I got two of my children through the war. And at last, I’ll see Eilif” is enough to keep her, and us, moving ahead.

A while back our kid (I call him our kid though at last count he was rapidly approaching 44 with two adorable “kids” of his own) told me he had been watching Ken Burns’ film Vietnam. He was perplexed. “That was a horrible time. My Lai, Charles Manson, Kent State, Martin Luthor King, Bobby Kennedy. How can you say things were better then?” I don’t remember what I came back with. Certainly, it wasn’t very profound, and maybe this isn’t either. But playing “Not this, This,” with my response to Mac’s question in the light of how I’m feeling today and what I need to hitch up the cart and keep going again, I would go back and answer, “because we had hope then, hope and the optimism that it would all work out, the way the depression, and World War II, and Brown versus the Board, and the Voting Rights Act did. And then I would have played him this song, which offered great hope and encouragement in 1970, and which I just listened to before I sat down to write this. Still has something to say to us today. Thanks, Paul.


Jim Niesen


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