Poor it Out on the Stage

This semester we have approached difficult subjects through many different types of mediums. One of the recurring mediums has been theater. Theater productions often have the ability to present controversial issues to the general public in a way that many other mediums do not. As a class it seems that we tend to enjoy these productions and mostly agree that they are capable of encouraging conversation around such issues. So, let’s bring the New York Times best seller Nickel and Dimed on (not) Getting By in America to the stage.

In 2001 Barbara Ehrenreich’s interview about the book aired on the radio, and inspired Bartlett Sher to research the book further. Bartlett Sher is the artistic leader at the Intiman Theater in Seattle, WA. He contributes to the theater’s mission; “Intiman Theatre produces theatre that is relevant to our time and as diverse as the community in which we live,” by encouraging artists to take an “authorial stake in their work.”[1] Bartlett Sher did exactly that in 2001 when he approached Joan Holden and asked her to write a stage version of Nickel and Dimed for the Intiman’s 2003 fall appearance at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, CA.[2] The production of Nickel and Dimed by the Intiman included a series of programming that focused on the struggles of the working-class. In theory, programming events and this theater production would allow for Sher to “focus his audience’s attention on working-class community members whose labors, subsidize the lives of the middle and upper classes.”[3]

The show has received mixed reviews, but Holden thinks it achieved her goal of encouraging the viewer to address “questions of a living wage, fair housing, and the increasingly female face of poverty,” and to have “people leave ready to vote for living wage laws, for subsidized housing and child care, and to realize that the market does not afford a huge number of our fellow citizens a decent life for their very hard work.”[4] These goals may be lofty for a theater production, but when done right many reviews suggest it is possible. However, plays written with such lofty intents create pitfalls for less experienced directors, which lead to reviews that claim that the play “distances the viewer rather than forge an emotional connection.”[5] Because of its political message Nickel and Dimed by Joan Holden is often performed by theater companies whose mission has to do with social and political justice. One example is the 3 Graces Theater Company whose mission statement explains their goal to present theater that “expos[es] and explor[es] the power of women’s experiences.”[6]

While many theater companies, like the 3 Graces Theater Company or the Bank Street Theater in New York City, may struggle with their presentation of the play it still tends to be successful in emphasizing and expanding the effects of Ehrenreich’s book. With the books overarching success it seems overwhelming to take up such a task as writing it as a script, but Holden believes that this journalistic task pulls “the audience deeper into the economic and emotional landscape of these workers,” which provides the viewer with a deeper understanding of the lives of these women.[7] While the book focuses primarily on Barbara’s journey the play provides a deeper investigation and understanding of the emotions and lives of some of the workers Barbara encountered.[8]

After reading both the play and the book and researching reviews and journal articles about the theater production, I agree that the play helps to emphasize Ehrenreich’s message. Sher explains that she could align with Barbara because like her, she came from a middle class background that was established by her family work history. One of the most encapsulating quotes from Ehrenreich states: “I wasn’t born in the middle-class: I watched my father get us here. I think, if you’re born in this class, it’s easy to ignore that lucky accident, and attribute all your happiness and your achievements to your own superior talents. You forget you’re here thanks to some recent or long-lost ancestor’s amazing gifts, or grit, or rapacity. And we all forget how it is we eat fast, live in a shiny clean house, and buy everything we want cheap: thanks to other people, who drew lower numbers in the birth lottery. We forget to thank the real major donors.” Regardless of the varied reviews of the play, I think it is successful in one way or another by encouraging conversation about the political, economic, and welfare history of the country.

[1]Intiman Theater: Purpose

[2] Hansel, Adrien-Alice. “Subsidized Living: Reflections on Bringing Nickel and Dimed to the Stage: Joan Holden and Barbara Ehrenreich Interviewed by Adrien-Alice Hansel.” Theater, 33(3), 97.

[3] O’Connor, Jacqueline. “Nickel and Dimed by Joan Holden.” Theatre Journal, 55 (2), 342.

[4] Hansel, 103.

[5] Stevens, Andrea. “Evoking Lives Struggling to Exist on Bare Minimums,” The New York Times, October 2006. < http://theater.nytimes.com/2006/10/11/theater/reviews/11nick.html?_r=0>

[6] 3Graces Theater Co. < http://threegracestheater.org/about/index.htm>

[7] Hansel, 99.

[8] Holden, Joan. Nickel and Dimed. NY: Dramatists Play Service Inc. 2005. Based on Nickel and Dimed, on (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

More Blogs and Reviews of the Production:

http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/09.11.03/nickel-0337.html

http://www.talkinbroadway.com/regional/minn/minn43.html

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