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The Working Theater Keeps The Spotlight On The People

May 20, 2019

By Joe Maniscalco

Members of 32BJ take the stage with the Working Theater. Photo credit P. Kevin O’Leary.

New York, NY – Worker issues usually don’t bubble up and take centerstage in this town until there is a job action or strike — but the Working Theater is on a dedicated mission to shake up that paradigm, continually cultivating fresh new voices from within the labor community and bringing them straight to working class audiences throughout the five boroughs.  

Since 1985, the Working Theater has produced worker-centric Off-Broadway productions with the expressed aim of “bringing theater to the people.” In 2001, the Working Theater took that idea even further, launching an instructional playwriting and performance series called “TheaterWorks!” 

Over the course of the last couple of decades, trade unionists from District Council 37, Transport Workers Union Local 100, Social Services Employees Local 371, 32BJ SEIU, CWA Local 1180 Retirees and others have all participated in the immersive program.

Most recently, members of the Professional Staff Congress [PSC-CUNY], in conjunction with the Labor of Care Archives have taken part in the TheaterWorks! program delving into the stories of full-time workers who must also serve as the primary caregivers for sick or elderly family members. 

The Working Theater’s TheaterWorks! program is giving working people a venue to develop compelling and intimate stories about their lives.

“We’ve done two sessions with them now, and some cool stories have come out of that,” Managing Director Laura Carbonell Monarque recently told LaborPress. “Some people have been able to pursue their passion [for theater], while for others, it’s something they did as a kid, but then never thought about again because they’ve been working for the past however many years. All of a sudden, they have an opportunity to awaken that little bug.”

“We are unique,” Producing Artistic Director Mark Plesent says. “I don’t know of any other adult education program like this — certainly in theater.”

As a theater specially created to dramatize the lives of working men and women, one might expect most of the emerging stories and themes to revolve around mundane workplace issues — gripes, grievances and so forth. But the folks at the Working Theater say workers are just as eager to produce a great love story as they are a hard-hitting piece about a sit-down strike.

“There’s a universality about the stories of working people,” Plesent says. “We want to directly address the issues that working people are facing and amplify those issues to the broader public.”

Sometimes, learning how to tell very personal stories about your working life functions as a kind of therapy and a way, as Carbonell Monarque says, “to work things out.” 

A scene from the Working Theater’s “Alternating Currents.”

“We’ve definitely had feedback that these classes have done that for people,” the managing director says. “And like any sort of continuing education class, it only further enriches the rest of your life to talk about your personal story; to learn how to express it.”

Plesent says, “It’s this way of pulling you out of your life and looking at it with other people around. You’re supported. A lot of people talk about the supportive environment that allows them to tackle tough issues.”

The Working Theater has branched out even further since its inception way back in 1985, reaching straight into communities across the five boroughs with “Five Boroughs/One City” — a program that seeks to develop new productions directly with area residents. 

So far, five plays have been commissioned, all in various stages of development. Last year, the Working Theater partnered with IBEW Local 3  and spent nine months developing “Alternating Currents” — a story about newlywed electricians — with the residents of Electchester, Queens. Another play developed in Bushwick, Brooklyn takes a hard look at the fallout from gentrification. Still another, looks at racial tensions on Staten Island.

For some, their Working Theater experience has served to propel them further into the arts. A number of TheaterWorks! productions have gone on to be produced at regional theaters across the country. Playwright Rob Ackerman’s “Tabletop” enjoyed a a successful commercial run and has since been optioned by HBO. His latest, “Dropping Gumballs On Luke Wilson” premieres June 11, at the Mezzanine Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street @ 10th Avenue.

“I don’t know if it’s us or just the general culture that’s changing — but when we started, we used to say that out of the 102 plays that are listed in the New York Times, only two of them deal with issues that are of interest to working people,” Plesent says. “I think now that’s shifted pretty dramatically.”

The Classic Stage Company, for example, just wrapped up a rousing theatrical run of playwright Marc Blitzstein incendiary 1937 pro-labor classic “The Cradle Will Rock.” 

“That wasn’t the kind of thing CSC would have produced 20 years ago,” Plesent says. “I don’t know that we had anything to do with it — but I think us constantly being there; being like, no, working people’s stories are important — and universal — it’s not just stories about a laborer wanting to start a labor union. It’s not just meant for labor at all — it’s meant for the general public.” 

Throughout its years of continued growth and success, the Working Theater has never had a show make it to Broadway. But that could change, too. 

“Broadway’s changing, so you never know,” Plesent says. “Broadway is much more willing to try stuff they wouldn’t have 10 years ago.”

May 20, 2019

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