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5 Questions I’ve Never Been Asked: Ralph Lewis

However we may try setting our imaginations ablaze, however we may gobble up prose about other time periods and absorb descriptions of the atmosphere, environment and zeitgiest, however we may stretch our minds sufficiently to even picture ourselves there, people can only ever access the historical eras that came before us to a limited degree. I think about this a great deal. It may imply that I’m dwelling on the past, but I’d argue that I’m not so much dwelling as I am directing myself into times, places and spaces unavailable to me in their fullest measure.

When I read of the McCarthy era — as I did last month when I revisited Arthur Laurents’ autobiography Original Story By — it’s clear that the question of people informing on other people, despite Laurents’ lacerating recollections, has no completely satisfactory answer when contextualized within the dark initial years of the Cold War. Informing, as Jerome Robbins and Elia Kazan infamously did, was a despicable act. But who can know what the grisly, gruesome specter of McCarthy and blacklisting truly felt like if we weren’t there? And how could we know what it truly felt like without also shuttling ourselves to the 1930s — living through an economic collapse so spectacularly monumental that Communism — or at least a better organizing principle for mankind — could have seemed like such a positive idea?

It’s in the context of pondering such imponderables that Peculiar Works Project’s production of Can You Hear Their Voices?, by Hallie Flanagan and Margaret Ellen Clifford, appeals to my yearning curve and my learning curve. It was written in 1931, or about halfway through the cataclysmic presidency of Herbert Hoover, and about two years before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal laid the groundwork for salvaging the American dream.

The year 1931 was also well before the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Theatre Project, with which the redoubtable Flanagan will forever be associated. At the time, she was a Vassar professor; Can You Hear Their Voices? is based on a short story by Whittaker Chambers that revealed — as the press release for the current production puts it — “a rural world of hunger and privation neglected by governmental bureaucracy.” (Chambers, like Flanagan, came to a Rubicon moment later on when it came to Communism: the former memorably exposed Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy; the latter testified before the evil House Un-American Activities Committee in defense of the Federal Theatre Project.)

Ben Kopit and Sarah Elizondo in "Can You Hear Their Voices?" Photo credits: Jim Baldassare

Certain elements of Can You Hear Their Voices? were clearly visionary, especially for their theatrical moment. The use of agitprop, an approach and/or technique that we might associate with Brecht and Weimar and — again — the Federal Theate Project, was simply woven throughout the play like yards of lacerating twine. My research suggests Can You Hear Their Voices? was possibly the first example of documentary theater created in the US; at minimum, it was a key antecedent, and in this moment of severe economic stresses, Peculiar Works Project is reminding the arts community, particularly downtown, why its Obie was so very much deserved.

For this production is set in a “pop-up” performance space in Noho — a vacant storefront that is perhaps an emblem for the existentially insecure, 1930s-esque nature of 2010 Gotham. Indeed, there are enough contemporary touches, such as digital projection, to give the production an inexorably of-this-moment feel.

The play is being produced by the triumvirate that is Peculiar Works: Ralph Lewis, Barry Rowell and Catherine Porter. As they have several times on previous projects, Lewis and Rowell are co-directing. (Visit the company’s website for additional information on all three of them, but a more unstoppable team does not exist, if you ask me.)

The cast includes Porter as well as Tonya Canada, Patricia Drozda, Sarah Elizondo, Ken Glickfield, Mick Hilgers, Christopher Hurt, Derek Jamison, Ben Kopit, Carrie McCrossen and Rebecca Servon.

Previews of Can You Hear Their Voices? begin June 3; opening night is June 6. The production runs through June 27 at 2 Great Jones Street. For more information or tickets, click here.

Lewis has been a particularly good friend and supporter of the CFR and I am so pleased to run this interview with him.

And now, 5 questions Ralph Lewis has never been asked — and a bonus question.

Derek Jamison, Tonya Canada and Rebecca Servon

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
It’s been a while since I’ve been asked about my work, perceptively or otherwise, but I hope it happens more. I have answers, but I prefer talking about other people’s work. One question that does come up perennially with my site-specific performance company, Peculiar Works Project, is: “To be a site-specific play, does the work have to be created specifically for the site where it’s performed?”

While I love the obstacles presented by a literal interpretation here, the term “site-specific” has become much broader, and now it means almost anything performed outside a traditional theater — sometimes even inside a theater, too. PWP also uses a site-responsive (where the art responds to the environment as is) and/or a site-based (where the work is just seen in a different context with no other conscious relationship) aesthetic. They’re all great ways to create, because, afterward, audiences will never see that space or that play in the same way again. Just do the work wherever your passion takes you, even in actual theaters. I like those, too.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
I have to believe that there are no “idiotic” questions, because I’m sure if there were any, most would be the ones I ask myself. But “Who was Hallie Flanagan?” may be one of the more uninformed questions I’ve been asked a lot recently. And that’s okay: I’m in the informing business, and it only grounds me in the importance of staging the work of such an incredible woman. She is one of American theater’s most important persons, who did so much in a time when women didn’t have that many opportunities. In the 1930s, she changed the very heart and soul of the American theater. I feel like I have an incredible opportunity to answer for others an important, if uninformed, question.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“Why can’t you put on plays that other people will understand?” — my mom. She always wanted me to do something like what she’d see on television in North Carolina. But that wouldn’t be very peculiar, now would it? My partners and I believe, like so many downtown artists, that the only way today’s theater can hold its own identity is to not be like TV and other media. Theater needs to be bolder, more imaginative and more unlike anything! Taking the work off the stage and out into unique spaces is one way we try to do that. This play is something that everyone will understand, but hopefully in a very different way.

Ralph Lewis

4) Is Can You Hear Their Voices? indeed the earliest example of documentary theater in the US? If so (or if not), what can current practitioners of the genre learn about its history from seeing your production? How does a 1931 agitprop play equate in 2010 theatrical terms?
I have yet to find anything that predates Flanagan’s Voices? in the docu-theater category, but they say that originality is lack of information, so I’ll keep looking. But I’m gonna go with you on this play as a first in the US.

Hallie got this docu-agitprop idea while on a Guggenheim travel grant (one of the first offered) to Russia where, among many others, she saw a group called the Blue Blouses. Her stepdaughter and biographer, Joanne Bentley (ex of critic Eric), wrote about this trip:

The Blue Blouses had evolved from a form of educational entertainment that dramatized the news and came to be known as Living Newspapers. Living Newspapers had started very simply, when leading members of Soviet workers’ clubs got up onstage to read newspaper articles to other club members. In a country where illiteracy was widespread, reading aloud had a practical, propagandistic purpose…. Gradually these readings aloud had evolved into something more elaborate. Those presenting the material began developing roles, inventing conversations. Soon they were putting on masks, changing costumes, and shouting slogans into megaphones.

I’d be gratified if this play shares something in common with this idea for today’s indie theater movement. Like all indies, we’re basically a professional theater for the local community. It’s all about getting our peers — or comrades — together to tell stories, to share an understanding of the world around us as the Blue Blouses did, as the Federal Theater Project, under Hallie’s direction, did. New York City indie theater is the best kind of community theater: of the community, by the community and for the community (of course, visitors are always welcome!).

5) How does the pop-up space concept dovetail with the play itself? Are there elements of the play in which the site-specific nature of the production drives tension in, or with, the play?
This being a 1931 period piece, clearly, our production is not literally site-specific, but I was struck by how Hallie adapted Voices? to speak specifically to the Vassar students where she first staged it. Our parallel with this “pop-up performance” is more about the terrible real estate market for theater, and riffing on how retailers have pioneered the pop-up store phenomenon in the city today. Bringing the goods directly to a storefront near you pays homage to Hallie’s desire to keep theater relevant no matter where it takes place.

From her trip to Russia, Hallie became a big fan of legendary director Vsevolod Meyerhold, so he’s been a big part of both our direction and production. She wrote in her journal:

Henceforth, Meyerhold proclaimed, there was to be no curtain separating actors from audience, there were to be no footlights, no proscenium arch. Steps and gangways to the audience would allow free access. Actors and audience were to be one.

Hallie hated theater as museum pieces, and that presents an odd challenge for us: we want to honor her by doing her play and not get all avant-garde with it, but she’d want it to be current, connecting then and now. We don’t want the audience to feel like they have to believe it’s 1931, but to be continually aware that they’re in a vacant storefront in New York City in 2010. If we’d done this in a typical black-box in front of velvet curtains on a proscenium stage, I fear it would scream relic and Hallie would be rolling over in her grave.

Bonus question:

6) Co-directing is a relatively rare occurrence in the theater. Can you talk about your collaboration with Barry Rowell? Is the division of duties always the same? What is the most validating feature of your collaboration? What is the most challenging?
This is not the first time Barry and I have co-directed. And we produce along with Catherine Porter all the time. We’ve also co-written a couple of things together. And we met as actors years ago doing a Living Newspaper (believe it or not!) about Panama and George H.W. Bush back on the old Theater Row. So, we know how to work together, and just thought it would be more fun.

The initial plan was for one of us to direct the upper-class scenes and the other to direct the lower-class scenes, but we discussed the entire thing so much before we started rehearsals that we just scrapped splitting anything, and worked side-by-side. I think that my athletics, dance and circus training bring skills to the physical world, and Barry’s music background and intellect address the subtextual, emotional world.

I may not know what’s so validating about the process until I’m looking back on it, but the biggest challenge is finding time before and after rehearsal, and between all the producing, for us get to on the same page before the actor questions start flying so that neither of us answers and the other thinks “What?!”

So far, so good, but it takes a big, extra time commitment.


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