Keepers of the Story: Young Theater Artists Thrive at Irondale

10/23/2013 09:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Being a brilliant storyteller is different from just being a raconteur," says Jim Niesen, co-founder and director of Brooklyn-based Irondale Ensemble Project, looking up from the photocopied text in his lap at the actors gathered around the script-strewn table. On his left, several adult Irondale actors nod in agreement, while on his right, four teenage members of the ensemble's Young Company squirm a little and dodge his gaze. Jim grins at them. "Maybe 'raconteur' is a new word for you all," he offers. Andre, a slender high school student with short-cropped hair and a dazzling smile, bugs his eyes out and whispers, "Busted!" There is playful laughter from the group. Jim swivels in his chair, ignoring the more experienced actors now and directing himself with laser-beam focus straight at the teens. "A raconteur is someone who can tell a good anecdote, hit you with a one-liner. A wise-cracker, right?" Andre and the other kids nod. "But a storyteller is different. A brilliant storyteller in some cultures is revered as a shaman. The keeper of the history of the tribe, you know?"

2013-10-23-Terryandthecast.jpg It's two weeks from opening night of Dead End, the first-ever production in Irondale's 30-year history that puts teenage actors from the group's Young Company in prominent roles alongside their professional adult counterparts. I'm sitting at the table with Jim and the cast, feeling privileged to be watching kids on the cusp of becoming professionals being taught by example how to take responsibility for the stories they tell.

Just a few days earlier, I'd been wandering with a friend past Irondale's theater -- a converted space in an old church a block from where I live. I was in the midst of lamenting that since the start of my extended maternity leave from directing a teen-led theater program at a school in the South Bronx, I was craving creative connection with young people. Just then, a friendly looking guy in a suit walked past us, paused, introduced himself as Terry Greiss -- wearer of many Irondale hats, including co-founder, executive director and ensemble actor -- and spontaneously invited us inside for a tour of the theater space.

2013-10-23-Irondale.pngIt's been a long time since I cried in front of a total stranger for no reason, but stepping into the theater with the fall sunlight streaking in through the high windows, I inexplicably -- and mortifyingly -- found myself getting teary-eyed. Terry immediately put me at ease. "Don't feel weird. It's a common reaction," he said. "The first time I came in here and realized this was going to be Irondale's home, I literally just wept. It's a very, very special space."

As I listened to Terry talk about his 30-year journey with the company -- their ensemble-driven approach to making theater, their work in schools and prisons, and particularly their recent experiments integrating youth into professional productions -- it became clear that the specialness I was sensing in this extraordinary repurposed church space had less to do with its physical beauty than with the energy of what happens every day inside of it. The next thing I knew, I was inviting myself to hang out at a rehearsal for Dead End to observe the program in action.

2013-10-23-huddle.JPGWatching Jim direct the multi-age cast and chatting with some of the young actors and their mentors afterwards, I was struck by the obvious but often overlooked reality that truly transformative cultures -- whether they play out in classrooms or on athletic fields, in boardrooms or design studios or churches-converted-into-theaters -- don't just crop up out of nowhere. Here was a group of artists who have spent the last three decades experimenting with and investing in a specific set of values -- collaboration, inclusion, personal responsibility and creative risk-taking -- values that are now being taught, intentionally and with great care, to a new generation of young artists.

How does that kind of teaching take place? Certainly there are as many different methods as there are organizations where people teach and learn, but what consistently hit me as I watched this cast rehearse was the total absence of hierarchical relationships -- and yet, maybe paradoxically -- the palpable presence of respect for leadership, experience and teaching.

2013-10-23-MichaelDavidandKatrina.JPGWhen I asked Andre about the storytelling vs. raconteur exchange with Jim earlier, he said, "What's amazing to me about working with people like Jim and Terry and my teacher Michael-David is that these are adults who -- I mean, it's not like they're wrong very often -- but when they are, they aren't afraid to say it. That means that as a learner I'm so much more open to what they have to say. I'm way more willing to admit it when I don't know things, too."

Michael-David Gordon, a 21-year Irondale veteran who serves as Artistic Director of the Young Company and also performs in Dead End alongside several of his teenaged mentees, explains that, "Irondale is a true learning laboratory. As a director you come in with all kinds of ideas, but you never know what's going to work until you get the scene up on its feet. And that means that you're constantly learning from your actors. It's a conversation that goes back and forth."

2013-10-23-Osher.jpgUltimately, what Michael-David and his fellow ensemble members are modeling for the kids is that making art is about taking responsibility -- for who you are, for what you do, and for the stories you tell both onstage and off. These are high-stakes lessons for a generation that's been shielded in so many ways from taking responsibility for themselves and their stories -- either because our nation's test-obsessed approach to schooling has squeezed creative agency out of so many of our classrooms, because parents are stretched too thin to provide kids with the mentoring they need, or because technology that promises social connectedness ends up cutting us off from experiencing of our own feelings or the emotional effects on others of what we do online (click here if you haven't already watched Louis CK's funny, heart-wrenching take on why he won't let his kids have smartphones).

Michael-David says:

One of the things that I demand of Young Company is that you have to be real here. You have to bring in who you are, and not just pretend to be who you may want to be, or what you may think is cool or attractive. You have to be able to be articulate about who you really are. When kids are making work, we give them freedom to explore things they can't talk about in school. Of course, if they're just saying stuff to shock, we'll shut it down, but if they're saying something intelligently? If they're trying to explore something? Then we want to help them take responsibility for that and do it from a place of who they really are.

Andre says, "Yeah. It's incredible to have a teacher like that. I mean, I'm not saying I live my life by any sort of code, like 'What Would Michael-David Do...?'" His voice trails off and the kids around him crack up. "But OK. I mean, I guess maybe I kind of do."

2013-10-23-Passingthebaton.jpgRight before the rehearsal wraps up, Jim has his actors do a few last run-throughs of the scene they're working on, but this time there's a catch. "This," he says, holding up a script that's been rolled into a tube and secured with gaffer tape, "represents the story. At any given time as the scene unfolds, there's one actor who is responsible for driving the story forward. The baton has to keep changing hands. Monotony is what happens when no one new steps up to take responsibility."

He looks at the actors, the experienced ones and the young ones.

"So," he says. "Who wants it?"

A young actress named Osh'er steps forward and lays out an open palm. Jim brings the baton down into it with a gentle and satisfying thwack.


Thanks to Andre, Osh'er, Michael, Danasha, Jim, Terry and Michael-David for sharing their stories with me. All photos are mine.