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Have you done any rewiring lately? I don’t mean new electrical work like putting in new circuit breakers in the basement. The kind of rewiring I’m talking about involves a process of replacing old ways of thinking for new ideas. These last couple of years, or so, I would imagine we’ve all had to adjust and discover new ways of doing things, both great and small. I’ve gone from learning a new and improved way of tying my shoes (more about this later), to figuring out how to direct a play for “radio” with actors spread out all over the country, to learning how to live full time with a person after almost forty years of long-distance commuting.

As I’m sitting here it also occurs to me that the kind of rewiring, I’m talking about actually began a much longer time ago… with an in-depth investigation into the work of Viola Spolin. Terry, Barbara, and I undertook said investigation shortly before embarking on the great (and ongoing) rewiring of my life– the Irondale Project. We met a few times a week at Terry’s flat up on 98th Street painstakingly working through Viola’s book Improvisation for the Theater. We worked through every “exercise” and as rewired ourselves to truly understand them, we realized they were actually her “games.” We were transformed from working our way through the book to playing our way. By the end of the book, which had seemed so impenetrable in the beginning had become clear and filled with accessible ideas about how to make theater that that is alive. Our new knowledge came not through intellectual understanding but through “experiential” learning. There was a lot here we wanted to share and, quite frankly, experiment with on a larger group than the three of us. Thus, we started Irondale. We called it a “project” because we sensed, even then, that it would be a lifelong rewiring of everything we took for granted about making theatre.

And now, after a sabbatical, deemed necessary by COVID driven staff shortages and which, went on so long it turned into a Mon-dical and a Tues-ical (thank you Lee Hayes for this little bit of whimsical word play). Now, I’m back and sharing with you from our third floor Pittsburgh Office, in what was once upon a time Mac’s bedroom, to answer the question: what’s on my mind?

I admit I’m suffering just a bit of stage fright (or is it pen fright?) about getting back out here. However, I am comforted by these words from (guess who) Kurt Vonnegut: “when I write I feel like an armless, legless, man with a crayon in his mouth.” Here I am, an armless, legless, man with a crayon in his mouth. At least that’s how I felt last night when I spent about four hours just being stuck. But now, the battery of my brain is fully charged and clearly has done some overnight rewiring. Today things are going more smoothly. I learned that sometimes we learn just by putting the pencil down and going to bed rather than soldiering on in circles.

I also learned something new about rewiring from Terry’s son Liam that actually got me started thinking about a lot of this– that new way of tying your shoes so that they will never come undone that I alluded to at the beginning. The secret is that when you complete the final part of the bow instead of bringing the long lace around over the half bow from the bottom of the front you go over the top from the back. This probably sounds a bit confusing, but I am happy to send you a video if you’re interested. Now, I want to point out, at the beginning this seeming simple task of digital competency was almost impossible for me. My fingers just wouldn’t cooperate with what I was trying to do, but over time has become as second nature as well tying your shoes. My brain had to be rewired to make this activity possible.

Then I stumbled on to yet something else. Now, I’m an autodidact of a banjo player. Everything I know I learned starting first from books like Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo and then moving on in our digital age to instructional videos from YouTube. A couple of months ago I stumbled across a really good video series, called Brainjo. And it’s all about rewiring. Its principles can be applied to not just the banjo either. It’s transferable knowledge. I’ve used it to enhance my German learning (thank you Duolingo), to assist me in my dramaturgical breakdown of plays, and I brought some of its core concepts into the Irondale rehearsals for alice… Alice… ALICE! last fall.

Here is one Brainjo bit of advice you may have already picked up from other sources or, as we are want to say today “from your lived experience.” its premise may seem obvious to many of you, but I can be rather dense at times, so it was helpful to have it spelled out for me. Here it is:

“When you are practicing, especially practicing something new, then you must focus on it if you want your brain to spend the energy needed to remember it. The good news is that it doesn’t take very long to signal the brain to change – research shows that 15 to 20 minutes of focus on one thing is enough to send that change signal and enough to provide the needed inputs for the brain to make change. Research also shows that most people can only sustain high levels of focus in increments of 20 to 25 minutes before needing a break. If you continue past that Mark and your attention begins to fade, so does the quality of your practice.”

I picked up my right-hand banjo a little while ago and turned it upside down to play it left-handed. It was impossible to do anything. I couldn’t even hold it properly. (Paul McCartney once said the same thing about trying to play a right-handed guitar.) But I broke it down into very small steps and short periods of concentration and now, while I can’t say I can play it, I can at least put my fingers on the correct string at the right fret-although I still have to think about it a lot. Maybe I’ll get me a left-handed banjo with the fifth string-tuning peg on the other side of the neck to continue this particular experiment

And maybe I’ve just stumbled upon the perfect metaphor for what Irondale really is: a left-handed banjo, played upside down by a righthanded musician. Over time it starts sounding like music. Watch the video here.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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