“A story that needs to be told”

As fights for fair labor continue, Waiting For Lefty is a timely revival at Quintessence Theatre Group

5 minute read
Black & white photo of 10 men onstage in suits, many of them raising a fist. Silhouetted audience members also raise fists
A scene from the original Broadway production of 'Waiting For Lefty' in 1935. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

“Show, don’t tell” is often called the golden rule of playwriting, and Clifford Odets followed it with a premiere that nearly brought the walls of the theater crashing down—literally. Now considered an American classic, his Waiting For Lefty challenged the status quo with a provocative narrative on labor conditions amongst taxi drivers. On January 6, 1935, its explosive ending stirred a clamorous, emphatic response from audiences at the Civic Repertory Theatre’s opening-night benefit. After 28 curtain calls that evening, audiences began to pour into the streets as they erupted in both argument and celebration.

That sounds dramatic, but the scene still resonates today. Just last year, Local 397 PMA Union issued a call to further action as union employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art implemented their first-ever public strike—beginning with one day on September 16, 2022, and then a 19-day strike beginning on September 26. Talks and negotiations had proven ineffective; union president Adam Rizzo defined the strike as a means to “show them that we can shut the museum down.”

As in any great drama, the collision of interests between workers and management escalated to a climax, threatening the opening of the PMA’s major new Matisse exhibition. Fortunately, on October 14, the union and museum leadership reached an agreement in Fairmount. But as in great playwriting, this movement’s momentum may never cease.

“Still fighting these battles”

Local audiences have a chance to experience that energy onstage, with Quintessence Theatre Group’s upcoming production of Waiting For Lefty (running at Mt. Airy's Sedgwick Theater January 18 through February 4, 2023). The piece recalls not only the recent events at PMA, but a history of working conditions that demand attention and recognition.

A few dozen people march in a circle holding protest signs outside the north entrance at the PMA.
Scene from the fall 2022 strike at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photo by Emily Brewton Schilling.)

“It’s always great to find a classic play that resonates in the current moment,” says director Kyle Haden, but “it’s hard to believe we’re still fighting these battles … and it feels like a story that needs to be told.”

The connections to recent strikes at Amazon and Starbucks may be obvious, but labor disputes loom large in the theater industry, as well. Just around the time Waiting For Lefty premiered on Broadway, commercial theaters in the United States increasingly witnessed disputes over labor conditions.

In 1893, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) emerged and pledged its support in amending unfair and inequitable practices in the industry. The union still exists today.

In the 1920s, a radical initiative called the Workers Theatre Movement materialized to varying degrees of notoriety in the United States. The movement largely lost its momentum in the 1950s.

Poor publishing practices in the 19th century led to the establishment of the Author’s League in 1912. Playwrights took heed in 1919 as they diverged from the league to form the Dramatists Guild. The Guild authorized a strike against producers in 1926 to set a minimum standard on royalty agreements.

AEA and the New Deal

Then, of course, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) was founded in 1913 and received federal recognition in 1919. The first fully recorded theatrical strike in United States history took place in 1919 with demands for equitable compensation and improved working conditions. According to AEA, “the strike lasted 30 days, spread to eight cities, closed 37 plays, prevented the opening of 16 others and cost millions of dollars.” More recent Broadway strikes in 2007 and 2017 have similarly collided with the interests of commercial theaters, which both challenged production ethics and pledged to uphold the integrity of those working tirelessly to make it all happen.

In 1935, a New Deal initiative entitled the Federal Theatre Project became a causeway for theater workers during the Great Depression. Government funding returned unemployed artists and technicians to their craft and for a brief moment the dream of subsidizing artistic labor seemed like a reality. However, fears of communist infiltration soon closed the door on this project.

Theatrical labor

Theatrical labor itself becomes relevant to Waiting For Lefty beyond the mere parallel subject of a strike, with the play’s status as an “actor’s play.” Haden himself notes that his first introduction to Odets was in a scene-study class his junior year of college. He comments on the structure of the play: “From a technical standpoint, there’s always a reason it’s one of the first to choose in an actor’s training. It checks off all the boxes.” This is a common sentiment amongst theater students and instructors alike. The script is not only dynamic, but fairly accessible and relatively exciting for an actor-in-training.

Haden, a Black man with short beard & blue sweatshirt, stands smiling with arms crossed outdoors in front of a brick building
Centering the humanity of individuals in labor conflicts: director Kyle Haden. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Haden.)

In 1935, original cast member Morris Carnovsky offered, “The play is a series of confrontations and actors really don't need to be told what a collision is like ... from one point of view it was an easy play to do. We recognized the types immediately. I would say that the matter of characterization was relatively easy.”

Haden agrees with that, for the most part, but he adds “it’s also easy to make the characters two-dimensional. There are certain traps we fall into.” So in rehearsal, they ask: “How do we make these characters feel like real people?”

What a strike shows

The relative straightforwardness of Waiting For Lefty is often considered part of its charm, but as Haden points out, there is so much more to the text than a vehicle for actors or a mere snippet of history. According to him, the play is not only (or even explicitly) about a political movement. It centers human experience and the interactions shared within inner circles. More specifically, Haden believes Waiting For Lefty centers the humanity of the individuals implicated in labor conflicts.

Much as a strike goes beyond mere “telling” and begins to “show” the onlooker the demands that must be met, Odets’s play strikes back at an audience expecting to be told how to feel. Moreover, just as strikers stand in solidarity, theater is centered in the collective. As Haden reminds us, “there is power in storytelling,” and we might do well to apply these lessons to our communities in other ways.

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