For detailed descriptions of the techniques in green, see METHOD

Iris Rose found the inspiration for House of Jahnke in two places: the Pyramid Club and
Rolling Stone magazine. In 1983, the Pyramid Club was an exciting venue in New York’s East
Village that was open to a unique range of performance styles but was also, unlike many of
the neighborhood’s venues, a legal bar and dance club. Iris wanted to create a serious
piece for the Pyramid Club that was also compatible with its freedom and irreverence and
addressed the challenges of performing for a nightclub crowd.

After reading a true crime story in Rolling Stone about the murder of Richard Jahnke, Sr. by
his teenage children, Iris began adapting it into a performance incorporating some of the
conventions of Greek tragedy. Masks were used for major characters, who generally spoke
directly into stand microphones since their Halloween masks lacked the built-in
megaphones of ancient Greek masks. There was also a chorus of everyday people
speaking primarily in unison, as in the Greek theater. Also in keeping with Greek tradition,
they began the show with a prologue followed by a “parados” in which the chorus
introduces the story. Iris reunited the cast from 1984: The Future Repeats Itself – Chazz Dean,
Kurt Fulton, Melanie Monios, and James Siena – and added James’ sister Maggie Siena and
friend Kim X Knowlton, who had both recently moved to New York City. Rehearsals began in
the dog days of August 1983 at James and Iris’ home – a spacious but raw building that had
once been a bank in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Prologue: Maria

Searching at the library for further information on the Jahnke case, Iris found an article in
People magazine that described Mrs. Jahnke’s life after her husband’s death. In the
aftermath of the tragedy, her neighbors had rallied around her, and the formerly reclusive
woman, who had been isolated by her dictatorial husband’s demands, developed her first
real friendships since her marriage. She also began attending aerobics classes and lost
weight. The article contained her unexpected statement, “My son has freed me.” This
provided the basis for the prologue, with Maggie as Maria performing Frankensteins for Wife,
Mother, Neighbor, and Friend and the Emblems Pain, Lover, Scheme, Isolation, Fear, and
Freedom. She wore a housedress and an old-fashioned starched-gauze mask of a beautiful,
moon-faced woman. The vintage mask, appropriately, was slightly battered and
misshapen. The prologue ended with the Emblem Freedom: unzipping an invisible, vertical
zipper, then parting the two sides and stepping out.

Parados: House of Jahnke

In the parados – Greek for introduction – that followed, the chorus familiarized the audience
with the family members as they were just before their move to Wyoming. In addition to
Maggie as the subservient, Puerto Rican mother, these included: James as the bullying IRS
agent father in a generic plastic mask depicting a large, angry man; Chazz as Richie, the
compliant teenage son, in a generic cute young boy mask; and Iris in an expressionless,
blank, white mask as the depressed, withdrawn teenage daughter, Deborah.

Richard Sr. dominated the scene with Frankensteins for Drill Sergeant, Prize Fighter, Street
Fighter, and Taxman. The chorus occasionally illustrated their words with Emblems such as
First Blow, Turtlenecks, and Paranoia as they revealed his violent temper:

The Richard that returned from Korea was not the same man
He began to beat her
He began to beat her two small children
She began to talk of leaving
He began to threaten
No other man will ever have you
No other man will you have
No other man, no other home
No other two small children

Though Frankensteins usually included four elements – face, voice, hands, and movement –
for the Jahnke family, the face element was dropped since they were masked. A
Frankenstein for Teen, for example, performed by Iris as Deborah:

Hello, I… mmmm
Hello, my… hmmm

Twist fingers
Look at nails

Step right, hand out
Step left, hand out
Take notes

On the line “32 guns in his collection, 32 no-nonsense threats,” each of the seven performers
executed his or her own Emblem for the word Gun. The following were all Emblems for Gun –
Kim’s: hands up, right hand slides down to become gun with left hand on bicep; James’: left
arm out, hit head with right fist; Kurt’s: fists out from waist, out, in; left fist out, hand open, head

The parados ended with a sub-section called “Cowboy Country,” named for the housing
tract where the Jahnkes took up residence in Wyoming. All seven performers moved and
chanted in unison in a straight line across the front of the stage. Below are the Emblems
chosen to illustrate each phrase:

Where’s the kids? Git ‘em in here (Emblem for Campfire)
Round ‘em up, git ‘em in here (Emblem for Buffalo)
Hitch it up, hitch up your petticoat (Emblem for Indians)
Hitch up that petticoat and git it in here (Emblem for Sheriff)
I’m gonna tame this horse, I’m gonna tame this woman (Emblem for Hardship)
I’m gonna tame this country (Emblem for Survival)
I’m gonna mount this carcass and tame her (Emblem for Dead Animal)
The day I done found you was the day I done made you a woman, woman
(Emblem for Rodeo)
Do you want the back of my hand? (Emblem for Sheriff)
Or do you want to go back where you came from? (Emblem for Isolation)
Or do you want to get shot in the back? (Emblem for Shootout)
Or do you want to get ‘em in here? (Emblem for Buffalo)
Coyote howling at my back, get ‘em outta here (Emblem for Rocks)

There’s a big country out there, bigger than a sunset (Emblem for Empty Skies)
A home where the jackalopes roam (Emblem for Endless Prairie)
A single story, eight room, $150,000 ranch house on Cowpoke Road
(Emblem for Housing Tract)
And we’re taking our whole show over there (Emblem for Territoriality)

The source words for the Emblems were chosen from a list of associations contributed by all of
the participants, inspired by the phrase “cowboy country.” Images not chosen include
Hangings, Whores, Pie on a Windowsill, and Sliding Drinks Down a Bar. Cast members were
assigned one or two of the words and asked to create an Emblem for each and teach it to
all the other performers, since the section was to be performed in unison. The completed
Emblems were then matched with specific lines in the script based on how the physical
actions illustrated the text, rather than on any connection between the text and the original
word that inspired the Emblem. The script for “Cowboy Country” was edited from a Jam
generated by the original list of Western images.

Episode 1: Dinner Table

This section included four brief scenes establishing the ordinary, daily life of the Jahnkes. The
actions were realistic but simplified and stylized. In the first scene, a neighbor played by Kurt
welcomed Mr. Jahnke to the neighborhood, but had the door slammed in his face. In the
next, Deborah was sexually harassed and ultimately abused by her father. In the third
scene, the father and mother traded stories of their own childhood abuse.

For the last scene, the family gathered around the dinner table. Dad insisted that the family
was eating too loudly and made everyone eat with their hands. He then launched into a
tirade of insults and exited after decreeing that all future meals would be with plastic forks.
This episode ended with Maria, on her knees, offering up the following prayer:

Dear God in heaven, for the sake of my innocent children, I pray – please,
may he be hit by a car!


In Teenagers, Richie, Deborah, and the chorus, as other teens, discussed their daily life. Each
statement was accompanied by an Emblem, some of which were repeated. Richie
performed Emblems for ROTC, Isolation, and Distrust; Deborah for Intellectual, Violated, and
Revenge; and the chorus for Teenagers, Smug, Disgust, Accusing, and Ridicule.


This section, like most of the action in the show, was based on actual events in the life of the
Jahnkes Iris found in her research. It began with a stylized depiction of a violent incident in
which Richard Sr. dragged Richie down the basement stairs by his hair and then beat him.
After the beating, Chazz unobtrusively changed his mask from the cute little boy to one
representing a bandaged invalid with an expression of suffering.

Richie told his ROTC instructor about the abuse and the father was reported to child services,
but a subsequent visit from a social worker had little effect on the family dynamic:

Mr. Jahnke appears to have an explosive temper and has a hard time controlling it.

Richie and Deborah:

Mrs. Jahnke appears to be completely dominated by her husband.

Richie and Deborah:

Mr. Jahnke probably used too much force in disciplining his son.

Richie and Deborah:

A one time, substantiated incident.
File it.
You certainly have a beautiful home.
A two-minute phone call, two weeks before the shooting –
Maria said, “Everything’s fine”

Everything’s fine.

November 16

The penultimate section was named for the date of the crime. It began with a frozen tableau
of family violence illustrating a quote from Richard Sr. that was not spoken: “I’ll really give
you something to talk to the sheriffs about – if you can speak.”

As the other family members stood against the back wall, Richie spoke without movement
into the microphone:

Before, I had respect. Everyone looked up to me. Now I had dirt on my image. My dad
said, “People are assholes. Never tell them your problems.” I sleep with one eye open.

The subsequent lines were spoken without movement, and each was followed by the chorus
counting to ten as the family moved into a tableau. The chorus double-clapped once the
Jahnkes were in their final positions. This ten-count-and-clap procedure was repeated
between each line and its corresponding tableau.

Your hair needs combing.
(Following tableau – Dad slaps Deborah as Richie watches)

Please stop!
(Following tableau – Richie pushes Dad against the wall and Deborah punches Dad’s
shoulder while Maria begs them to stop)

Mom, wasn’t that great? We all stuck together.
(Following tableau – Richie and Deborah celebrate; Maria is torn)

I’ve had enough of this.
(Following tableau – Maria throws a can of cat food at crouching Richie)

Happy anniversary.
(Following tableau – Maria tells on Richie to furious Dad)

I don’t know how, but I’m going to get rid of you.
(Following tableau – Dad pins down Richie; with his other hand, he shoves Deborah
back into her room)

You’re so good to me. I love you.
(Following tableau – Maria hugs Dad while Richie cleans the floor)

What a disgusting piece of shit you turned out to be.
(Following tableau – Parting threat to Richie from Dad as he and Maria exit)

As Richie made his decision and prepared for the attack on his father, urgent exchanges
between Richie and Deborah escalated the tension. Between the spoken lines they
performed pairs of Frankensteins, such as Richie doing a Frankenstein for Protector and
Deborah doing one for Despair. This alternation was interrupted at one point when they
performed the seven Emblems for Gun from Parados: House of Jahnke, though each
executed them in a different, random order. At the same time, the chorus listed the seven
weapons that Richie deployed in various parts of the house.

M-1 Carbine
Ruger Mini-14 rifle
Colt 45 automatic
Shotgun on the ping-pong table
.30-06 rifle
.38 revolver
Dad’s riot gun, a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun

The anxious exchanges between Richie and Deborah culminated with the following,
delivered at maximum intensity:



What about Mom? Are you going to kill her too?

No, I’m not.


As the parents were shown returning from their anniversary dinner at the back of the stage,
the teens remained at the front. Richie shot a loud cap gun over the heads of the audience
and Richard Sr. dropped to the stage with Maria on her knees beside him. November 16
ended with:

I can’t believe I did it. Let’s get the hell out of here.

He looked at me and he was smiling.

My brother shot my dad.

It was for past things.

Thank you, thank you.

The Trial

Throughout the trial, the dead body of Richard Sr. lay immobile where he had fallen at the
back of the stage. Many of the lines for this section were taken directly from Richard Jr.’s
trial for murder as quoted in newspaper accounts. The Trial script At various times, the chorus
represented the prosecution, the defense, and outraged voices of the community on both
sides of the issue.

After the verdict was pronounced, the chorus performed a series of Emblems called “The
Cycles of Nature” while slowly chanting:

Violence begets violence. Thousands of parents, thousands of children. Richard and
Maria begat Richard and Deborah. Shall the state take the place of the father? Richard
and Maria begat violence and violence begat Richard and Deborah. Where will the
chain of crime end?

During the speech, Dad rose from the dead wearing a grinning skull mask and danced in a
tight circle while quietly, rhythmically chanting:

The before of the aftermath of the beginning of the aftermath of the before of the
aftermath of the beginning…

The show ended with Maria’s prayer, delivered toward the audience:

Dear God in heaven, about that man before you, the one who was once my husband,
the father of my children, may his soul rot in hell!

House of Jahnke was intended to be the first in a trilogy of American tragedies based on true
stories of violence within families representing three different social classes, with the Jahnkes
representing the middle class. The second in this series was Camden, a twenty-minute solo
opera about a welfare mother who drowned her four children, written and performed by Iris
with music by Joshua Fried. Unfortunately, no third, upper class story ever completed the