Rehearsing Revolutions: The Labor Drama Experiment and Radical Activism in the Early Twentieth Century

Rehearsing Revolutions: The Labor Drama Experiment and Radical Activism in the Early Twentieth Century

by Mary McAvoy


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Between the world wars, several labor colleges sprouted up across the U.S. These schools, funded by unions, sought to provide members with adult education while also indoctrinating them into the cause. As Mary McAvoy reveals, a big part of that learning experience centered on the schools’ drama programs. For the first time, Rehearsing Revolutions shows how these left-leaning drama programs prepared American workers for the “on-the-ground” activism emerging across the country. In fact, McAvoy argues, these amateur stages served as training grounds for radical social activism in early twentieth-century America.

Using a wealth of previously unpublished material such as director’s reports, course materials, playscripts, and reviews, McAvoy traces the programs’ evolution from experimental teaching tool to radically politicized training that inspired overt—even militant—labor activism by the late 1930s. All the while, she keeps an eye on larger trends in public life, connecting interwar labor drama to post-war arts-based activism in response to McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement. Ultimately, McAvoy asks: What did labor drama do for the workers’ colleges and why did they pursue it? She finds her answer through several different case studies in places like the Portland Labor College and the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609386412
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 06/17/2019
Series: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mary McAvoy is assistant professor in the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at Arizona State University. She is the coauthor of Drama and Education: Performance Methodologies for Teaching and Learning and coeditor of Youth and Performance: Perceptions of the Contemporary Child.

Read an Excerpt


The Labor Drama Experiment

We make rich the world.

The Man and the Masses, in Miners, a play presented at Brookwood Labor College, 1926

There is no labor audience for this theatre.

Louis Schaffer, editor of Labor Stage, Brookwood Workers' Theatre Conference, 1936

On the weekend of February 19, 1926, Brookwood Labor College was abuzz with activity. To celebrate a successful first year, this new residential workers' education program invited more than thirty leaders from university programs and prominent labor organizations to its scenic campus in Katonah, New York, for a workers' education conference. These leaders, pioneers in a young and vibrant movement that set out to design education opportunities specifically for workers, gathered to share ideas and report on new initiatives sprouting up throughout the country. At the end of their second day, the guests joined together in the student common room for one of Brookwood's own experiments in workers' education, an original play entitled Miners created by students in the labor drama program. Brookwooders had been rehearsing this new three-act piece for weeks, and this evening's performance would be the premiere.

As guests settled into folding chairs in the common room, their attention turned toward a makeshift platform stage situated at one end of the hall. Although the room was a tight fit for the more than twenty students, teachers, and teachers' children who would perform that evening, student efforts to transform the space were notable. Production teams sewed and hung simple curtains, giving the illusion of a proscenium, and a few new stage lights were mounted to illuminate the performers. The students also conveniently installed the stage near a set of doors leading to the patio, and in this makeshift backstage area, cast and crew rushed to set props, adjust set pieces, and add final touches to their simple costumes. Once everyone settled, a student pulled back the curtain, revealing the silhouetted figures of men, women, and children against "a ruddy glow" from the new stage lights. These "Masses," supported by a chorus of offstage performers, moaned and sighed, filling the space with sounds of strife. In the "shadowy foreground a single tall figure of a working man" appeared. "The Man" and the silhouetted Masses offered the following call-and-response chant to open the show:

THE MAN: We will strike for the right to work!

THE MASSES: We will strike for the right to work!

THE MAN: We will die fighting for the right to live!

THE MASSES: We will die fighting for the right to live!

THE MAN: We want bread for our starved children!

THE MASSES: We want bread for our starved children!

THE MAN: We make rich the world!

THE MASSES: We make rich the world.

The play continued, chronicling the "heroism and suffering and grim humor" of West Virginia miners, a group that had traveled to campus in the previous fall semester to meet with Brookwood students. The drama concluded with a rousing rendition of "La Marseillaise." Afterward, Brookwood president A. J. Muste, with a "catch in his throat," introduced student playwright Bonchi Friedman, a Russian immigrant and textile worker from New York City, and the rest of the amateur worker-student ensemble, presenting all members of the production team with flowers. With their production of Miners, the Brookwood Labor Players had indeed made rich the world that evening.


The theatrical enterprise at Brookwood was but one example of labor drama, the topic of this book. These pedagogical process-focused drama programs flourished in workers' education institutions in the United States during the interwar period (roughly 1920–40), influencing left-leaning socialist and communist theatre artists, shaping radical and experimental education initiatives, and diversifying amateur theatre movements. Through a series of case studies, I demonstrate how these programs evolved from experimental performance forms grounded in the legacies of progressivism and designed to teach and entertain a new class of union members and labor leaders in the 1920s to radically politicized projects that inspired overt, even militant, labor activism by the late 1930s. These programs showcase the rapidity with which art, activism, and education were transformed during the period between World War I and World War II, suggesting new lines of analysis about left-leaning theatre practices, radical education, and arts-based political activism before and after the New Deal. This study explicitly focuses on young adult workers and their instructors as they explored drama's usefulness as a method for imagining and enacting emancipatory alternatives to the oppressive status quo of U.S. industry during the interwar period. These labor-oriented pedagogical drama programs ("labor drama" for this book's purposes), which are distinct from but adjacent to the more well-known production-oriented workers' theatre movement, attempted to synthesize workers' education and theatrical arts and took many forms, ranging from informal drama courses to formal theatrical productions. This new perspective on drama's relationship to education in the United States is timely. Despite robust historical scholarship about theatre education programs for children both in formal learning environments like K-12 schools and in theatre for youth programs, drama-based education in the United States lacks the same rigorous contextualization within openly radical, political, and avant-garde efforts, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century. These pedagogically focused labor drama experiments also connect with the legacies of activist performance in unexpected places, including the civil rights movement, contemporary applied drama and theatre practices, and the histories of popular, political, folk, and mass cultural theatre forms.

I first situate the labor drama experiment within the equally experimental workers' education movement during the interwar period. U.S. workers' education, a vast early twentieth-century initiative rooted in European political education and U.S. progressive education movements of the same period, provided workers with opportunities to learn about the labor movement. It was most popular between 1920 and 1940, particularly after the stock market crash in 1929, and took on a variety of forms including night, weekend, evening, and residential programs, retreats, workshops, and institutes. At the phenomenon's zenith, hundreds of different workers' education programs appeared from coast to coast in practically all areas of industry. Thousands of workers participated. While this book primarily considers residential programs, as they housed some of the most robust and long-standing drama endeavors with the richest enduring archives, labor drama was widespread throughout workers' education institutions and attracted a diverse array of workers.

Although night and weekend programs were generally accessible to any worker who could afford the inexpensive tuition and secure transportation to the local labor temple or union hall, residential programs were more challenging to attend. Often, working-class young people (roughly ages eighteen to thirty), many with only an elementary education, departed their jobs in mills and factories and on farms for extended study of the labor movement. Most attended through union sponsorship or received substantial scholarships generated through donations to the schools. Upon arrival on labor college campuses, which were often located in geographically and/or culturally foreign regions, students committed themselves to a period of intensive study in the hopes of becoming leaders in local and national labor activism. By participating in these education programs, students engaged with new and often challenging academic subject matter including labor history, economics, English, public speaking, and labor problems. In many instances, the college's administration required additional courses including physical education, nutrition, and hygiene as part of experimental whole-learner educational ethos shaping these programs. Additionally, due to the egalitarian philosophies grounding many of the schools' missions, students were often expected to do manual labor, working the school farm or cooking meals for students and staff, in order to earn their keep and contribute to the spirit of community. In sum, labor college students were a dedicated group who endured great sacrifice in their pursuit of an education.

These labor college students simultaneously served as pedagogical guinea pigs for their instructors. Workers' education faculty, a pioneering group of mostly young adults who committed themselves to experimental, democratic, anti-authoritarian, and progressive pedagogies, set off on the labor college experiment with little in the way of a road map. They, perhaps even more than the students, found themselves in unfamiliar regions of the country, and they too had to earn their keep by working the school farm or cleaning the school grounds alongside students. They often worked without appropriate resources and with groups of students whose life experiences greatly differed from their own. Additionally, they rarely received a salary, working in exchange for room and board. These teachers were also in turn guinea pigs for these schools' administrations as much as the students were for teachers' pedagogical experiments. For its part, more often than not, school leadership regarded drama as a form of recreation and included it as an evening activity after the supposedly more academically rigorous classes ended for the day. In other instances, like the Miners production, schools used labor drama productions as publicity tools, presenting performances at fundraising events, union meetings, community meet-and-greets, and workers' conferences held on campus. Instructors initially hired to direct these publicity productions and evening theatricals drove efforts to evolve labor drama's role from extracurricular entertainment to crucial pedagogical pursuits, and they did so with fervor. In addition to directing and producing a great number of plays, labor drama instructors spent immense amounts of time theorizing drama as pedagogy, publishing essays about their ideas in school newspapers and labor publications, developing learning objectives, writing course plans, creating lessons, and promoting their larger programmatic goals with school administrators. Once these instructors established a purpose and flow for their programs, they advocated for increasingly visible and integral roles for labor drama on campus not only as recreation, but also as a specific and unique mode for learning.

In creating these new programs, students' and instructors' participation in these labor colleges exposed them to great danger due to the aura of mystery surrounding these schools, particularly as U.S. society increasingly conflated labor activism with controversial radical Left politics by the mid-1930s. The danger associated with representing the imaginary on stage has long troubled artists and thinkers, but the role of theatre as dangerous art was particularly important to these labor college institutions. Few of the people involved in these experiments had formal dramatic training, and many instructors were in the early phases of conceptualizing the form and function of their work. Accordingly, they were not sure what would come out of their experimentation, and worse, they often lacked a vocabulary to explain its political, ideological, or pedagogical function, particularly if the product was controversial. Furthermore, drama's role as the performance genre de rigueur of radical workers' movements in Russia and Germany at this time complicated these concerns, resulting in constant worry over the potentially propagandistic nature of labor drama productions. However, school leadership often sought out drama to show the lack of radicalism at each of the colleges, especially when rumors brewed about the school's political leanings. Drama's public role on campus challenged many instructors to balance their programs' missions within larger plans for advocacy and activism. Occasionally, tensions arose between dramatics instructors and leadership. One instructor, Hazel MacKaye, was probably excused from her position for not being mindful of her responsibility to present a positive, polished face of the school with her productions. Other teachers and students were subject to criminal investigations or were expelled by labor organizations that once supported them, and still others fled the country under the threat of blacklisting.

Even though few productions produced substantial controversy, most labor drama teachers and students faced persistent crises endemic to these experimental institutions. At any given moment, a school might face threats of closure due to political controversy, acute financial strain, leadership change, or lack of students. Thus, instructor turnover was high. Once a program gathered steam, instructors often left, with new instructors taking the reins. These conditions resulted in perpetual debates among instructors, students, and leadership about appropriateness of material, the value of process over product, the role of drama as an academic course versus a recreational club, the manner by which students should study labor drama, and the program's ultimate goals. As such, these programs were wholly experimental, with teachers and students testing methods and ideas for teaching about drama, for making performance, and for generating dramatic material. As with many experiments, some were successful, and many were not. As expected, the enduring plays from these labor drama experiments are often simplistic and heavily influenced by popular culture. Labor drama programs also clearly tailored their plays to their immediate communities and, often, the enduring playtexts lack relevance for wider readership. These realities further threatened archives that are sadly incomplete. Labor drama was rarely publicized beyond school campuses; infrequently reviewed, particularly by someone other than a new labor journalism student; even more infrequently photographed; and occasionally, entirely improvised or written and rehearsed but never performed. In addition to simply having neither time nor resources to document goings-on, many of these schools had their records destroyed by adversarial government officials, particularly in the South, in an attempt to quite literally erase them from memory. While I have worked to reconstruct these labor drama courses and productions in each chapter, I also acknowledge that the archive leaves substantial gaps. Although extant labor drama archives reveal formidable challenges to the form, they also highlight the power of resiliency in forging new paths for art and education in the United States. As these teachers and students engaged in risky experimentation, they created an opportunity for messy, creative, and path-breaking work not only for pedagogical dramatics, but also more broadly for both activist-oriented arts and adult education. Through a series of case studies, I trace the labor drama's evolution at several institutions throughout the United States, including:

* Portland Labor College (Portland, Oregon), 1922–26;

* Brookwood Labor College (Katonah, New York), 1921–37;

* Southern Summer School for Women Workers in Industry (western North Carolina), 1927–37;

* Highlander Folk School (Monteagle, Tennessee), 1932–present; and

* Commonwealth College (Mena, Arkansas), 1923–40.

I selected these institutions due to their diverse student populations, foundational philosophies, geographies, and program designs. These schools also have rich and underexamined archival records that I integrate into each chapter.

While these programs diverged in regard to method and philosophy, several meaningful commonalities help define the labor drama programs that all employed as both pedagogical and artistic pursuits. First, each of these schools focused on drama as a method to teach about labor activism. No institution introduced labor drama solely as recreation or entertainment; labor drama's potential pedagogical benefit was key to its inclusion in curriculum even if it appeared as an end-of-day recreational offering. Given this focus on recreation and education, none of these programs aspired to train workers for virtuosity on the stage or in advanced stagecraft techniques. Instead they aimed to present students with opportunities to experience creation of performance with a clear pedagogical connection to exploring the labor movement. Finally, all of these programs included process-based experiential learning opportunities for students that involved discussion and reflection. Even formal productions involved ancillary processes whereby worker/students incorporated their real-life experiences into classes and productions through playwriting, talkbacks, reviews, and other forms of performance reflection. Given these programs' diversity, the term "labor drama" was inconsistently adopted, a testament to this performance phenomenon's experimental and emergent nature. Instead, specific terminology varied by institutions, drama groups, instructors, and the time period in which they worked. Sometimes instructors or schools used terms like "workers' theatre" and "labor dramatics" synonymously. In other instances, distinctions between the terms appear, particularly in regard to theatre as a product and drama as a process. Some groups had only a vague idea how they were using the term since they were in the process of defining a program through a series of performance experiments. Struggles to define this interdisciplinary performance genre were endemic to the larger focus on experimentation in these programs.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1 The Labor Drama Experiment 1

Chapter 2 Performance from the Ranks: The Advent of Labor Drama at Portland Labor College, 1922-25 29

Chapter 3 The Variegated Shoots: Hazel MacKaye and the Development of Labor Dramatics at Brookwood Labor College, 1925-26 59

Chapter 4 Of Untold Possibilities: Hollace Ransdell and the Ladies of Southern Labor Dramatics, 1928-36 97

Chapter 5 Something Very Different: Southern Labor Drama at Highlander Folk School, 1934-40 135

Chapter 6 Lee Hays, a Preaching Hillbilly, and the FBI: The Last Gasps of Labor Drama at Commonwealth Labor College, 1932-39 169

Conclusion: Labor Dramas Legacies 203

Notes 209

Bibliography 239

Index 255

What People are Saying About This

Chrystyna Dail

“The book makes a significant contribution to twentieth-century leftist theatre scholarship by introducing archival materials heretofore forgotten or ignored. Additionally, in a time period when the humanities continue to come under attack for their ‘insignificance,’ the author explicates how even failed attempts at educational change are consequential.”—Chrystyna Dail, author, Stage for Action: U.S. Social Activist Theatre in the 1940s

Fonzie D. Geary II

“In illuminating theatrical activity at workers’ colleges, McAvoy offers an insightful vision into the pervasiveness and power of theatre in American culture.”—Fonzie D. Geary II, Lyon College

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