The following email came in April, 2008, when Unseam'd Shakespeare announced plans to revive a dramatization of "Out of This Furnace." As an insider's account of an interesting company at an interesting time in theater history, it deserves attention. -- Christopher Rawson
Dear Chris Rawson,
You may remember my work in Pittsburgh which began over 30 years ago when I was executive producer and co-founder of The Iron Clad Agreement. I understand there is to be a new production of "Out of This Furnace," first dramatized by The Iron Clad Agreement in 1978, and thought you might be interested in some history.
The Iron Clad Agreement was founded by Wilson Hutton and me in 1976 when we took leaves of absence from the Carnegie Mellon Drama School -- he from the acting option and I from the doctoral program (theatre aesthetics). (Wil was later to return to teach voice and speech.) I had just produced the play "Carnegie" by Scottish playwright Ian Brown in the Old Post Office Museum on the North Side.
David Demarest first suggested to my professor Jim Rosenberg and Jim to me that I consider dramatizing "Out of This Furnace" which he (David) had just had reissued.
The project we conceived was a play in three acts (following the book), to be toured act by act to the milltowns where the action took place. The play opened in the union hall in Braddock -- the very union founded at the end of the book. On opening night, people lined the sidewalks -- not to see us so much as to see themselves as they "were." The audience had to keep coming back for the next two weeks to see what would happen next in this serialized version.
We incorporated a backdrop comprising a huge rear projection screen (hard to come by in those days, so we made our own) and a constantly changing montage of black and white photographs. The latter came from the archival research of Randy Harris. The photos were of the actual people from the book, some of whom we were privileged enough to interview, thanks to the sleuthing of David Demarest. Others were backdrops from the period or perhaps salient props (the production was deliberately minimalist). The result was quite powerful for the audience and for all of us. Just to be clear: the screen was not hung above the stage but was the actual backdrop -- an idea I had fallen in love with while researching German expressionism.
Friends and mentors Larry Carra, Bes Kimberly and Denise Huot/duMaurier advised on various aspects of the production. As executive producer of the ICA, I felt that OOTF in this format was probably one of the most satisfying projects I created, as it brought people together with their history and let them share their story with a wider audience. Steel mills were closing all around us, so the triumphant end to the book was about to fade into history. With professional actors portraying the characters, the local people felt their story was lifted up and given the recognition it deserved.
Marie Bell, widow of author Thomas Bell, gave me rights to adapt the book for the theatre and later to market it to film and television. She came to the premiere in Braddock and we loved having her with us. We became good friends and kept in touch for many years. Tom Bell had lived in L.A and saw one of his novels adapted for the screen and another for Broadway. His friends from that earlier era of film and theatre, producer Julian Roffman and director Garson Kanin, were also supportive of our efforts.
Later, we decided to make the play into a one-night, more traditional theatre piece. I engaged the late Hal Scott, Broadway director, and playwright Andy Wolk to work on this production. Oren Parker stopped by one night with our board member, Carnegie Institute of Technology Professor Richard Teare to advise on the building of the set. It was a good production but didn't have the energy of the previous event-oriented version in which the spectators were truly the show.
The Iron Clad Agreement's first opus was a cycle of seven original plays with music called "The Gilded Age of Invention." The life, work and context of seven inventors, including George Westinghouse, were dramatized by three performers. At the end of our first year, we took this cycle of plays to the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe in Scotland.
All in all, the Iron Clad Agreement produced over 30 original works with original music, including a radio series. We toured the plays regionally, performing in union halls, grange halls, classrooms, corporate boardrooms, river barges, factory loading docks, museums, historic sites and sometimes real theatres. We performed "Westinghouse" for WABCO employees in the "Castle" in Wilmerding, "Edison" at the Edison National Historic Site, our Eli Whitney play "Interchangeable Parts" in Whitney's barn, just to name a few.
We took the history of industry and technology and examined it from a myriad of perspectives. In the process, we brought together the two sides of the Carnegie-Mellon campus, incorporating artists and engineers in every aspect of our work.
The focus of the company was to bring together performers, playing many roles and also various inventions, with non-traditional theatre audiences. We took our theatre to their spaces and environments, rather than having them come to the controlled environment of a theatre. The audience brought their myths and thoughts; we brought our presentations and research. The result was usually a lively combination, always followed immediately by discussion. I remember when U.S. Steel was "on trial" in Youngstown, we had the president of U.S. Steel and the head of the United Steelworkers in the same audience. The sociologist Staughton Lynd was a fan and supporter, as was Derek Price, head of the history of science at Yale.
These were stimulating and heady years. At the time, no one had brought together this content and this minimalist populist style.
In our last year in Pittsburgh, we commissioned Jerry James to write "Virgins and Dynamos," a vaudeville show on the building of the railroads in America, featuring Henry Adams at the St. Louis World's Fair. After a Pittsburgh premiere at Carlow College, "V&D" opened at the Royal Society of Arts in London and toured the industrial regions of England. Once in New York, we brought "The Amazing American Invention Factory," "Thomas Edison" and "Toymakers" to Lincoln Center for their Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Holiday Festivals.
The Iron Clad Agreement was funded by national and state endowments for the arts and humanities as well as corporate and private foundations and labor unions.
Of course, it would be great to see The Iron Clad Agreement recognized in the context of revival of theatrical interest in "Out of This Furnace" and George Westinghouse. We were really out on a limb at the time with our content and style. It was a total risk or "total original . . . a theatrical child prodigy," as a consultant for the Heinz Endowment called it. Whatever, it spoke to the "half activist-half scholar," Jim Rosenberg's sobriquet for me when I was in graduate school, and engaged our heads and our hearts.
Most of our archives (including scripts and audio tapes of all productions) are in the Curtis Theatre Collection, Special Collections, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.
The Iron Clad Agreement is written up in Bruce A. McConachie's book, "Theatre for Working-Class Audiences in the United States, 1830-1980" (Greenwood Press, 1985), alongside the Bread & Puppet and El Teatro Campesino.
I hope this information is useful.
Julia Royall (Swoyer when I was in Pittsburgh)
Chief, International Programs
U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health
Fulbright Scholar to Uganda 2007-8
Asked later when Iron Clad Agreement had disbanded, Royall added:
In 1981 in Pittsburgh; then two more years in NYC. The latter included a documentary television program on people affected by the closing of a textile mill; two runs at Alice Tully Hall Lincoln Center Holiday Festival ("Edison" and "Toymakers"); and an American tour of "Echoes from the Valley," with ICA director Tom Hearn directing, for Major Road Theatre Co. in the UK. "Echoes" was based on the reminiscences of retired textile workers in Yorkshire. Its tour which I produced, traced the movement of the textile industry from the North of England to New England to the South, performing at factories and historic textile sites. Ton Hearn and I followed this in 1984 with five weeks of oral history workshops with social workers and factory workers in Hong Kong. At the end of 1984, I moved to Boston and on to WGBH and new paths.
To a further question, she added:
. . . my work is one continuous evolution in which people in communities share their stories/research with a wider audience for a greater good. And my current work uses artists, too.