Into the Iron Age: Interview with Director John Doyle
Director John Doyle describes Iron Age Theatre, which he co-founded with Randy Wise* in 1989, as “so low-profile, it’s almost a stealth company in Philly.”
The description may have been apt in the early ’90s, when the company was staging Shakespeare productions in King of Prussia’s mega-mall as ‘guerilla theater,’ in which actors surprise crowds by performing scenes unannounced in public settings.
But now—with a twenty-year history of critically-acclaimed productions, an ongoing residency at Norristown’s Centre Theater, an international tour in progress, and two shows set to run at this year’s Philly Fringe—Iron Age might have outgrown the label.
The company has distinguished itself in the Philadelphia area by the intensity of its performances and by the wide scope of its repertoire. Its past productions include historical dramas, surrealist fantasies, and an absurdist revisiting of Shakespeare’s plays in Andy Grigg’s Shakesploitation, which debuted at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2005.
Doyle and Wise, who co-direct most of the company’s performances, met as students in Villanova’s graduate theater program and formed the company after graduation. Calling themselves Athena Theater, the pair took on small-scale projects at first, directing short films and children’s theater.
“Eventually we thought the name ‘Athena Theater’ was a little lightweight,” Doyle says. “We’re angrier than that.”
After the jump: escape from Eastern State, political drama and Elizabethan satire.
The company launched its first large project in 1993, when Wise’s side job with the archaeology firm excavating Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary allowed the two to tour the prison, then dilapidated and overrun by feral cats.
“It looked like the world will look ten years after humans die out,” says Doyle. “We decided it would be a great set for a play.”
TUNNEL, written by Wise and performed when the renovated penitentiary opened to tours in 1994, focused on the lives of the twelve inmates who attempted escape in 1945 by tunneling underground.
The play had a two-year run at Eastern State, at the end of which the company, then formally established as Iron Age, moved to Norristown as the resident theater group at Centre Theater. There, Doyle and Wise co-direct two productions per year.
The 75-seat space suits a company that, Doyle says, “likes intimacy in theater.”
The audience’s proximity to the actors feeds the intensity of the production, he explains. Intensity is what jars audiences enough to make them “take a breath.”
“I like plays that make me feel that I’m struggling to breathe,” he explains. “In theater, I don’t like ‘safe.’ I like theater that pushes the limits of the theatrical experience.”
In the name of ‘pushing the limits,’ he and Wise take a no-holds-barred approach to theater, whether that means bringing a real sheep carcass onstage (which they do in Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class) or directing shows that probe areas of still-raw social and political tensions (which they do in Marx in Soho, now on tour, and in the race-based Dutchman, presented at the 2002 Philly Fringe).
Citizen Paine, one of the two Iron Age productions in this year’s Philly Fringe, revives the themes of social justice and equality that the company first brought to the stage with a dramatization of Karl Marx’s life and philosophy in Marx in Soho.
Audiences are much more receptive to these messages when they’re delivered by a Founding Father, Doyle notes.
“Citizen Paine wound up being a good way to get our message into the world. Unlike Marx, he’s not really an atheist, but he shares all of the messages that Marx was espousing.”
The production, a one-man show written by William Hohenbach, debuted last January. A slightly revised version will play at this year’s Fringe.
The other Iron Age show set to run at the Fringe is an absurdist retelling of Shakespeare’s plays and is meant as a sequel to the highly-acclaimed Shakesploitation, which the company performed at the 2005 Philly Fringe.
The three-act piece upends conventional readings of Shakespeare’s most famous works by re-imagining them in different genres. Richard III, for example, is retold in the framework of a cartoon.
Shakesploitation II: Iambic Boogaloo, written by Chicago-based playwright Andy Grigg, represents a significant departure from the company’s generally serious material.
“When we advertise the two shows we’re doing in the Fringe this year, we always make ourselves look like the most schizophrenic company ever,” Doyle says, grinning.
Indeed, the company’s versatility is on display at this year’s Philly Fringe, but that’s exactly what audiences familiar with Iron Age’s twenty-year history of pushing the limits have come to expect.
Iron Age Theatre performs Shakesploitation II at 941 Theater eight times over the course of the Festival beginning September 5, and Citizen Paine on September 6, 7, 9, and 13 at Moonstone Arts Center. Check out www.ironagetheatre.org for additional information and for the company’s video blog, which will be updated daily until the Festival starts.
Photo of John Doyle courtesy of Iron Age Theatre; image of Thomas Paine by John Doyle, illustration for Shakesploitation II by Geraldine Glisson.
*Correction: This article originally misspelled Randy Wise’s surname as “Weiss.” Corrected as of 8/26/09; we regret the error.