I had the chance to ask Irondale Artistic Director Jim Niesen (who also directs Color Between the Lines) and Executive Director Terry Greiss about how the theater piece developed for this very exciting public history project.
How did Color Between the Lines develop?
Jim Niesen, Irondale Ensemble Project Artistic Director: It started with a summer of research, followed by a three day workshop and "performance" as part of our annual retreat in Maine. This was a traveling environmental piece which bore more resemblance to Sleep No More than to what you're seeing at Irondale, but both were attempts to deal with the fact that the historical narrative is made up of contributions of many individuals who either worked quietly behind the scenes or rose up briefly to public prominence. The obvious solution to the problem is the history pageant or living picture approach, and right from the beginning that was something we wanted to avoid.
When Nolan (Kennedy) returned from his sabbatical to Chicago, I made him the musical director for the show. Historically music played a dominant role in the movement, but the songs as written and performed were firmly rooted in another era. Nolan's first charge was to take the dust off this material and then to add some original incidental music. In the process working musical skills on a daily basis became a part of the company's rehearsal process when we turned our full attention and time to the development of the show in January. The fall of course had been spent working on our Henry V. Part of the reason for doing this was an experiential investigation of how the world's greatest playwright shaped history into drama. (At one time we even considered using the dramatic and dynamic structure of Henry as a basis for the show.) At this time we still had no idea that music would play such a major role in the show. Then we went down a number of dead ends trying to find our form and content--improvised scenarios, storytelling exercises. Eventually Nolan developed some song exercises allowing individual songs, based on character and relationship) to emerge. A result of this is that almost every song was initially developed by the actor who performs it in the show. At some time I asked Nolan what he thought about the idea of the entire show being sung within a format of intuitive connections rather than a linear narrative. And that’s how it all happened.
Why and how did Irondale become involved with the project and its partners Brooklyn Historical Society and Weeksville Heritage Center?
Terry Greiss, Irondale Ensemble Project Executive Director: The city of New York issued an RFP (Request For Proposals) for cultural organizations who would create a project that celebrated the abolition and anti-slavery history of Brooklyn. I knew Deborah Schwartz (President, Brooklyn Historical Society) for many years. We had often talked of doing thing together (not dirty things, just projects).When I got the RFP I went to the phone to call her and she had called me with the same thought in mind. We knew that we needed the additional voice of an organization like Weeksville (Heritage Center) to give the project its full due. Deborah called Pam (Pamela Greene, Executive Director, Weeksville Heritage Center) and we three created the project. For us, it's an extension of our (Irondale's) history based work: Degenerate Art, Peter Panic: Flying Underground, Murals of Rockefeller Center, Outside the Law. It made artistic, community and educational sense.
Talk about artist selection/participation.
Jim Niesen: I think I covered this to some extent in the first answer. As always we begin with the contributions of the core company and what skills they bring to the project. In this case, that included Terry Greiss, Patrena Murray, Damen Scranton, Scarlet Marissa Rivera, Nolen Kennedy, and our two student interns: Alex Miyashiro and Ben Matthews. To fill this out we brought in Taifa Harris, a terrific actress I've known for about 13 years and has experience developing this kind of work. When Taifa had to drop out (she just gave birth to twin daughters) Vicki Ward replaced her and continued developing Taifa's stuff as well as making strong contributions of her own. Antwayn Hopper and Natasha Soto-Albors came in to do the dances when the show started moving in that direction. The designers Ken Rothchild (set and lights) and Hilarie Blumenthal (costumes) have been with us almost since the beginning of Irondale.
I have to say that this has been the most collaborative piece we have ever done. There was a strong sense of ownership and excitement about the material that kept propelling us through the entire process.
What do you want the audience to learn/take away from experiencing Color Between the Lines?
Jim Niesen: That the battle to make this a better, fairer [world] is never done, that we have the example to these brave, steadfast, courageous and largely unknown women and men to remind us of the necessity to keep on going no matter what and to not let the bastards get you down.
Irondale Ensemble Project’s Color Between the Lines
Now through May 24
Tuesday 7pm $10
Wednesday-Saturday 8pm $35, Student Rush $15
Irondale Center – 85 South Oxford St, Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Tickets: www.irondale.org or call 866.811.4111
For more information about:
In Pursuit of Freedom – www.PursuitOfFreedom.org
Irondale Ensemble Project – www.irondale.org
Brooklyn Historical Society –www.brooklynhistory.org
Weeksville Heritage Center – www.weeksvillesociety.org