Peculiar Works Revives CAN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICES?, Opens 6/6
Peculiar Works Project (the OBIE Award-winning company founded in 1993; Co-Artistic Directors Ralph Lewis, Catherine Porter, and Barry Rowell), will present a revival of the Depression Era play "CAN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICES? (A Play of Our Time)" by Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford. The play, based on a true story by Whittaker Chambers that appeared in New Masses (March 1931), will be directed by Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell, and will have live music by Seth Bedford. Performances for the four-week engagement of "CAN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICES?" will begin on Thursday, June 3 at A Pop-Up Space, 2 Great Jones Street (between Broadway and Lafayette Street). The official opening night will be Sunday, June 6 at 7:00 p.m. (Performances will run through Sunday, June 27.)
Before the New Deal, Works Progress Administration and Federal Theatre Project, there was "CAN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICES?" written by Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford. The play, a carefully documented dramatization of a 1931 Arkansas drought, was, in its day, controversial in both form and content as it revealed a rural world of hunger and privation neglected by governmental bureaucracy. With today's frequent, casual use of labels like "Communist" and "Socialist," Peculiar Works Project mines this landmark agitprop play to uncover the meaning of such words in an earlier, yet similar era. The news media is constantly reminding us how our current economic situation is the worst "since the Great Depression" - what were the root causes for radical political movements then, and are there parallels today?
Flanagan and Clifford's play was adapted from a short story by Whittaker Chambers, an avowed communist at the time, although later known for exposing Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy to the House Un-American Activities Committee. (The pioneering Flanagan herself was also later called to testify before HUAC in defense of the political leanings of the Federal Theatre Project.) Chambers' true tale of desperate tenant farmers inspired a play that was ahead of its time: it predates John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath by eight years and Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty by four. Through today's lens, Flanagan and Clifford's dialogue in Voices often reads like a transcript from a political rally - whether Tea Party or Green Party - although it has its base in a depiction of real human poverty and suffering. Artistically, the play was also groundbreaking. It inspired Flanagan to experiment with techniques - documentary theater, multi-media - that later became integral to the Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspapers. PWP brings this experimentation into the 21st century with its site-specific performance and digital projection, in addition to color-blind, gender-blind and age-blind casting of an 11-actor ensemble performing the play's 35 roles. The cast will include (alphabetically): Tonya Canada, Patricia Drozda, Sarah Elizondo, Ken Glickfeld, Mick Hilgers, Christopher Hurt, Derek Jamison, Ben Kopit, Carrie McCrossen, Catherine Porter, and Rebecca Servon.
PWP's production of Voices in the vacant storefront at 2 Great Jones Street in Noho fits perfectly with the company's long-standing mission to "wake up" non-theater sites for theatrical performance. Although the temporary nature of this performance space is a sign of how far the NYC economy has fallen and the enormous glut of retails spaces that still exist all over town, it's also in line with a recent popular trend of "pop-up" shops and galleries - in this instance, Pop-Up Performance.
PWP's work has always had a passion for exploring historic art movements and how they influence and inspire performance today. In 2000, PWP created and produced an acclaimed large-scale performance, The Judson House Project, that examined a doomed Greenwich Village building that had been home to early Happenings and Fluxus events; and its 2006-07 OBIE Award-winning projects, OFF Stage: the West Village Fragments and OFF Stage: the East Village Fragments, took audiences to the sites of the first Off-Off Broadway theaters. "CAN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICES?" continues this exploration: with the national attention the original production brought to Flanagan and her Experimental Theater program at Vassar College, Voices is the play that launched the far-reaching, highly influential Federal Theatre Project. Where is its equivalent in our current recovery effort?
Hallie Flanagan (from Judith E. Barlow's Plays by American Women, 1930-1960, Applause Books) was the woman who had perhaps the greatest effect on the American theater in the 1930s. She was a playwright and director who would leave an indelible mark as the head of the Federal Theatre Project. Flanagan was a Vassar professor when she and co-author Margaret Ellen Clifford wrote Can You Hear Their Voices? It was one of the earliest and most compelling agitprop dramas written in this country. It was Clifford, a former student of Flanagan's, who suggested she read Chambers' story on which the play is based. The play was written rapidly and opened at Vassar on May 2, 1931, just two months after the story's publication.
While Can You Hear Their Voices? began its journey from Vassar with productions around the world (one of its most Popular Productions was by the Shanghai People's Theater) its authors moved on in their theatrical careers. Margaret Ellen Clifford founded a children's theater in Portland, Maine, and eventually joined the faculty of Skidmore College, where she served as chair and professor of theater from 1952 until her death in 1971. Flanagan continued her interest in political theater with productions at Vassar of We Demand, a drama about unemployment, and a work entitled Miners on Strike, before being tapped to head The Federal Theatre Project. Flanagan's vision for the Project was to bring theatre to the great majority of the American public who had never witnessed it, plus producing cutting-edge high-quality theatrical material. Though the program enabled the creation of a number of fine works, some argued over political agendas being delivered by plays. Concerns over works with messages deemed to be communistic and socialistic plagued Flanagan and the Theatre Project. Flanagan was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938.
After four years, the Federal Theatre Project was shut down and Flanagan returned to Vassar. Flanagan died in a nursing home in 1969. According to sources she was haunted in her later years by memories of her interrogation by HUAC. Like many of her colleagues in the thirties, Flanagan knew the power of theater to teach and inspire audiences-a credo that underlies her work as a director, administrator, professor and playwright. Although her canon of plays is small and uneven, her influence on the American theater was and is immense. In "CAN YOU HEAR THEIR VOICES?" Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Crawford fuse theatrical innovation with social conscience to produce a vital dramatic work about poverty and inequity that remains relevant today.
Directors Ralph Lewis and Barry Rowell are also writers and producers and along with Catherine Porter co-Artistic Directors of Peculiar Works Project. Both have directed extensively for PWP. (Both co-directed 3Christs for PWP. Lewis' other PWP directing credits include: Viet Rock, Den of Vice at The Judson House Project, and Jonah's Escape? Rowell's PWP directing credits include: Before I Wake, Freiheit Takes a Stand, and The Judson House Project.) Mr. Lewis is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. In New York City he has also worked with Hyperion Theatre Group, The Field, Prism Playhouse, and Turnip Theatre Company. In addition to his work with PWP, Mr. Rowell has directed for HERE's American Living Room, TheatreKore NYC, and adobe theatre.
The costume design will be by Deb O, lighting design by David Castaneda, the video design by Matthew Tennie, and the dramaturgy by Gwen Orel. The producing associate will be Cathy Carlton , and the production stage manager will be Susan D. Lange.
The complete performance schedule will be: June 3 through 27, Thursdays through Sundays at 7:00 p.m. Ticket prices for the previews on June 3, 4, and 5 will all be $10.00. (cash at the door/by credit card online). Beginning with the Opening Night on June 6 all tickets will be $18.00 ($15.00 for students and seniors) at the door (cash only); to order and charge online tickets will be $15.00 ($12.00 for students and seniors). TDF vouchers will be accepted. The box office number for reservations is 212-352-3101 or at www.theatermania.com/new-york/shows/can-you-hear-their-voices_168197/.