Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Loneliest Liberal: In rehearsal

Waiting for Lefty

By James Knudsen

This week marked the sixth week of instruction for this Fall 2016 semester. I have a typical load of classes, one beginning-acting and one theatre-appreciation course. But I’m also assisting in the production of this season’s first play, Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets. My colleague Janine Christl is directing, and, since the start of rehearsals five weeks ago, I’ve been working with the ensemble and the featured actors to help them better understand the time period, 1935.
    Being old enough to have grown up hearing “this was during The Depression” on a weekly basis, it’s a bit strange to look around and find that there are, in fact, not that many people left who remember the 1930s. In place of first-hand accounts we have relied on documentaries and Hollywood’s version of the United States during The Great Depression. We’ve also discussed the alphabet soup of government agencies that sprang up in the early days of the Roosevelt administration and words in the script that are no longer heard, like “flivver,” “java,” and “beanery.”
    But despite my best efforts to get the cast to become “natives of 1935,” mistakes are still occurring. At a photo shoot, an actor arrived in garments that would have looked right were it not for non-period eyeglasses and a pair of black shoes with a prominent Nike swoosh….<sigh>

The hair, the makeup, the costumes will be sorted by opening night, September 30th. More problematic is the material itself. For those not familiar with Waiting for Lefty, it is an iconic piece of American theatre. Written in 1934, following the New York City taxi drivers strike of the same year, Waiting for Lefty tells the story of unionized taxi drivers debating the issue of whether or not to strike.
    Odets was a member of the legendary Group Theatre founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. The premiere of the play, on January 5, 1935, is considered a seminal event in American theatre. It is near impossible to go through a college acting program and not view or participate in a scene or learn about the twenty-eight curtain calls that opening night. I experienced all three as a student.
    Given its origins, its playwright, and his connection to such giants of the theatre and acting as Strasberg, Clurman, Crawford, Lee J. Cobb, Sanford Meisner (who directed the original production), Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, and Elia Kazan, the play is considered one of those scripts that a serious student must be familiar with. And the vignettes dealing with family, work, love, and discrimination, along with the overarching theme of wage inequality, are particularly relevant in 2016.
    Still, it is a product of 1935 and in 1935 Communism still had that “new-car” smell.
Many of The Group Theatre’s members were also members of the Communist Party. Years later many of them would be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to testify and “name names.” A few did, many did not. Eighty years later, the few remaining communist states seem like those quaint principalities found in The Mouse That Roared or The Great Race. When characters say lines like, “...he called me comrade” – well, we know how that experiment ended.
    Capitalism doesn’t smell like a new car either, but you can buy “New Car” air freshener to hang from the rear-view mirror. In one week, we’ll find out whether Odets’ classic has a sell-by date.

You can watch a “trailer,” or short promotional video, here.

Copyright © 2016 by James Knudsen


  1. nice bit, James, as ever. praying hard about 11/8...doesn't seem like i can do much else, sigh.

  2. Theatre rehearsals involve more than learning your lines and stage blocking - you've got to get into the times and the right shoes. James Knudsen shows you what's involved.