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Some years, let’s face it, many years ago, at least as many as thirty, we at Irondale were embarking on a new collaboration with a high school in Brooklyn. As was the custom in those days we had received our large yearly allotment from the then-named Board of Education and assigned to a particular school where the particular principal who often had only a vague notion of why we were there, passed us on to a vice principal, then to a department head, and finally, to a classroom teacher, all of whom were in the same knowledge boat as the aforenamed principal. On this particular day, the conversation went something like this.

“And you are?”


“And why exactly are you here?”

“To do theatre games two days a week with your class this year.”

“I teach math, we don’t play games.”

“They’re not games in that sense.”

“Exercises in learning how to think, and to work together as a class.”

“I don’t have time to teach them how to think.”

And so it went. Sometimes, over the course of the year, the teachers became great allies and advocates for our games, and sometimes we were never able to reach the teacher about learning to think.

I’ve been struggling a bit this week with my German course. It’s called Duolingo, and it’s a first-rate course, especially for learning to read a new language which is what I need for my translation activities. But I had hit the wall. I was putting in as many hours as before, on occasion more, but it wasn’t in and there were days when I felt I was even going backwards. Frustration finally led to reflection and the realization that I had forgotten how to think… I was studying with an attitude of “press on. Get to the end, take one more lesson. Crank out those ‘Experience Points.’”

As I looked around me, I started to notice a lot of experience points being cranked out. People talking in shorthand, initializing, over employing canned phrases in the course of conversation. (How many times have we heard “That’s a very good question.”) I feel bombarded with easy questions and even easier answers to these questions at the expense of searching for genuine meaning in our answers and, even more importantly, in our questions. Living in uncertainty when the answers don’t show up gets dismissed with near accusations of “why are you going on about this?”

My easy answer to this altogether too easy question is that I feel there just isn’t enough time. In the theatre: time to research, to rehearse, to dwell on the importance of a single small word or phrase in a playwright’s text. And we forget that often these small words the “monosyllabic” ones. They’re easy to say, so we rush over them as we say them, their meaning as individual words is easily grasped, so we rush over that as well.

There’s a lot of talks these days about the actor, the director, the designers of a particular production being “storytellers.” And so they are. And unique ones at that. The playwright has provided us with words, but the words by themselves do not tell the story. They are the stuff from which this story, our store is made. (Notice all the one-syllable words in that sentence? It must have been important.)

Think about this line from Othello. “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” Easy words to say quickly. They come at a moment of high-tension armed soldiers on both sides, A sword fight is imminent. And often as realized in performance, they are rendered incomprehensible. And they have so much to say about the tension in the scene and the strong and quiet energy (at least in my story of the play) with which Othello averts violent confrontation.

Writing this piece over these last few hours has for me been an exercise in finding the centered stillness that enables detailed writing to take place for me. You can judge the results for yourself, but this piece would not have existed in its current form. Mabey the word “warm-up” is something of a misnomer. I think I prefer “pre-production.’ Something I have to do to get me “in the mood’ as Masters and Johnson advised us. It can be as simple as filling up the kettle with water from the slow spigot on the refrigerator instead of the fast one on the sink, noticing every breath, and counting one as you take it for a minute or so.

Or it can be what Ethel Barrymore said was the best advice she ever got. “Keep your underwear drawer straight, and the rest of life takes care of itself.”

John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore, 1939.


Watch this video: Tallulah & Ethel Barrymore



Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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