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The play’s the thing…


Jim Tierney’s recent passing allowed Howard to survey the history of theater in Agincourt’s public life. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Thank you, Joni Mitchell.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

θέατρον—the seeing place

Cities of the ancient Greeks embodied their three-part understanding of human nature: We are triune beings, the Greeks believed, consisting of body, mind and spirit.

Gymnasia and stadia helped build bodies. Sacrifice in the temenos strengthened our relationship with the gods. Civic discourse at the agora spilled over into the theater of ideas imagined by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes. Together they make us whole, complete. It’s all about balance.

That Greek sense of theater—a focused distillation of the human condition—has been a part of Agincourt culture from the beginning. Harney’s Orpheum, our first purpose-built venue for stage productions, was built in the mid-1870s and seated about 300 on movable chairs. Itinerant theatrical troops made regular stops here on the Des Moines-Omaha-Sioux City vaudeville circuit, but the Orpheum probably saw more dinners, dances, spiritualists and religious revivals than any of Shakespeare’s work. It served well enough until 1893 — speculation persists that the fire wasn’t accidental — when the business community formed a stock company to underwrite a worthy legitimate theater. Inspired by Chicago—why not go for the Olympic gold of urban influence?—we built The Auditorium, a theater wrapped with income-generating retail and office space. What’s good for Chicago was clearly good enough for us.

Performance art of a different sort arrived in the person of Dr Reinhold Kölb, Edith Wasserman’s brother and authentic Viennese psychologist. Kölb was a disciple of Jacob Levy Moreno, Romanian-born inventor of psychodrama, which adapted many aspects of theater for therapeutic benefit. But Kölb put his own spin on Moreno’s methods, incorporating Japanese Noh or puppet theater. Patients at “Walden,” Kölb’s private clinic appropriately situated at the east end of Thoreau Avenue, wrote plays, designed and built puppets, and performed for the public as part of their rehabilitation. The puppet theatre in The Commons—that bent plywood extravaganza, still looking like some refugee from Radio City Music Hall—is all that remains of his innovative (quirky?) approach to mental health. The ancient Athenians would have held his productions over for weeks. Standing room only. But then the seats were made of marble.

Now here’s a twist: It’s probable that a young James Edward Tierney sat on the grass enjoying one of Walden’s last productions in 1944. Tierney’s family farmed near Pocahontas but often drove to Agincourt for shopping on Saturdays. While dad conferred with John Deere and mom bought lingerie at deBijenkorf, little Jimmy unwittingly joined group therapy at the park. Walden’s puppet productions were only a legend when I was young, but I’d like to think that some of their unorthodoxy lay at the core of Tierney’s theatricality and had long term consequences for us all.

I see a second installment in the near future, with further details regarding Tierney’s theatrical career.


  1. R.H.L.M. Ramsay says:

    Think of Kölb’s theater as voodoo, except you’re the puppet. And the pins stuck into it are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

  2. […] last wrote about Seamus in 2011—at any length, that is, though tangentially—but hadn’t realized that when I started […]

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