“This is the first time I’ve been out of my apartment in a week,” reads actor Terri McMahon. “Do you know what it’s like to get up and have no place to go? I am a worker. I’ve worked since I could count money. That’s me!”
And writing plays about work, and how our work defines who we are, is very much in tune with Lynn Nottage, who has won just about every honor a playwright can win: Pulitzer, MacArthur, Guggenheim awards. There’s the seamstress in her best known work, “Intimate Apparel,” who expresses herself through fabric. There’s the high-powered African American publicist in “Fabulation,” who loses her money and must return to her working-class roots. And there are the Congolese women in Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play, “Ruined,” who have survived horrendous war crimes, only to have to make their living in a brothel.
And “Sweat,” which opens Aug. 2 and runs through Oct. 31, explores America’s de-industrialization, asking what happens when the jobs we measure ourselves and our community by disappear.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned “Sweat” and is staging the world premiere as part of an innovative program at OSF called American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The program’s goal is to commission 37 plays over 10 years — that is the total number of plays Shakespeare wrote — about pivotal moments of change in US history.
“Shakespeare wrote 10 plays chronicling his own country’s history and the transferring of power in his country to better illuminate the present moment,” says the festival’s artistic director, Bill Rauch. “Thinking of the incredible resources of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the wildly brilliant men and women who work in, for instance, our costume shop, why don’t in addition to looking at Shakespeare’s country’s history, why don’t we look in our own country’s history?”
So far, the festival’s commissioned 23 plays and staged six. Several have gone on to decorated runs elsewhere. Most famously, Rauch directed “All the Way,” about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first term, on Broadway last year. The play starred Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad,” won two Tonys, and is being made into a film by HBO and Steven Spielberg.
Nottage was one of the first writers the Oregon Shakespeare Festival approached. “She is a great American playwright who writes about the past in ways that shed light on who we are today,” says Rauch, “so she was an absolute natural for the program.” The festival had already produced three of her plays.
“The revolution I wanted to focus on is the de-industrial revolution, which is something that’s happening in our recent history,” says Nottage.
At first, she thought about driving around the country in a beer truck and handing out free beer in exchange for people sharing their stories. But when she realized that wasn’t realistic for her kids, she decided to set the play in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s one of the poorest cities in the country.
“Reading seems like the perfect city because it was at the tip of the steel belt, it was a city that had a lot of steel manufacturing, it was a city that had textile manufacturing and also it was a very rich industrial agriculture about,” she says. “I thought it’s not quite in the heart of America, but it really is like the heart of America.”
Nottage researched her play “Ruined” by traveling to Uganda and interviewing women about living through the ongoing wars. She chose the same approach for “Sweat.” Starting in 2012, she, Whoriskey and a team of interns started traveling to Reading and interviewing anybody who would speak with them.
“One of the things we always ask people is: How would you describe your city?” she says. “And they always say, ‘Reading was.’ And that surprised me. I expected people to say well ‘Reading is.’ And I thought, ‘Well this is a city that’s not prepared to resurrect itself because it’s still looking backwards rather than looking forward.’”
Eventually, Nottage sat down with a group of steel workers who had been locked out of their factory and decided to use their story as the starting point for “Sweat.”
“I found their experience to be heartbreaking and very compelling,” she says. “And I thought in some way this really represents the de-industrial revolution: That you have these individuals who have largely worked in a factory for 20 to 40 years that when they arrive one day, half the machines in their factory have moved elsewhere. They’ve been moved to Wisconsin, a right to work state, or they’ve been moved to Mexico. And they were shocked. In my play it happens over the July 4 weekend. For them it happened over Easter weekend.”
Not that unions are some far-off, theatrical idea for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The day after this rehearsal in June, employees in several of the festival’s stagehand crews voted to join IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Currently the National Labor Relations Board is considering whether to grant an appeal by the Shakespeare festival for a review, while employees move forward with their contract proposal.
“To have a union campaign going on on our campus while we’re producing a play that’s about some of the struggles of the unions, the irony does not escape me,” says Rauch. “It’s not just ironic: It’s also rich. We’re dealing with issues that matter in our country and here on our campus.”
Nottage adds that, as part of the writers’ guild, she’s been through her own labor disputes.
“What I learned being on strike is what you’re willing to sacrifice for your principles,” she says. “It’s that we have to stand for what we believe in and sometimes that means experiencing pain and making terrific sacrifices, but if we don’t make those sacrifices we’ll find that it in the future we’ll end up with less.”
It’s a struggle Nottage hopes to make resonate with as wide an audience as possible, no matter what kind of work they do.