We began in 1978 as a collective of three: Barbara Mackenzie-Wood, Jim Niesen and Terry Greiss. We met while working together at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. Edgar Rosenblum and Arvin Brown hired the three of us and we began making work that represented our shared philosophy and aesthetic. We did this for five years.
In 1980, Jim and Terry were on a train returning from Connecticut after doing improv shows. We had been searching for a name for our “company,” because we were being honored by the Connecticut Arts Council. Jim was writing a play about childhood, centered around his grandparents who lived in Irondale Missouri. Terry asked how the “Irondale project” was coming along, and Jim said “That’s a good name.” The rest is history.
By 1983, we decided it was time to create our own theatre company--a true ensemble of artists coming together to explore the nature and uses of theatre. On a February evening (actually at Jim’s birthday party), Irondale was born.
From the earliest days, we were convinced of theatre’s ability to engage as well as entertain. Our education programs became central to our goal of creating the kind of theatre we wanted to see: art that provokes thought. We found audiences in public schools, prisons, shelters and other non-theatrical spaces. Over time, we have taught thousands of workshops from Staten Island to Cape Town and our work has been seen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the former Soviet Union and in many places in between.
From 1984–1999 we focused on improvisation and its application to text, both classical and contemporary, with the goal of bringing a strong sense of aliveness to scripted performances. Shakespeare, Chekhov and especially Brecht provided source material and were our “playwrights in residence” and we performed their work regularly.
In 2008, we developed our own theater from an abandoned, nineteenth century church. When we opened The Space at Irondale, we made a deeper commitment to a geographic community. We had a home, but we were in danger of becoming an “institution,” which (in true Irondale form) is something we still grapple with. Thanks to our space, we are able to present our own work and the work of other companies we admire. We also rent the theater out and offer subsidies to emerging and under-served artists, so that their voices can be heard.
In response to Eric Garner's murder by police officers, Irondale created a workshop program that brings cops and civilians together for 10 weeks of intense improv training, story-telling and courageous conversation at the theatre. You cannot force empathy but theatre can give it space to grow.
After reading a small article in the NY Times about a group of school children who put on a play in a Lviv bomb shelter, Terry and Jim decide to bring the kids to Irondale to perform their play Mom on Skype. It took some mountain-moving by the entire Irondale team and some help from our local politicians, but it happened. In August, nine Ukrainian children, ages 7-15, performed for two nights at the theatre and touched all our lives, deeply. The ticket proceeds from their shows were donated to Ukrainian war and humanitarian efforts.
In 2023 Irondale reached a new milestone: 40 years of making theatre together. Theatre of the moment and theatre in the moment. Our gala celebration, Inspire honored Irondale founder Barbara Mackenzie-Wood with the M. Edgar Rosenblum Award (We’ve come full circle and Edgar is still a presence in our lives and work). A special second award was given to the brave Children of Ukraine, accepted by Olena Kondratiuk, Deputy Chair, Ukrainian Parliament.
Today, with 70 productions that span 40+ years, “we’re still here!” Our work remains true to our original principles. We continue to bring our programs to public and private schools, and we offer multiple youth education programs on-site in our space, including our flagship Young Company teen ensemble.
We pay tribute to the hundreds of artists that have comprised the ensemble since 1983. They too, are part of this history. We are proud of our journey and where we have arrived and we are excited to see what comes in our future. We have toured to Russia three times, helped create the Network of Ensemble Theatres and the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance, mentored other ensembles, supported emerging artists and encouraged our alumni create their own companies, including Big Dance Theatre, Epic Theatre Ensemble, Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, Letter of Marque, and the Irondale Ensemble Project of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Your gift will support: the next big Ensemble production, our Youth Programs and To Protect, Serve and Understand - the groundbreaking program where police officers and civilians learn to communicate through theatre. And because we believe that art is so necessary to the life and health of a community, we are making all tickets to Irondale productions FREE in 2023.
Help Irondale celebrate its 40th Anniversary with a gift that ensures the future of our mission.
Please make a tax-deductible donation to Irondale today.