Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Teens Turn the Tragedy of History into Theater

Today we have a guest-blog from Ryan Gilliam, Artistic/Executive Director, Downtown Art.

Many New Yorkers are familiar with the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was a devastating event and launched a determined and ultimately successful campaign to improve factory working conditions early in the last century.

The young workers who died in the fire, most of them women, many of them girls still in their teens, are remembered each year on the fire’s anniversary. Their names are chalked on the sidewalk outside the tenements where they once lived. This spring, on March 25, 2011, the 100th anniversary of the fire will be commemorated with a whole host of events.

I’m a playwright and theater director who has chosen to work with teens for the past twenty years. I admire young people and have long sought to be a champion for their capacities and talents. A year or so ago, I began my own journey to discover who the young seamstresses of the Triangle Factory had been before they became victims of that terrible fire. I found their story to be remarkable.

These young women, most of whom were immigrants and only a handful of whom had any experience with the labor movement, managed to sustain one of the first major strikes by women, a general strike which sought a 52 hour work week, a 20% pay increase, and union recognition.

The strike, which lasted through a cold and bitter winter, was controversial, and the girls found themselves facing intimidation and violence on the picket lines as well as harsh treatment from the police and the courts. Their plight galvanized middle and upper class women to join them on the picket line, which became front page news.

The courage and perseverance of these young women in the strike of 1909/10, often called the "Uprising of the 20,000" inspired me to write The Waistmaker’s Opera. The opera premiered last May, and the heartfelt responses from our audiences were deeply moving.

We had the pleasure of performing an excerpt of the opera last week at the Tenement Museum's Tenement Talks series, as part of a program featuring author Philip Dray, whose new book, There is Power in a Union, has just been released.

This Saturday, September 25, we will open it again for two weekends. We perform our modern rock opera (original score by Michael Hickey) with a company of fifteen teen girls and a band of teen musicians. Act 1 moves through the streets after its start at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Act 2 takes place in one location, a vacant lot on East 3rd Street, and the audience is seated.

To work with a company of young women the same age as the shirtwaistmakers has been a powerful experience for me. It is too easy for adults to overlook the contributions of teens to this city - to our lives, even - and The Waistmaker’s Opera is an effort to remember how young women, a hundred years ago, changed us not only with the tragedy of their deaths but with the courage of their lives.

-- Ryan Gilliam

For information on performances of The Waistmaker’s Opera, please visit our website at

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