THROUGH ART, MUSIC, FOLKLORE, AND DRAMA,
TODAY’S PLAYWRIGHTS CONNECT WITH AMERICA’S BEGINNINGS
America-in-Play (AIP) encourages playwrights to examine America’s dramatic past as a tool to enrich their current work. Sixteen playwrights have been meeting for nearly a year, and their conversations and work have grown organically from dis-coveries derived from plays, music, folklore, and paintings.
As we have discov-ered, many of America’s cultural beginnings have been swept under the rug, collecting dust and spider webs. AIP has attempted to find these cultural relics, dust them off, and put them back on their feet. The Yankee-Uncle Sam who was first called Brother Jonathan-has been hidden so long that he’s acquired a painful crick in his neck. Mose the Fireman, Jonathan’s city-savvy contemporary, hasn’t taken a stroll in the Bowery district for years. These characters were once great figures in American popular theater, archetypes of American consciousness and faith. Investigating their stories has become the foundation for AIP’s early work.
Where do we see these characters today, and how can they speak to our new artistic endeavors? These questions were considered by the AIP writers during the first workshop in February 2006, which focused on “America’s Favorite Stories and Characters/Yankee Comedies.” Writers became acquainted with archetypal characters by looking at their images both in the context of early plays, such as Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, as well as through visual renderings-iconographic cartoons, prints of Uncle Sam through the ages (from amorous and young to old and woebegone), pictures of minstrel shows on stage, and much more-which have served as a spring-board for several writing exercises. One of many writing exercises involved looking at images of early archetypes, such as Mose the Fireman and Brother Jonathan. Writers were asked to give these images a voice. Playwright Erin Browne focused on a young Uncle Sam with clothes that seemed too large and came up with “Social Stud-ies Report” about an eleven-year-old giving a school report (see pg. 3).
Another exercise asked writers to look at paintings from the Hudson River School, an early movement of fine art that endowed the American landscape with spiritual wonder. Writers were asked to place an archetypal character within the context of the landscape and create a monologue. In this exercise, the framework of the land was not solely intended to be the setting for a greater action, but rather a tool for conveying an overall experience or sense of identity. Many characters found themselves in conversation with the land itself. Others saw the land as a personification of internal conflict. Playwrights were able to find a complimentary voice for the intricate shadings of the paintings themselves. In Erin Courtney’s “The Catskills Moun-tain House,” a painter yields to the beauty of the natural surroundings (pg. 3).
The second workshop focused on “Minstrelsy” and was curated by Dominic Taylor, playwright and assistant professor of theatre at Bard College, who spoke of the history, the characters, and the structure of minstrelsy. The third session delved into the origins and development of “Popular Music,” curated by guest speaker Ray Allen, ethno-musicologist and professor of music at Brooklyn College. While the session centered again on minstrelsy, it did so from the viewpoint of music and the collisions that were an important source for a distinctly original American sound. “Comedy of the Early Twentieth Century” was the subject of the fourth group workshop, led by AIP Founder and Artis-tic Director Lynn M. Thomson.
This past fall, AIP turned its attention to focusing specifically on the performative nature of the Declaration of Independence. A group reading of the Declaration spurred conversation about the democratic impulses deeply rooted in the theatrical experience of early America, and subsequent workshops centered on the relationship between performer and spectator. A writing exercise from this workshop asked the writers to imagine a situation in which an archetype describes the experience of hearing the first reading of the Declaration of Independence. Playwright Quincy Long drafted a monologue from the perspective of the “Unknown Loyalist” (pg. 3). Facilitators considered the idea of “performing democracy,” by looking at different trends in theater practice: performance habits, fringe venues, and theatrical genres such as crook plays. The group also took a field trip to The Shubert Archive-top floor of the Lyceum Theatre-in November 2006, for a private tour of both theatre and archive by archivist Reagan Fletcher. All our playwrights wandered about the stage, then took the small elevator to the wonders of a century of memorabilia, including original play manuscripts nearly one-hundred years old.
Future workshops with their focus on art, music, and stories from earlier times, will continue to lay the groundwork for future plays and give playwrights much fodder for making connections with America’s past.