2015 - A trip to the tenements
As theater artists, we are always in search of things that spark our curiosity and wonder. In 2015 when we stumbled on a tour of The Tenement Museum, our heads started to spin with questions, we had to find out more!
Pulling back the layers
Twenty layers of wallpaper and forty layers of paint were found on the walls of 97 Orchard Street when the Tenement Museum purchased and began to explore the space that had been sealed since the 1930s. Our jaws dropped when we learned this. What if we created a show set in an old tenement apartment where each layer of paper held a story of the former tenants? What if we could pull back the layers and the stories of those families magically came to life? Our creation journey had begun.
Ordinary is Extraordinary
The extraordinary stories of ordinary people are not typically found in history books. We didn’t want to tell the story of the men who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, we wanted to tell the story of a man who might have worked to help build it. We didn’t want to tell the story of the woman who led the Strike of 20,000, we wanted to tell the story of the girls who decided to join. Finding the lesser known narratives meant that we would have to create the stories based in historical fact. And this meant a LOT of research. Here are some of our favorite titles:
Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough
Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side by Rose Cohen
Immigrant Women in the land of Dollars by Elizabeth Ewen;
97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman
Audacity by Melanie Crowder.
The New Victory LabWorks 2015
Our show began to take shape during our artist residency at The New Victory where we had the luxury of spending full weeks together in the rehearsal room. Pictured here are bunraku puppet Jimmy McKenna, Spica, Rachel and Liz with some of The New Victory’s incredible staff!
This picture is of men working inside the Brooklyn Bridge caisson. What would it have been like to report to work each day by climbing into a lock where the air pressure would suddenly become so high you could no longer whistle? And why would these men take on such dangerous and terrifying work? These questions helped us find Jimmy’s journey.
With bunraku puppets, we can easily play with scale in this story, creating the caisson on stage and a real sense of claustrophobia.
We had no idea how awful working conditions in garment factories in 1909 were for the workers. Women could be fired from a job for having to use the bathroom at unsanctioned times, for protesting the invasive ‘pat downs’ from bosses at the end of the day or for talking during the twelve hour work days. But joining the Union and deciding to strike was a big risk. Families were counting on wages and a strike was risky, especially for women.
Finding Goldine and Ruth
We were inspired by the deep spirit of friendship and camaraderie in the strike of 1909. Twenty thousand women banned together and made deep sacrifices to achieve communal gains. We wondered what it would have been like for individual teenagers to face these decisions and how their friendships might carry them through. What would we have done?
Shadow puppetry allows us to create the world of the factory in this piece as well as the riotous strike itself. This image came from an early workshop at The Chapin School.
The Great Blizzard…
In 1888, there was a blizzard so intense, several people died just from walking an avenue length. There was no warning from The Weather Channel - there were no down coats. The White Hurricane or the Great Blizzard of 1888 - whatever you want to call it, this storm is one of the worst on record for New York and actually shaped the cityscape! Our electrical wires are underground because of what you can see in this image of the Great Blizzard’s aftermath.
Marco finds his way
What does it mean to leave your home country? Do you leave your culture and traditions or bring them with you? What if your new city doesn’t welcome your skill? When we finally created the characters of young Sicilian fishermen Marco Branzini and his brother Lorenzo, we knew these were the questions they would face. —-What better way to discover why a fisherman belongs in New York than to pair him with an ocean of snow?!
Half mask, full drama
Marco’s story is told in traditional Italian half mask, a form the allows us to be as big and bold as the blizzard itself.
The three stories we tell are intricately connected by the space and time they emerge from, but we knew they also needed to be connected theatrically. We needed a guide through this old tenement and the stories inside. There was one detail from our tenement tours that stuck with us and kept coming back. The rats. Yes, rats lived in the tenements too and their nests were filled with letters, wallpaper and other little treasures. Those nests have lasted over 100 years! Disgusting and delightful. Of course rats were the missing piece!
The ones that got away
Creating original work almost always means diving into a storyline only to realize it is not meant to be. We created a journey for Hilde (pictured here) but alas, her story did not have a place in the larger show. We hope Hilde and her epic battle against cockroaches will find her way into one of our future works.
Hard hat tour
Another discarded storyline involved Ellis island. Pictured is the hospital on Ellis Island where Liz, Rachel and Spica visited the kind folks at the Ellis Island library and took a hard hat tour to find out if one of our characters might have spent time in recovery here. It turns out that storyline wouldn’t work for us but we HIGHLY recommend you grab a hard hat next time you visit Ellis Island!
Creating the set
Peiyi Wong bravely took on our vision and helped us to craft a set. The challenge became how to transform the set and layers for each story. Pictured here is an early set rendering.
Layering the walls
A different wallpaper color and design for each wall! Rachel paints Jimmy’s green wallpaper under Peiyi’s expert direction for The New Victory LabWorks sharing in 2016.
A transformative space
Not only did Peiyi create a different world for each layer of paper but she helped us transform the set within one story. Marco & Lorenzo go from a boat deck, to a snowstorm!
Help from the Henson Foundation
With the generous support of a Jim Henson Foundation Family Grant in 2017, we had the resources we needed to stage. full production! Thanks to The Tank, we had a stage. Our first run was exhilarating. We learned a lot. So much was working and resonating with our audiences! But there were still some edits to be made.
Director Elise Thoron joined the team and helped us tackle our next run in November 2018 at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan!
We know that these stories can reveal damaging cycles of prejudice, exclusion, and injustice that are relevant in our current political climate. We believe that understanding these cycles is the first step in breaking them.
Our country’s youngest generation will face a future beyond our imagination, informed by our choices today and by the people who lived before us. We believe young people should be armed with information, empathy, curiosity and wonder. We have seen the deep impact ‘Layer the Walls’ has on young people - how they continue to question and think about the dilemmas our characters face, how they connect the stories with discrimination happening today and how they want to learn more about their own stories and history.
We are excited to tour and give young people the opportunity to experience history and the struggles of immigration on a visceral level. We hope to see you at the theater soon!
Rachel and Liz