Harp Song Inspired by Everyday Heroes
A few years ago, Jeffrey Fracé read about Eugene V. Debs, an 1870s railroad worker who became an impassioned labor activist. It got Fracé, assistant professor of drama, thinking about what it takes to move from inaction to engagement and how few citizens make that leap today.
Eugene V. Debs
Fracé’s musings led to Harp Song for a Radical, a collaborative theater project that opens the UW School of Drama’s 2011-2012 season. Fracé will direct the production, with students—both graduate and undergraduate—developing the content.
The title of the play comes from a book of the same name by Marguerite Young. Fracé describes the book, which touches on Debs and other Americans who have worked toward a utopian society, as “a poetic fantasy on American themes.” He says the play will be “a very loose adaptation of the book, using the author’s spirit and using Eugene Debs as a lens.”
Students began developing content for the production in Fracé’s spring quarter course, addressing a series of questions posed by Fracé at the start of the quarter.
“The central question I posed was, ‘Why aren’t more young people engaged in politics?’” explains Fracé. “I know there are some who are, but so many more are not content with the system but don’t do anything about it. What’s the barrier to taking action?”
To prepare for Harp Song for a Radical, students
did movement exercises that explore the concepts
of support and resistance.
Fracé admits he was nervous as the project began, particularly when one student responded to his pitch unenthusiastically, asking “Does it have to be about politics?” But Fracé was convinced that interest would grow as the students explored the topic. “Politics, unions, labor history… a lot of people don’t realize how juicy our history is, and how full of violence. The workers’ rights we have today—those things were fought for.”
Matt Giampietro, a graduate student in the School of Drama’s Professional Actor Training Program, was among those with misgivings about the topic. “My father’s been a tool and die maker, so he’s been in unions,” say Giampietro. “I felt unions were what put my dad out of work, so I was not thrilled about doing something on unions. But working on this project, researching how unions began, I began to understand the reasoning behind them. I see that they were absolutely necessary. I think they’ve gone off course, but this gives me a chance to think about where they need to get back to.”
As Giampietro and his classmates delved into the topic, they researched Eugene Debs and other activists in American history, from Emma Goldman to Tupac Shakur. They wrote scenes and speeches based on their research. They also explored the concepts of support and resistance through movement and music.
Autumn quarter, the group will synthesize all this material, cut what’s not working, develop new content where they see gaps, and turn it into a polished production. The process is laborious and time consuming, but Fracé believes it is well worth it.
"...It's a great way to learn about a subject. You learn
differently when you have to write about it or argue
about it. Write a play about it, and you really get to know it."
“They have ownership of the work,” says Fracé. “They get to own the lines they speak. And it’s a great way to learn about a subject. You learn something differently when you have to write about it or argue about it. Write a play about it, and you really get to know it.”
Giampietro credits Fracé with a remarkable ability to step back and allow students the freedom to explore. “I don’t think you’ll find another person in the country like Jeffrey,” says Giampietro. “He’s not dictating what we make. He’s allowing us to create what moves us and then helping us piece it all together. It’s been great for us to be guided and yet free. It’s very moving for both the performer and audience when we put something of ourselves out there.”
What can theatregoers attending Harp Song for a Radical expect to see? A non-traditional theatre experience that includes songs, dances, speeches, and performance art as well as scripted scenes. Audience members will interact with the actors at the start of the performance, though Fracé promises they won’t be asked to perform. Despite the experimental approach, there will be a protagonist whose journey from apathy to action provides the backbone of the play. “It’s important to me that there is a through-line with a beginning, middle, and end,” says Fracé.
Just as Young’s book raised questions for Fracé, he hopes the collaborative production raises questions for the audience. “If people go away from the show with the desire to learn more about their history, get more involved in their community, or make something, then I think we’ve done a good job,” he says.
The School of Drama will present Harp Song for a Radical in Meany Studio Theatre from October 26 through November 6. For information or tickets, visit drama.washington.edu or call 206-543-4880.
Return to Table of Contents, September 2011 issue