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The Stars of Bethlehem

A community mourns the loss of “the steel” through a unique theatrical event.

“In the beginning I had no idea what [movement director] Jennie [Gilrain] was trying to do with us. How was being in a group of total strangers and simulating a wave going to help me be Steelworker #9? As I watched the passion and desire ‘to be the wave’ that was shown by my cast mates, I first saw the flame of life that is the theatre burn in each and every one of them. The amazing part was that I felt it in me! I think acting is showing that there is a common thread of life in each of us, touching someone’s heart to the point that they say, ‘Hey, that’s a part of me up there!'”
Steelbound community cast member Vinnie Paden

For two weekends last September, a deserted iron foundry that had once roared and hummed as part of Bethlehem Steel was animated again. The occasion was Steelbound, a production developed and produced by Bethlehem, Pa.’s Touchstone Theatre. The play, adapted by Alison Carey and directed by Bill Rauch of the Los Angeles-based Cornerstone Theater Company, was built on the real-life stories of countless community members who had been connected to “the Steel.”

The seeds of Steelbound were sown in 1994, at the same place it flowered. Touchstone artistic director Mark McKenna and ensemble member Jennie Gilrain took the renowned French physical theatre artist and educator Jacques Lecoq, their former teacher, on a tour of a working Bethlehem Steel mill. Struck by the vastness of the space, the pouring of molten metal and the cacophony of sounds, Lecoq (who died last year) urged the Touchstone artists to do a performance there with “a chorus that sings.” Inspired by Lecoq’s enthusiasm, Gilrain conceptualized a multi-arts festival that would include a Greek tragedy played in the mill, involve professional artists and former steel workers as collaborators, and commemorate “the end of an era.”

Steelbound depended on relationships that Touchstone has built over 18 years. Most crucial were the company’s ties with “Beth Steel,” without which it would have been impossible to get on site, and the steelworkers’ union, which would give the project credibility in the community. Part of the challenge was that, given the devastating layoffs in the industry in recent years, the relationship between Beth Steel and the union was severely strained.

The Steel had dominated Bethlehem for over a century. At the peak of production, it employed about 35,000 people at the Bethlehem plant. When the business hit hard times in the 1970s and 1980s, the corporation responded by focusing on new technologies at facilities in other towns. By March 1998, all local plants had been closed. If Touchstone intended for the full range of worker sentiments—including intense anger and a perception of mismanagement—to be expressed in Steelbound, the union could not see how Beth Steel would support it.

But that’s exactly what happened. Gilrain marvels: “It still blows my mind that this big corporation collaborated with little Touchstone, which is seen as avant-garde and leftist, whereas Bethlehem Steel is seen as very conservative. The piece would not have been what it was if it had not been done in the foundry. And that only happened because we had forged that relationship over time.” McKenna concurs: “Steelbound isn’t the beginning of a story, it’s somewhere in the middle. It grew out of the way Touchstone has related to people in this community for years.” Because of this connectedness, Steelbound functioned like a ritual, marking and responding to a major passage in the community’s life. As in the Arabian Nights, there are 1,001 stories of which Steelbound is a part. Where the Steel ended, this play began. Where this play ended, something else is emerging.

Touchstone originally planned to mount Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, given local resonance with the central image of fire and themes like the forced submission to power and ambivalence about “progress.” Project Composer Ysaye Barnwell (of the acclaimed a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock) attended a reading of Prometheus Bound that McKenna organized for former steel workers and dubbed it disastrous: “The audience understood the metaphor but found it boring.” The collaborators then decided that the original tragedy should be rewritten to express the specific circumstances of the former steel workers. That’s when McKenna invited director Rauch and writer Carey on board, based on Cornerstone’s hard-won reputation for adapting classics to reflect the realities of specific communities.

Adapting the Text

Alison Carey’s first task was to interview scores of former steel workers, and she set about her task in Bethlehem union halls, bars, cafes, at an outdoor festival and at several workshop sessions. Many of her contacts were people who had long ties to Touchstone. As Gilrain explains, “I had taught a storytelling workshop at Lehigh University in the fall of ’96, in which each student interviewed a steelworker. So when we needed contacts for Alison, we just had to say, ‘Hello again—remember us?'”

Steelbound was different from other adaptations Carey has done, such as Romeo and Juliet in Port Gibson, Miss., and Three Sisters… from West Virginia, both presented by Cornerstone in 1989. In those projects, she worked line by line from the original text, with the structure of the dialogue, plot, characters and scenes remaining essentially the same. But here, the multiple points of view and the overwhelming need for the play to come to grips with the real-world situation overtook the original. “Much of Prometheus Bound speaks specifically about the future,” Carey elaborates, “and the purpose of this project was to reflect on the past.” While the structure and the kernel of the characters in Steelbound are recognizably from Aeschylus, individual lines cannot be tracked. And, whereas written material about the communities Cornerstone engages with is not always available, Carey was able to gather and make use of extensive documentation about the making of steel.

After several visits to Bethlehem, Carey wrote the play’s first draft, a process she describes as “rubbing two things together and seeing what sticks.” Her local informants, Carey says, were “really smart people who’ve thought a lot about their lives and are telling their own stories.” While she experienced some moments of “nervous defensiveness” after working on the script alone for an intense period and then opening it up to group ownership, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “People are not just sources of information, but also partners in shaping the production in structure and intent,” Carey avows. “The play we all wrote together was much better than the one I would have written alone.”

The Production Process

The script was sent out to lots of people and left in public places around Bethlehem, including the public library. Comments were welcomed. Spectators for the first reading at a union hall were moved by the material, clearly relating to it as their story, but they were also willing to offer pointed criticisms. More memories were evoked—a black worker described being in a racial minority at the mill; a young woman recounted her mother’s practice of scheduling shopping around the inevitable traffic jams caused by the changing of the shifts.

Auditions for the production were held at a union hall, community centers, schools, places of worship and at Touchstone’s theatre, attracting a good cross-section of the townspeople. Some who auditioned perform whenever the opportunity arises, but most were former steelworkers and their families who participated because they trusted Touchstone’s motivation in the undertaking. As is Rauch’s usual practice, nearly all who auditioned—a surprisingly high 127—were called back. In Cornerstone’s experience, some 65 percent of the callbacks show up—these are not professional actors—but in Bethlehem 95 percent of them returned. Rauch sees this as an expression of the passion community members had to tell the Steelbound story. Carey did some script work to accommodate an expanded cast, which finally numbered 56. While not all the large roles went to Touchstone actors, ensemble member Bill George was chosen to portray Prometheus.

Once a month from January through July, movement director Gilrain and local music director Bev Morgan held Saturday rehearsals to fuse the cast into an ensemble. The company’s movement-based aesthetic pervaded the production. At one rehearsal, for example, Gilrain asked Tom Petro, a highly articulate former steel worker and plant tour guide, to describe first in words and then in movement how steel is made. Petro had not intended to do more than verbally pass on information. But the movement sequence that Gilrain distilled from Petro’s demonstration that day became an especially rich sequence in the final show—and it enticed other local people to stretch beyond their comfort zone.

Art-making that combines experienced and inexperienced actors is sometimes delicate. How is a director to tap the power of people telling their own stories, despite the fact that they lack the training that strengthens a voice, makes a body an instrument of expression, disciplines them to repeat a great moment night after night? Building on Gilrain and Morgan’s groundwork, Rauch arrived in August and instilled the cast with confidence that the professionals among them would provide the technical support. He emphasized, however, that technique was nothing without the presence of the community actors, who were the reason for the piece’s being. Composer Barnwell asserts that ultimately the professional/nonprofessional question is irrelevant: “What we are here to do and why we are here to do it—that’s the only thing we have to be sure of. That’s what will make it happen.”

After three weeks’ rehearsal, the cast moved to the former iron foundry. An electrical generator was installed, lights were hung, bleachers were built and transported in by city crews, and a 27-ton ladle, formerly the receptacle for molten steel, was anchored into the ground. Gilrain attests, “That Beth Steel sent expert drivers, crane operators and workers to move the ladle, a 27-ton theatre prop, into the foundry, epitomizes our amazing relationship with them, which is, to this day, a mystery to me.” Like his mythic namesake, who stole fire from the other gods and gave it to humanity, this production’s Prometheus was bound for the duration of the play-not to a rocky promontory but to a massive receptacle evoking memories of fiery steel.

The Show

For Steelbound‘s eight performances, the audience waits in line at the gate of the mammoth brick foundry, which dates back to 1863. Its yawning arches are open to the air where windows and doors once stood. With the arrival of spectators, what the actors have been doing shifts into sharp focus—they are reinhabiting a former way of life in order to set it to rest. Their actions are at once real and symbolic, evoking, for public acknowledgement, a way of life people thought would last forever. There is no better place to tell this tale.

On opening night, even the weather contributes to the pervasive sense of ritual. As Gilrain describes it later, “There was an incredible storm. It was like a consecration of that space. The spirits of the men who died there and have died since it closed were raging around, just barely short of electrifying Bill up on that ladle. The place was being cleared of all the ghosts who had never been sufficiently heard. There was a lot of anger in that lightning. It was an extremely spiritual experience.”

As the play opens, the space is bare except for the ladle. A chauffeur drives in with two elegant passengers identified as Progress’s henchmen, Brutality and Indifference. Popping open the trunk, the chauffeur deposits a bound man onto the ground. This is Prometheus, the former steel worker unwilling to leave and accept the closing of the mill. Christlike, he is welded to the ladle, ankles gripped to its upturned handle, wrists bound to two suspended chains, arms outstretched. Various individuals and three choruses—of Women, Steel Workers and Youth—approach him to inquire why he’s there or to persuade him to leave.

Prometheus: It hurts to talk, it hurts
not to.
Just like always.
And to tell the truth,
The story changes depending on who you ask.
But I know what happened to me is
what happened to this mill,
All these acres of brick and work and metal and hope.
See, the mills couldn’t rule economies,
Or move great lakes south,
Or change their own layout,
Or give fair wages to foreign workers,
Or subsidize industries,
Or determine past practices,
Or improve technology,
Or decide what people buy,
Or inspire board rooms.
And neither could I,
Or at least I didn’t.
I’ll tell you one thing, though.
What did I do? I had a job.
Used to be, you asked people around here,
“What do you do?”
They answered, “I’m building America.”
What did I do to end up like this?
I built America.

The cast spans a broad age range—the oldest actor in the cast, at the emotional climax of the play, simply but powerfully reads the dates of the opening and closing of each building in the plant, like a family chronicle. Meanwhile, one by one, each character places a symbol of the Steel onto a pile in the center of the stage—a helmet, an adding machine, a tool.

Themes meet and cross. Faced with Prometheus’s great sense of betrayal, the young people sing, “I used to think that every good deed was paid back by one even better.” The Women’s Chorus responds to the youngsters’ ensuing sense of nihilism with the retort, “That’s not the lesson to be learned here.” Their exchange is interrupted by the emergence of a wounded character (played by former Touchstone acting associate Sara Brady) who’s lost her memory and fears that in forgetting the bad—suffocatingly hot, monotonous work and an ordered, conformist way of life—she’s also forgotten the good. She propels the action beyond denial to the mourning of an era of small-town prosperity and secure jobs. Maybe moving on, we begin to feel, is not so bad. Maybe the Steel closed not simply because of the owners’ greed, in the face of which the workers were no longer valued, but because they had done their work—they had built America. The idea is given voice in paeans to paper clips and safety pins, skyscrapers and frying pans, the amazing diversity of stuff made of steel.

Finally, the affirmation of friendships forged in the mills moves Prometheus to break his chains. A character who has come to write about the mill declares:

If I write a history of this place, though,
There will be one thing I will be sorry to have missed
Most of the days of your life, you knew
That the people who stood next to you
Would watch your back. You knew
The people who stood next to you
Would risk their lives to save yours.
You knew because you saw it happen every day.
Not because they had to, or because they should
But because they wanted to. Because they were proud to.
The history of this place is not just the history
Of accomplishment, and courage,
Of battles and injustice,
It’s the history of fellowship, of care.
And that’s what can carry you away from here today.

Does this focus on the human values embedded in the past avoid a tougher approach? It’s possible to challenge the absence of a fuller questioning of the corporate economics driving the decision to close the plant. Was the production compromised by its close ties to Bethlehem Steel, one of its chief benefactors?
McKenna does not believe the production held back because of the corporation’s support. “Beth Steel wanted this play to be a positive step to the future, but they never tried to censor us,” he notes. “They are aware of negative perspectives about the closing. They understand the impact of their decision to close down. They were willing to support a project where they didn’t have control over what was said.

“One of the first questions everyone asks is, ‘Why did it shut down?’ But this wasn’t the real story,” McKenna continues. “The strongest emotion connected to the Steel was pride. Even the bitterest person was moved by the magnitude of what they did. They were proud to work in cold or heat, and they depended on the bonds created with the people they worked with.”

Above all, publicly expressing these emotions in Bethlehem is cathartic. The play draws full-house audiences of 300 each night. The phone at Touchstone rings off the hook. If catharsis has an element of resignation, it also has the power to release suppressed emotion and move people on. Efforts to extend the production are confounded by insurmountable obstacles. On Sept. 19, 1999, five years after Lecoq’s tour through the Steel, the play closes.

The Response

“For Beth Steel,” says McKenna, “it was great community relations. The public came on to the steel site, a forbidden zone where there are not even tours anymore. One lady, a stranger, said to my mother-in-law as they walked in, ‘My husband died here. I can’t believe I’m coming in.'”

Because of Beth Steel’s support, some steel workers came apprehensively, as attested to in this letter to the local Morning Call:

Like many other former steelworkers, I thought [Steelbound] would be a whitewash of the truth. Bethlehem Steel had a way of rewriting events at the plant. The writers of the play, however, couldn’t have done a better job of telling the truth. They actually captured the essence of what being a steelworker was all about: the constant betrayal and lies, the misleading promises, and, most importantly, the fellowship of the men themselves.

Another letter, from Vietnam veteran Stephen C. Bedics of Bethlehem, captured the ritual nature of the event:

The play was like a “Wall” for steelworkers. The essence of the Vietnam vet and the veteran steelworker is put very nicely in the play: “We did it for each other.” I feel privileged to have shared that brotherhood.

Touchstone members have also been affected. McKenna relates that normally when people find out he’s an actor, they ask if they’ve seen him on television, and wonder what he’s doing in Bethlehem. Never having had commercial aspirations, he explains that he does community-based work… and generally watches people’s eyes glaze over. Steelbound, he believes, helped make them understand. “In my bones, it made me feel more like an artist than I’ve ever felt in my life,” he says.

Steelbound did not, however, fulfill all of Touchstone’s expectations. It did not tell women’s stories or address issues of race and discrimination that were part of the Steel experience. And it did not fulfill the original desire to “look to the past to help see our future.” “Steelbound was not about the future,” states McKenna, “as we had thought it might be. It was about closure on the past, because that’s what was needed. The play brought focus to the fact that the people laid off made an enormous contribution to the country. In the day-to-day life of our economic system, there is never time for that.”

To bring women into the picture, Gilrain and Touchstone member Cora Hook have initiated Never Done (as in, “A woman’s work is . . .”), with an interracial cast of three women. And McKenna hopes to involve local people in Touchstone’s summer street-theatre troupe to explore the town’s future. “‘Bethlehem Works,’ a massive redevelopment project with museums and retail spaces, is happening right here in south Bethlehem,” he notes. “But there’s the economic bottom line: Is it going to bring jobs and bring people in to spend money? Maybe the street theatre will do storytelling circles here, and ask what besides good jobs makes a good community. Right now our town is becoming. I don’t want it to be a string of chain stores, though they’re putting their money down and moving in. I’m just glad that we’re here, responding to our community. We’re not going away.”

There was talk of remounting Steelbound next summer for the many who weren’t able to fit into the show’s original limited run. The company had doubts, though, because of the play’s ritual purpose—to put closure on an era. What would doing it again mean? As Cora Hook joked, would it become like Cats—Steelbound, now and forever?” Or, like the classic move from ritual to theatre, would the play reveal its universal quality, not limited to a particular moment in this community’s life? While the cast and production team were ultimately in favor of a second run, Beth Steel was starting renovations on the foundry for “Bethlehem Works.” The foundry space, Steelbound’s central character after all, was unavailable. So there will be no return engagement.

Jan Cohen-Cruz co-edited Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism and edited Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology. She is on the faculty advisory committee for New York University Tisch School of the Arts’ new Center for Art, Society, and Public Policy.

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