Sunday, October 23, 2011

It Can't Happen Here?: Reading at Dell'Arte Monday

On Monday (October 24), Dell’Arte joins a national celebration of the 1930s Federal Theatre Project with a reading of the play It Can’t Happen Here written by Sinclair Lewis, 75 years after its historic opening in 18 cities simultaneously. This time there will be readings in at least 20 locales, including Blue Lake.  Dell'Arte is a national sponsor along with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.  Darryl Henriques, formerly of the Mime Troupe and Dell'Arte's Joan Schirle are the principal organizers.

Among the 20 or so readings are by theatres including the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Ghost Road Theatre in Los Angeles, Bruka Theatre in Reno, Rogue Theatre in Tucson, the Desert Rose Playhouse in Albuquerque, the Anateaeus Company, DeafWest Theater in North Hollywood, and Locust Productions in Des Moines, Iowa.  There will be readings on university campuses, and at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. It will be read in a WPA-built amphitheatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and in Cleveland it will be accompanied by a short play about the original production in that city.

The play dramatizes how fascism might arise in America. Joan Schirle directs Michael Fields, Lynne Wells, Jackie Dandeneau, Marjorie Armstrong and other readers from Dell’Arte and the community, including me. I’ll also impart a little of the history and lasting impact of the Project and this play. It all starts at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. Admission is free but reservations are recommended.  Update: As Joan Schirle notes in the comments, the show is almost "sold out" so please call for any remaining reservations. (707) 668-5663.

As usual, I've done way too much research but it's been fascinating.  The following posts reflect some of what I've found.

It Did Happen Here: The Federal Theatre Project

Seventy-five years ago this week, there was a singular event in American history as well as American theatre: one play opened simultaneously in 18 cities, to overflow audiences. It Can’t Happen Here was a play about how a fascist dictatorship might take over the United States, written by Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This 1936 production was the most ambitious effort of the Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Progress Administration which sought to break the cycle of economic depression in the 1930s by employing millions of Americans in construction, conservation and other endeavors, including the arts.

The two people most directly responsible for the Federal Theatre Project were Harry Hopkins, the Roosevelt advisor who ran the WPA, and Hallie Flanagan, the Federal Theatre’s first and only administrator. They were midwesterners, and had been classmates at a small liberal arts college in Iowa, Grinnell College, where the arts were considered part of the fabric of life and knowledge. After a stint at Harvard studying playwriting, Flanagan returned to teach drama at Grinnell and became one of the first women to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, which she used to observe how theatre was done in European countries, including Russia, during a most creative period.

She then taught at Vassar, where she developed experimental theatre productions. She had just returned from another tour of European theatre, in Italy and Greece, when Harry Hopkins called her to Washington. Hopkins knew theatre and knew her work, but more surprisingly, so did Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. He knew about her because he’d been a Vassar trustee.

But she was doubtful she was the right person, and a little overwhelmed. Hopkins persisted, and brought her to a gathering of people already involved in the Federal Art, Music and Writers Projects. They all had spent some time in small towns, and they talked about the music teachers who had never heard a symphonic orchestra, the drama teachers and the children who had never seen a professionally performed play. She was impressed that none of them doubted that she would find talented actors and other theatre professionals on the relief rolls, capable of creating good theatre, and taking it everywhere. Hallie Flanagan joined up.
Hallie Flanagan
The Federal Theatre Project had two defining features: its primary purpose was to employ as many theatre professionals as possible, and its mission included making the fruits of their work available to as many Americans as possible.

Together this meant creating theatre across the country beyond New York, and bringing it to the people, with low ticket prices and by taking shows to new venues, including parks, hospitals and the streets for free. There were deliberate efforts to include minorities, as participants and as audiences. Emphasizing employment meant that while there was little money for materials, there were plenty of people to apply their creativity, ingenuity and enthusiasm to create productions with large casts and even larger ambitions.

Harry Hopkins

But those most responsible for the Federal Theatre Project also had large dreams for an American theatre and its role in lifting the country out of its Depression while creating the framework for the future—in the words of Hallie Flanagan, “not an art which would be an occasional unrelated accompaniment to everyday existence, but a functioning part of national life.”
In a time of relentless hardship for many, with “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” as President Roosevelt said, many of the Project's original productions were socially conscious. The Living Newspaper wedded journalism to theatre in a new way, and pioneered new multimedia techniques.

But Federal Theatre did much more. The Project produced classic plays for new audiences, such as Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, featuring Orson Welles in his first starring role. But it didn’t play just to the usual audience for classic revivals, Welles noted. “One had the feeling every night,” he said, “that here were people on a voyage of discovery in the theatre.”

In addition to integrated productions, there were 16 African American units—or Negro units as they were called then—which offered opportunities for black technicians as well as actors in non-stereotyped roles. They did classics and modern plays, and they did new plays by new black playwrights. The Harlem unit’s Macbeth (directed by Welles) was re-imagined as the story of a Haitian dictator. The Federal Theatre took this powerful and very popular production out on tour, to Dallas, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit and Cleveland.

Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot
A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Wilmington, Othello in Chicago, Twelfth Night in Oakland--Federal Theatre brought “Hamlet to every hamlet,” as one actor said. But it also mounted the first American production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. It staged Arms and the Man in San Diego, Ibsen’s Ghosts in Miami, Uncle Vanya in Los Angeles, Ah Wilderness in Des Moines, Room Service in San Francisco, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Springfield, Illinois.

The Federal Theatre brought plays in French to Los Angeles, in German to New York, in Spanish to Florida, in Italian across Massachusetts, and in Yiddish on both the East and West coasts.

There were plays about American history, several about Abraham Lincoln, including one about his early years and his relationship with Ann Rutledge, who was played by her great-grandniece, also named Ann Rutledge. It played for a year in New York and toured across the country in several productions.

There were plays about local history. Several were produced on the very spot they were about, such as one about the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Virginia that proved so popular that it is still running, every summer.

Federal Theatre broke the barriers between so-called high art and low, by producing slapstick comedy and modern dance, musicals and vaudeville (more than 2,000 performances), and even circuses (one employing the young Burt Lancaster.)

There was puppet and marionette theatre, and the Project introduced the concept of adults performing children’s theatre to America. One of its most popular productions was Pinocchio, a favorite of adults as well as children. Walt Disney and his technical staff saw it eight times in Los Angeles, shortly before Disney made Pinocchio his next animated feature, and copied aspects of the set. (There’s no record however, of Disney attending another Federal Theatre play called The Ballad of Davy Crockett.)

Many productions played for months, and some 45 major productions toured through cities and small towns. 65% of all FTP productions were given free in parks, hospitals, transient shelters, schools and CCC camps.

The total cost of the Federal Theatre Project was estimated at $22 million, or as actor Burgess Meredith said, half the cost of a battleship. Playwright Arthur Miller—who worked in the playwriting unit-- estimated that four or five FTP actors who went on to lucrative careers probably paid back the cost of the entire program in income taxes over the next 15 years. “I’m not exaggerating,” he said. “Their income tax probably paid for the whole damn thing.”

 There were problems—bureaucracy, all kinds of conflict, censorship and internal politics.  Federal Theatre in California provides examples of all the dynamics.  The structure of Federal Theatre was federal: the policies and final decisions were set in Washington, but states and individual theatre projects had local power.  But the Project itself was within the WPA, and the state WPA administrators had power.  In southern California it was a Colonel Connolly who ran his WPA with military discipline.  However at first he gave administrative responsibility to theatre people, and together with Hallie Flanagan they worked out a plan that (she wrote) was "the clearest and least expensive" and "was responsible for what was for the next two years one of the most vigorous Federal Theatres."

It happened so quickly that the first Federal Theatre show in the U.S. to be staged in a real theatre and charge admission opened in Los Angeles.  Together with units in San Diego, San Francisco and Oakland, California had everything: classics, modern plays, historical plays, contemporary plays (a musical satire of dictatorship), black theatre, dance drama, plays in French and Yiddish, children's theatre, revues, vaudeville, and the "Theatre of the Magic Strings" marionettes.  Shows were popular and lauded in reviews, even in Variety.

kids line up to see Alice in Wonderland in San Diego

But there was also accusations of immorality and subversion, and internally of theft and misappropriation of funds.  Everything was investigated, nothing was true.  Rivalries and jealousies joined a growing national undercurrent of suspicion (immorality and subversion again), until Colonel Connolly took control.  A play by Elmer Rice called (with uncomfortable irony) Judgment Day was cancelled, and Flanagan warned that she considered it censorship and would say so publicly.  It then became uncancelled, but postponed.  California productions began to turn towards musical theatre, though several superior productions were mounted.

The final glory of the California Project--and in some ways of the Federal Theatre--was at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, where some of the best of Federal Theatre (together with Music) was displayed, to enormous audiences and acclaim:  the Living Newspaper's One-Third of a Nation, the hit musical of the black theatre, Run, Little Chillun, a marionette version of Snow White, the dance theatre's American Exodus. But soon a new state WPA administrator tied everything in knots, a few incompetent people were appointed, and that was the end of California Federal Theatre.

Most of the 12,700 Federal Theatre employees at its
height worked backstage, like these seamstresses
All of this had happened in one way or another elsewhere in the country.  Administrators and local politicians who saw FTP as an opportunity to provide jobs for their favorites, and were disappointed,  wounded or killed their projects.  A single untrue rumor--that a show in a CCC camp featured a fan dancer--resulted in the entire state of Minnesota abandoning Federal Theatre.  There was no Federal Theatre unit in Washington, D.C., partly because no play was considered non-controversial enough to risk certain Congressman seeing it.  And so on.   

But mostly, in the end, the Federal Theatre Project was destroyed after just four years by external politics, by the same forces that would return to create the Blacklist and McCarthyism.
The WPA and New Deal programs in general left a visible legacy with buildings and bridges that still stand and serve, parks that still shimmer in the sunlight, murals that still grace the walls of post offices and court houses across America. While the legacy of the Federal Theatre Project is less obvious, it is just as real.

These 1200 stage productions in 35 states, reaching an audience of 3 million, were only part of what the Federal Theatre Project accomplished. The Project also produced 3 thousand radio programs a year, aired over commercial stations and networks.They included 15 minute programs on public safety, a series on The Seven Arts, on the development of Mayan culture, 12 one hour dramatizations of Ibsen’s plays, programs about the arts, about science, the Repertory Theatre of the Air , dramatized short stories by Scott Fitzgerald, work of Oscar Wilde and Jules Verne, and a series of Shakespeare for the air so popular that commercial networks started their own series.

Together these stage and radio productions inspired major motion pictures, and radio and television formats and shows for at least a generation. The performers, producers, directors and writers it nurtured and nourished went on to great accomplishments in all these media.

"Power" in Portland, Oregon

  The legacy for American theatre itself is wide-ranging. These productions led to innovations in lighting and other technical capabilities, as well as educational and outreach aspects of theatre productions. Its legacy is also found in theatre we take for granted now—Shakespeare in the Park, historical pageants, street theatre.

But the Federal Theatre did more than produce shows.  It encouraged community drama and dramatic training.  It established a National Service Bureau which sent synopses, scripts, bibliographies and translations to theatres around the country.  For particular productions--especially Living Newspaper shows--meticulous research was done to back every assertion with fact.  It conducted research into theatre and theatre history, leaving a rich legacy for scholars.  It began applying theatre to "psycho-drama" experiments as therapy in hospitals. It published a theatre magazine, and ran playwriting contests in CCC camps and colleges.

So this legacy lives in aspects of theatre education, communication, play translation and even the use of theatre for psychological and physical therapy. In all these ways, the Federal Theatre pioneered aspects of how community theatres operate, how theatres conduct and use research. In the relationship of some theatre units to their communities, they provide insights and experience in locally based theatre and theatre of place.

"Altars of Steel" in Miami
 Apart from keeping theatres alive and inspiring new ones through a dark time, this legacy is embedded in new generations of regional and community theatre artists and audiences. Above all, it lives in the unbroken chain of astonishment produced by the artistry, commitment, skill development and mentoring that the Federal Theatre continued and enhanced in those dark days when so much in America stopped.

The Federal Theatre provided a legacy of possibility, including evidence that a theatre of meaning is possible in America, and that it can reach through the fourth wall to engage and enrapture a popular audience. That’s one reason that the production of It Can’t Happen Here remains worthy of celebration.
Today the themes of It Can’t Happen Here still resonate—with people aligned all along the political spectrum. It’s famous on the Internet for the line, “When Fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” However, that line actually doesn’t appear in it.

It resonates particularly now, with economic conditions uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1930s.  Still, it's important to note the differences that bear on the play.  Private armies within the U.S. are part of its story--while we got fleeting glimpses of what that might be like in New Orleans after the hurricane, in the 1930s there were fresh examples of the Pinkertons and other private forces, plus the ostensibly public police serving industrialists, used to break strikes in various parts of the country.  (All this is noted by Jan-Ruth Mills in her paper, "Not a 'Simpler' Time," issued by the Rogue Theatre in Tucson, in connection with the readings Monday.)

The Federal Theatre production was controversial from the day it was announced. “Some people thought the play was designed to reelect Mr. Roosevelt,” wrote Hallie Flanagan. “Others thought it was planned in order to defeat him. Some thought it proved the Federal Theatre was communistic; others that it was New Deal; others that it was subconsciously fascist.”

The Birmingham production
 It was too much for a couple of cities. New Orleans officials feared it, St. Louis officials wanted to change its intent, so both productions were withdrawn. But theatres that embraced it were allowed to make it their own. The all-black production in Seattle emphasized what fascism does to minority groups, as did the Spanish version in Tampa. Each theatre staged it differently—in Birmingham it was done as a big political rally, in the Brooklyn-Queens production, the set suggested a whole town. The Yiddish version in New York, playing to recent refugees from Germany and Austria, was set against an encroaching darkness.

On opening night, the head of the League of New York Theatres called it “a bold adventure in a field we all ought to enter if we really want to keep the theatre throughout America alive.” By night’s end, telegrams from other cities—Bridgeport and Cleveland, Miami and Indianapolis, Omaha and Denver, Tacoma and Boston—told of capacity audiences and popular acclaim.
the Seattle production

Also opening successfully that night were two productions in Los Angeles (one in Yiddish), plus productions in San Francisco, Newark, Detroit, Bridgeport and Yonkers. Federal Theatre productions opened later in nine more cities, including Philadelphia and Des Moines.

It Can’t Happen Here played long runs in New York and elsewhere, and six units took it on tour. It was so popular that in 1938 Sinclair Lewis rewrote the script for a commercial run, in which he played the hero. It was revived several more times.

In fact, the script that most of us will be reading on October 24 is this revised script--it's shortened, more focused and with fewer characters.  The original script was by Lewis and screenwriter and playwright John C. Moffitt, which they finished while not speaking to each other--they were ensconced in different hotel suites, and communicated through Hallie Flanagan, who went back and forth.  The play wasn't even begun when the production was announced, and they changed it so frequently that they were driving the theatre directors crazy with changes--pages would arrive changing scenes they'd just been rehearsing.  Sinclair Lewis was so upset by the set in the big Manhattan theatre that Flanagan had to supervise the making of a new set the night before opening.  Some of the readings are using this original script (Cleveland) or scenes from it not included in this version (Seattle.)  Both contain elements of the novel, but are quite different.

Yet with the same play in at least 21 theatres in 17 states, nothing like that October 1936 opening night of the Federal Theatre production had ever happened before. And it has never happened since.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Who can resist discovering a magic world?  Brigadoon is one of the classic Golden Age musicals, but isn't performed as often as the others.  Now it's on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU, beginning Thursday (October 13) at 7:30 p.m. for two weekends (Thurs.-Sat.), including two Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.  It's the big musical produced by the HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance with the HSU Department of Music every two years.

The story: Leaving the cynical city (and its cynical musicals) behind, two New York men drift out of cell phone range into the Scottish highlands, where they discover an enchanted village that lives only for a day every 100 years, called Brigadoon. There they find new love and a different way to live. But can the magic last, and if it’s lost, can it be found again?

Brigadoon is the first Broadway hit by Lerner and Loewe, who later were responsible for My Fair Lady and Camelot.  The HSU production updates this 1947 show slightly to make the modern point of view relevant to today's audiences, but the timeless village of Brigadoon--and the great songs and music--remains the same.   Brigadoon is co-directed by Bernadette Cheyne and Richard Woods, with musical direction by Elisabeth Harrington. It has the special advantage (for me at least) of a full orchestra, playing the lush score that captures the spirit of Scotland, conducted by Paul Cummings.  Jeff O’Connor is the choreographer.

Miles Raymer plays Tommy Albright, a troubled young man from 2011 Manhattan, and Brandy Rose is Fiona MacLaren, the woman who wins his heart in Brigadoon. Philip de Roulet plays Charlie, and Jessi Shieman plays Jean, the Brigadoon couple about to be married as the play begins. Camille Morgan plays the playful Meg, Michael Thomas is Jeff (the other New Yorker), and Fran Whittman is Lundie.  There's much more information at HSU Stage & Screen and HSU Music, authored by yours truly.

There have been a lot of musicals in a row hereabouts (with a small one yet to come), but Brigadoon is the only one that's from the classic Golden Age of the Broadway musical, usually considered to be from the 1940s into the 1960s.  It's probably the least known of the first tier of those musicals, which definitely must include two other Lerner & Loewe shows, My Fair Lady and Camelot. 

The New York Drama Critics Circle named the original production the best musical of the year, praising its “thoughtful beauty” representing “the lyric theatre at its best.” Lerner (book and lyrics) and Loewe (music and vocal arrangments.) It includes the classic song, “Almost Like Being in Love.”

I don't want to get into full review mode here, but I did see it on opening night--and above all, I did hear it, all of it--which has sometimes been a problem in the Van Duzer Theatre.  Thanks in part to presentation, and in part to the new miking and sound system, this HSU musical is fully audible as well as visible.  Based on the music alone, I would advise not missing this opportunity.  The singing is terrific, and at times wonderful and moving. There are individual songs--yes, real Golden Age songs in a musical!--and some impressive choral singing.  The orchestra makes a big difference, too. 

The village of Brigadoon lives but one day, then disappears for a century.  When this show disappears, it could be a long time before there's another Brigadoon on the North Coast.

 David Kenworthy is scenic designer, Lynnie Horrigan designed costumes, Kitty Grenot the makeup, James McHugh lighting and Glen Nagy the sound. Brigadoon is on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU for one more weekend.  More information at HSU Stage & Screen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps is most famously a movie made by Alfred Hitchcock in England, before he relocated to Hollywood. It was preceded by the John Buchan novel and followed by several other film and TV versions, all from the UK.

In his published conversation with Alfred Hitchcock, fellow director Francois Truffaut observed that in the spy thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hitchcock was willing to “sacrifice plausibility in favor of pure emotion.” “Yes, that’s right!” was Hitchcock’s entire response. On stage, there’s no theatrical form more willing to sacrifice plausibility for emotion than farce, if the result is laughter.

 And it’s farcical comedy that Ferndale Repertory Theatre presents with Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage version of The 39 Steps, in which four actors play 150 characters.Well, it’s more like three actors playing 149 characters. Well, really it’s two actors playing 147 characters. You get the idea. There are four actors playing a lot of people—especially spies and femme fatales-- in a lot of different places, including a train and an airplane. The story more or less follows the plot of the movie (and the novel) at breakneck speed, in a script praised for its hilarity. Apparently getting all the Hitchcock references is a bonus.

At Ferndale, Gary Sommers plays the hero, Richard Hannay. Kyra Gardner plays the three women he encounters. Millie Casillas and Jeremy Webb play everybody else—assorted police officers, bad guys, a milkman, etc. And it’s all played for laughs.

 The story: Hannay is watching a stage show in London starring Mr. Memory, whose talent is that he remembers obscure facts. A shot rings out, a woman accosts Hannay, and he’s off on an adventure that takes him to Scotland and back, in pursuit of enemy agents, secret military plans and the mystery of whatever the 39 steps are.

 The intrigue and sleuthing genres have inspired many styles of spoofing. This is not the verbal and countercultural comedy of Firesign Theatre—it’s no Nick Danger, Third Eye (although a Dr. Memory does appear in another Firesign production.) It’s not exactly a film parody, in the manner of Neil Simon’s movie The Cheap Detective. It is mostly the Hitchcock story done as physical comedy, especially as directed by Dell’Arte grad Barney Baggett.

 “What I like in The Thirty Nine Steps are the swift transitions,” Hitchcock told Truffaut. “You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.” The play mimics that idea. The emphasis is on virtuoso character switches, slapstick and acrobatics. Which is fortunate, since bad Brit accents and an abundance of otherwise unintelligible dialogue don’t add much.

 The fast pace depends on stage magic performed by scenic and sound designer Dan Stockwell, lighting designer Greta Stockwell and costume designer Lydia Foreman, plus backstage managers Ben McBride and Juan Reynosa.

 Sommers threads the action with the appropriate awkward aplomb, Gardner is an appealing love interest, while Webb and especially Casillas display admirable clown skills. There are gaping holes in the story and this presentation, but that’s Hitchcock, too. If you’re expecting no more than a diverting show this may fit the bill, especially with a bag of the popcorn from the lobby.

 The 39 Steps continues weekends at Ferndale Rep through October 30. Tickets and information: (707) 786-5483,

Monday, October 3, 2011


"Theatre tells us who we are, and the health of the theatre is determined by how much we want to know."

Edward Albee