PMA Podcast Transcript: A talk by Sara Warner about "The Next Storm"

Chris Christensen: Hello and welcome to episode number 27 of the PMA podcast. In today's episode, associate professor and producer Sara Warner offers a talk on her most recent production, The Next Storm, a community-based play by Civic Ensemble, Cornell University's Department of Performing and Media Arts, and playwright Thomas Dunn.

Sara Warner: The Next Storm is a collaboration between PMA—the Department of Performing and Media Arts—Civic Ensemble, Ithaca's local social justice theater company, and a climate scientist in CALS named Toby Ault. And we had some assistance from local playwright and journalist Thom Dunn. And this collaboration is particularly interesting when we think about the form of the play and it's a living newspaper. The living newspaper is a mode of theater that began in the 1930s in the United States. It came out of the New Deal legislation when America was going through the Great Depression in the 1930s. President Roosevelt wanted to create programs for relief, recovery, and reform. And the majority of these projects focused on putting people to work on infrastructure projects. So we got in Ithaca, for example, Southside Community Center and the Cascadilla Gorge came out of the Works Progress Administration and things like Lucifer Falls and other of the beautiful waterfall trails came out of Civilian Conservation Corps.

And these projects took place all over the country and they put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work when everyone was struggling financially and there was great food insecurity, and just general malaise in the country. The Works Progress Administration also focused on arts and cultural initiatives. And in the 1930s, this gave way to the Federal Theater Project and it was a glorious experiment in the American arts, short lived but very impactful. It was led by a relatively young woman named Hallie Flanagan. She was a professor at Vassar College and she had just come off Fulbright, where she visited Russia and Germany and saw this new mode of experimental theater that was based in agit/prop, agitation and propaganda. It was a political mode of theater designed to combat disinformation campaigns that the government was spreading and to empower the people. And so Hallie took this form to the United States, and created many kinds of theater under the umbrella of the Federal Theater Project.

This included a black theater unit in Harlem and children's theater and circuses and any number of forms of theater. And the one that's of interest to us today for this play is a mode called the living newspaper. And it was a collaboration between out-of-work journalists and out-of-work playmakers. And it was a kind of "ripped from the headlines" sort of theater. It took the news of the day, and dramatized it for an audience. And it was meant to inform spectators about the political realities and the consequences of decisions. And it dealt with really hot-topic issues, everything from race relations and housing crises to sexually transmitted diseases and the lack of education. So when Hallie Flanagan had this fellowship to travel around Europe and visit with and experience different forms of theater in Russia, one of the things she found was the legacy of the Blue Blouses.

And this is a mode of theater that came out of the Russian revolution in the 1900s. And it was a way of speaking the news to mass audiences, illiterate audiences, people who didn't have the resources necessarily to have the newspaper. And they toured the country and Hallie Flanagan saw them in the late 1920s. It also influenced the theater of Germany, Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator. And when they came to the United States, they brought elements of that kind of theater with them. And also, Hallie Flanagan picked up directly on the form of the living newspaper. And so in addition to creating black theater units in Harlem and children's theater and modes of circus, she also had, I think, the most politically salient form of theater during the years of the Federal Theater Project. And it was the living newspaper.

And what they did was they ripped directly from the headlines and they talked about the urban housing crisis. And they talked about race relations. They talked about specific legislation. For example, their second play, Triple-A Plowed Under, was about the plight of Dustbowl farmers and an agricultural act of 1933. They talked about businessmen and they had a play Injunction Granted from the mid-1930s. That was a satirical jab at people like Heinz, the big ketchup and condiment magnate. And the owners of newspapers who were censoring stories that were being printed, and they put these on in huge spectacles. They employed hundreds of people each show onstage and behind the scenes. And they used experimental techniques. So they shied away from commercial forms of theater and went for spectacular forms of entertainment that created problems on stage and invited the audience to see, wow, just because something happens this way doesn't mean it had to happen that way.

And what could we do as social actors to intervene in the situation and make history unfold in some way that's different and better for us. And it employed, it made use of stock characters. And one character in particular was the little man or the everyman, somebody who's just sort of overwhelmed by bureaucratic details or feels like he's a cog in the machine, not quite making enough money, can't really get his political representatives to pay attention to him or is fed misinformation by institutions. And it's about the education and empowerment of the little man. Over the course of the play, it also made use of emerging technologies. There was the voiceover, which was kind of a throwback to the importance of radio and loudspeakers in community, as a form of mass broadcast. It did a lot of plays with light and shadow to dramatize sort of forces of good and evil. And you know, it could make big powerful spectacles that confronted the little man on his journey to knowledge. This mode of theater was enormously popular with audiences and it gained a fair amount of critical attention as well. And along with that, it began to draw concern and ultimately ire on the part of politicians who thought, well, this is itself a form of propaganda. And what it's doing is it's almost communist in its critique of the government and its critique of big business and capitalism. And so what they did is they brought members of the Federal Theater Project up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and they were directly accused of promoting propaganda and harboring communist sympathies. And even though the director, Hallie Flanagan, argued very poetically and profoundly that this was democratic theater at its finest, that this was theater by the people for the people.

And it was about educating the masses and making them active participants in the democratic process. The politicians did not like the messages and they didn't particularly like people being informed in this way to have their own independent critical thought. And so as a result of those hearings, the Federal Theater Project was disbanded in 1939. So it was a short-lived phenomenon, just a handful, six, seven years. But it has had a profound effect and it came out of New Deal legislation. And since we're dealing with the New Green Deal in our play, that's sort of the background. And why can't communities, including Ithaca, pass something like a Green New Deal when we could pass the New Deal in the 1930s, we thought, wow, this is a perfect time to bring back this living newspaper form. And we're also combating some of the same problems that we were looking at in the 1930s.

We've got economic unrest. The 1% versus the rest of us. People are struggling. Factories are closing. It's not the same thing, of course as the Great Depression, but a lot of people are experiencing food insecurity, wage insecurity, and the government is involved, or at least some members of the government are involved in mass programs of disinformation and propaganda. And, you know, fake news is something you hear on a daily basis hundreds of times. And so how can theater be used as a tool to not only combat disinformation, but empower people to think about the daily news, in our case climate change, and what it would mean to erect something like the Green New Deal. How can we give people the tools? How can we use theater to break down difficult concepts like greenhouse gas emissions, photovoltaics, which is a form of floating solar panels that they're experimenting within various parts of the world.

So how can we make these concepts intelligible and accessible to people and also present it in a form that is educational and entertaining and that we hope ends with people leaving the theater, feeling informed, feeling empowered, but also feeling the pressure to act and to act in a responsible way and to have the future be led by critical decision making that comes from the community itself and not necessarily from politicians and capitalists who don't have the best interest of the quote-unquote people and the little people in mind. Living newspapers expect a great deal from audiences and we're going to expect a great deal from people who come to see our show. They demand that spectators assume some responsibility in the action. In this case, what is your responsibility as a citizen? What responsibility do you have to the historical, social, and political context in which we are living, in which laws and policies are made, in which things like the Green New Deal are being debated? They often explicitly demand action, living newspapers do, to vote to take to the streets, to form new political parties, to advocate for a Green New Deal, to leave the theater and do something. So we're interested in that and what our play inspires or prompts people to do.

Chris Christensen: Thanks for listening to the PMA Podcast. Performances of The Next Storm are in the Schwartz Center's Kiplinger Theater, November 15, 16, 22, and 23. Tickets are available online at or in person at the Schwartz Center box office, located at 430 College Avenue, Ithaca, New York.