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Chapter 2: To Look Ahead, Look Backwards

Maryo 11-05 b If I could take a trip in  a magic time machine back to a single moment in history,  I'd be beamed to Broadway on that night in June, 1937, when Orson Welles' production of Marc Bliztein's The Cradle Will Rock opened -  despite all the attempts to shut it down.

Have you seen Tim Robbins' film, Cradle Will Rock?  If not, rent it and watch it tonight.  It's a terrific film, the cast is remarkable (John Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, Bill Murray, Ruben Blades, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro...), and the story – well, stories – are breathtaking.  Three stories are woven together:  Diego Rivera's mural at Rockefeller Center challenging the domain of “art” as defined by the rich and powerful.  Hallie Flanagan of the Federal Theatre testifying before the Dies Committee (later called the House Un-American Activities Committee). Orson Welles building the production of Blitztein's musical.   Called “a mostly true story” by Robbins, this film will suck you in.  Yes, details have been changed or embroidered, but the base stories are absolutely true.

And my time-machine moment?  Well, the Federal Theatre was coming under fire for being too radical at this time in the life of the New Deal, and, per Flanagan's book Arena: The Story of the Federal Theatre, “there were rumors in Washington that [The Cradle Will Rock] was dangerous” for it addressed issues of labor unions, strikes, free speech, and justice.  In mid-June, a letter had come from Washington prohibiting the opening of “any” new play between then and July 1 for budgetary reasons; but since The Cradle Will Rock  was the only show slated to open, the targeting wasn't subtle.  The actors' union and musicians' union forbade their members to performing in it. Armed guards sealed the theatre building.  How Welles figured out a way around this was brilliant and I guarantee you goosebumps.

Yes, the night when The Cradle Will Rock opened anyway is the moment I'd visit.

These days, I look backwards when I'm trying to look ahead.   I faintly recall from my distant student past that there's a theory called “Kondratiev Cycles,” embraced by some economists, that suggests that economic cycles go in roughly 40-year periods.  So I like to look back about 40 years to see what was happening in the United States that could maybe help inform our future.  We go back roughly 40  years to remember the struggles for dignity and justice that birthed powerful groups like El Teatro Campesino or the Free Southern Theater. Go back another 40 years to revisit the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism ... (Sound familiar?)  And out of the Great Depression, under Roosevelt's leadership, came that bold group of Federal One programs that put artists, writers, theatre folk and musicians to work.

I started by alluding to the Federal Theatre, so let me stay focused there. The Theatre was envisioned to be “national in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in allowing each local unit freedom under these general principles.” (This and other quotes are from Arena.)  “Theatre” was defined broadly, and the scores of local units in all states included “classics” as well as new plays, serious plays and fluffier plays, puppetry, dance, radio theatre, vaudeville, religious drama, children's theatre, a new form called Living Newspaper that addressed issues like rural electrification, agricultural subsidies,  and more.  There were ethnically-specific companies like the Negro Theatre units or Yiddish Theatre units performing both new plays dealing with questions that mattered to their cultural audience, as well as existing plays that were adapted. There were also plays performed in Yiddish, Spanish, French, German, Italian and more.  There were even 58 troupes that toured by “army truck, buses and ambulances” - what an image! - to the Civilian Conservation Corps camps and performed over 5000 shows in the camps alone; and  theatre companies of enrollees in the camps were started, too.  The plays were critically acclaimed, by and large.  It was estimated that the Federal Theater played to more than 25 million people in its four-year life.

Flanagan said, “I do not believe that anyone who worked on it regrets that it stood from first to last against reaction, against prejudice, against racial, religious, and political intolerance.  It strove for a more dramatic statement and a better understanding of the great forces of our life today; it fought for a free theatre as one of the many expressions of a civilized, informed and vigorous life.  Anyone who thinks that those things do not need fighting for today is out of touch with reality.” 

Flanagan closes the story of the Federal Theatre by posing questions that she was wrestling with as a result of her experience.  She is addressing these questions to us.  To you and me.

●    She tells the story of the Los Angeles Chief of Police who linked the Federal Theater with his efforts to reduce delinquency. Later, she asks us: why cannot academic programs train students to “work in the theatre in relation to therapeutics, education, and community welfare?”  as well as to simply train students for the professional/commercial stage
●    She reflects that the Federal Theatre's greatest personnel need was for youth, and asks the future to create and finance theatres “vital enough to absorb youth”
●    She wonders whether the regions, ultimately the states, of the United States, couldn't each have their own “unique, indigenous dramatic expression, its company housed in a building reflecting its own landscape and regional materials, producing plays of its past and present, in its own rhythm...”
●    And she ultimately wonders whether government shouldn't embrace the subsidy of such theatres, for they are a necessity in a democracy: “a necessity because in order to make democracy work the people must increasingly participate; they can't participate unless they  understand; and the theatre is one of the great mediums of understanding.”  Such a theatre captures the diversity of America, a diversity that's essential to ensure that the United States does not become a totalitarian state.  Such a theatre is a life force: “Creating for our citizens a medium for free expression ... and offering the people access to the arts and tools of a civilization which they themselves are helping to make, such a theatre is at once an illustration and a bulwark of the democratic form of government.”

How appropriate it is, I think, to look back to another time of financial collapse, worldwide upheaval, the rise of totalitarianism - and the struggle of the Federal Theatre to help define and redefine the meaning of democracy in the United States.  Can we arts folk – whether we are working for community theatres in tiny towns, or working for state arts agencies, or making art in our studios or with people in neighborhoods – recognize that this might, finally, be the time when we can be at our greatest, as a force in American life?  That we can, together, finally engage the public in the most important question of all:  what democracy means in America. Considering what is worth, together, creating, investigating, building, and fighting for?

I don't recall a time when I have felt so hopeful, so full of faith, so optimistic.  Maybe, just maybe, the time is finally right for erasing the antiquated oppositions of fine, folk, and community arts; the antiquated oppositions of high art and pop art; the antiquated oppositions of commercial, nonprofit, and informal arts like singing in church choirs.  Instead of useless cataloguing, re-boxing, and further isolating the arts from the daily life of Americans, can we come together and say, “This is about the most important thing of all, that thing that matters to all of us: democracy. And this is about how the creativity that we all possess examines and expresses and builds democracy.”  As a field, we've never done that. Voices like Hallie Flanagan's from the '1930's, or W.E.B. DuBois' from the 1900's , or Percy MacKaye's from the 19teens, or Robert Gard's from the 1950's, or so many others, have been urging us to do that, for over a century.  Maybe the “tipping point” is at hand.

It's up to us. It will take a lot of work, listening, and letting go of our hard-won toeholds and perhaps more easily-won arrogances. 

But too much is at stake. Democracy itself is at stake.  We must try.

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Comments

Jeff Prauer

I think it's wonderful to have this positive voice, Maryo, for the opportunity we have to impart the intrinsic value of the arts. We need to not only stop "re-boxing" the arts, as you say, but also do more to un-box. It seems to me that when we talk about "the arts," we in the field know what we mean, but a lot of other people have no clue. A few years ago, I was part of a group visiting various state legislators during Minnesota's annual Arts Advocacy Day. We were talking to a newly-elected middle-aged conservative legislator from a small rural community who said that arts in education was much less important than math and science. So we asked him if he could remember any arts experiences from his high school days. "Well, I was in the school play, but that's not really arts." And then all of a sudden you could see on his face that a light bulb had illuminated in his head as he realized, probably for the first time, that he had indeed participated in "the arts," and that it made a difference in his life. It was a wonderful moment, but also scary that heretofore he thought about the arts as something else. We have a lot of demystifying to do, but perhaps this is indeed "our time" to do so.

Palli Davis Holubar

Maryo- I'm typing out loud here... just retreated in from a studio that can't get warm enough to sustain my will for the manual labor this object now requires.

I have some hope that our economic downturn will serve to displace the reign of the business of the arts...he arts are the business of living. The Living Newspaper, the Photography Unit, the Craft/Design Studios of the thirties also served as integrationists between the classes and the art-makers and the consumer product workers. The fact that money was needed to live= for everyone to work, whatever the work= created a common ground for all to be both actor and audience. There was equal status for the artist world and the audience world. People whose life was about honing the life skills of art found a generative give and take with others who had not had the leisure or the environment to acknowledge those needs or skills in their own lives. The Depression was a great equalizer, a time for empathy by osmosis. People came to the arts work, this-their government job= gave them the time to learn the work, the value of the work and the measure of the work- because their co-workers, artists, were being paid to make art.
Will this time, our time, be an equalizer? This time now stands a better chance for lasting change because so many of the artificial barriers of race, gender, age and physical abilities have been revoked. But it worries me that classism has a renewed twist of economic separtatism that will evade the goals of empathy that unself-consciously pushes the making and, learning from, the arts to its highest honor. Palli Davis Holubar

Terry Bush

I would echo the sentiment of hope expressed in earlier comments. My greatest hope is for fundamental change in the way we think about some things.

Version 1.0 of my career was spent in community arts, founding a visual arts center that is still there some 30 years later. Along with my many positive memories of that experience, one negative one persists -- the fights between the "fine" and "community" arts people on the board. I thought then (and continue to believe) that it's a distinction meaningful only to the people who love to talk about it. For the rest of us, who simply want to enjoy the artist's work, labels and lineage are largely irrelevant.

This experience has helped formed my view that we, as a society, have lost track of who or what our 'enemies' really are. Our politics have become winner take all, scorched earth campaigns that pit Dems against Reps, and liberals against conservatives in collective blame-fests to find the enemy. With all due respect to Pogo, we aren't the enemy -- the common problems that we face are. While we've been busily engaged in blaming each other, these problems have grown to such magnitude that they may well kill us.

The arts have always had power to bring us together in song or dance or theater or so many other ways. Now is the time that we need the community-building power of the arts to be unleashed. It no longer matters (if it ever did) whether we come together for a symphony or for a bar band. We need each other and I can think of no other force in contemporary society that has as much power to bring people together. Nor can I think of another one that is even trying.

Armil@broadway shows in new york city

Yes , I would prefer that event too. Because most of my time in my past years, was really unprofitable. I've just used it so other things. Then now I already keep wanting to watch Broadway until the last breath.

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