Thursday, July 30, 2009

The World Around Us

Hello, dear readers. So, we’ve talked about Georgia during the Great Depression, but there’s a whole world out there that we haven’t discussed. Now, this is an isolated town and a great many of the residents probably don’t even know there is a world around them (I’m looking at you, Merlie Ryan). However, when you see our show and if you listen real closely to the cafe chatter, you might hear tell of the current events of the day. I’m not naming any names, but that particular character who enjoys reading the local paper is the impetus of this blog. In addition to giving an actor some fodder to play with, this informal timeline will hopefully give you a more specific idea and context of the time of our “Ballad.”

We begin with the beginning. We’ve placed this in the year 1930 because that was the year of the great Georgian drought. As Rainey 1 says in the first scene, “We all be thirsty from the lack of rain.” We know from a previous post that Georgia was hurting in a big way, but so was the rest of the country. With the market crashing the previous October, President Hoover had to appoint the Commission for Unemployment Relief. To compound the problems, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act is passed by Congress, which causes foreign trade to decrease sharply and the depression to worsen. In other news, astronomers discover Pluto, which recently didn’t work out too well for Pluto; and in weird news, N.Y. Supreme Court Judge Joseph Crater liquidates all of his assets and disappears, never to be heard from again. I can only imagine what our twenty-four hour news networks would do with that.

Now, as the narrator says, four years go by--like that. This brings us to 1934 and the country is still deep in the Depression. The New Deal, which was implemented by Roosevelt the previous year, is beginning to help the country’s economy. On a global level, Adolf Hitler becomes the Fuhrer and the USSR is welcomed into the United Nations. Also in the headlines, Bonnie and Clyde are shot and killed by the law and the cheeseburger is officially invented, though not in the same place.

We return to our “Ballad” and find Cousin Lymon asking the all important question, “Who is Marvin Macy?” (pick up your buttons at the show). To answer this question our narrator takes us back about sixteen years to the Macy brothers and a young Miss Amelia. It’s 1918 and the world is at war with the United States entering the battlefield the previous year. The Allied troops are making their presence known in the Russian Civil War and the Spanish influenza epidemic spreads throughout the world. In lighter news, Daylight Savings Time is established and the Boston Red Sox beat the Chicago Cubs in the World Series (surprise, surprise).

Over the next two years, while Marvin Macy is cleaning himself up to court and finally marry Miss Amelia, the world is changing. The Treaty of Versailles is signed to end World War I, though the results are mixed. On the homefront, the 18th Amendment is adopted, which begins Prohibition and drastically affects towns like our “Ballad” (see previous blogs). In theatre news, Eugene O'Neill's first full-length play, “Beyond the Horizon,” is produced on Broadway; it wins the Pulitzer and is deemed the first American drama.

With Lymon’s question answered, we return to 1934 and move right along to the climatic fight around a year later. As Amelia and Marvin are greasin’ up, President Roosevelt is instituting the second phase of the New Deal, which includes programs like social security and farm assistance. In theatre news, George Gershwin premieres “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway and the Detroit Tigers beat the Chicago Cubs in the World Series (the latter being the Theatre of Cruelty).

For three years Miss Amelia waits on her stoop for Cousin Lymon to return, which brings us to 1938. Our town is quiet now, but the world keeps spinning around it. Hitler marches into Austria as the Nazis are sending tens of thousands to concentration camps. Orson Welles sends a panic across the nation that aliens are attacking with his broadcast of “War of the Worlds.” In sports news? Don’t ask. Alright, fine: the New York Yankees beat the Chicago Cubs in the World Series.

Some things never change.

Your humble dramaturg,


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Sense of Setting

The stock market takes a nosedive. The banks are collapsing. Loans are near impossible to get for the lower class and small businesses are dying off. Sound familiar? I’d be willing to bet that most folks would assume I’m talking about our current economic crises, but as you’re sitting there reading a dramaturgical blog (nerd), you know I must be talking about something else. Yes, dear reader, this was life in our town of the sad cafe. But it goes much deeper. Welcome to Georgia during the Great Depression.

To best understand what impact the Great Depression had on our small, rural town, let’s rewind a decade. During World War I, the demand for cotton created a boom in the industry, but by 1920, with the war over and the demand gone, cotton prices plummeted. The farmers were forced to use every inch of land and put in twice the labor just to keep up. Many deserted the farms for the city, while others had no choice but to become sharecroppers under large landowners (i.e. big business). You’d think that would be enough, but the bad news didn’t stop there. Boll weevil, a nasty little bug with a penchant for chowing on cotton as a young larvae, first showed up in 1915 and just eight years later, it had destroyed 2.6 million acres of cash crop. Want a little salt in the wound? Because the farmers had to plant every bit of land they had in order to keep even, the soil became depleted. This, along with the stripping of natural forests which left the farms helpless against erosion, turned once fertile ground into a wasteland. This was the condition of our little town as they approached the stock market crash in October of 1929.

It’s like they didn’t even have a chance. While the urban parts of the state were relatively protected because of recent industrialization and a large bump in their workforce due to the influx of former farmers, the rural areas were decimated. If one even needed a bad omen, the decade began with the worst drought in the history of the state. As the Depression continued, the conditions just got worse and worse. Hope arrived with President Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933 and his subsequent New Deal, but Georgia, again, got the short end of the stick. Its governor at the time, Eugene Talmage, felt Roosevelt and his New Deal were full of communist ideals and stopped at nothing to block their influence. This lasted until the end of his term when he was mercifully beaten by E.D. Rivers. Finally, Georgia could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ll wrap this up, but before I do, let me bring it briefly back to our “Ballad.” Try to put yourself in the middle of this devastation. Picture a home with no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing. The most common meals are some combination of molasses, fatback and cornbread. If you own a farm, it’s in foreclosure and your fields are decimated and no longer plowable. If you’re working at the cotton mill, the jobs are disappearing quicker than the cotton. Picture all of this and it’s no wonder that the good people of our “Ballad” flocked to Miss Amelia’s cafe. Stay at home in the dark and chew on a piece of fat off the back of the pig or walk on down to the cafe for some homemade moonshine, a little comforting company and a menu of fried chicken, ham, winter peas, hominy grits, and collards.

This is what the cafe meant to this town.

Your humble dramaturg,


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," Directed by George C. Scott?

Here’s an example of a great story that, in no way, will help us put up the play…but it’s just too damn good to not share. This is the story of “Ballad’s” Broadway premiere.

On the first day of rehearsal, Albee addressed the actors: “You’re good actors. Alan’s a good director. Ben’s built a nice set. So if the play’s lousy, it’s my fault. And that’s why the first day of rehearsal is depressing to me.” As the story goes, this was just a bit of an oversimplification.

Alan Schneider was pegged to direct the play since he had quite a history with Albee, having just directed his biggest hit, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” It should be pointed out that, not coincidentally, Schneider was Beckett’s favorite American director as well. Once casting began, Albee insisted on Colleen Dewhurst for Amelia and, while being perfect for the role, she clashed with Schneider from the beginning. Now, this wasn’t unheard of, as Schneider had the same relationship with Uta Hagen during ‘Virginia Woolf’, but as they approached previews for “Ballad,” Dewhurst said the director, “was beginning to show signs of cowardice. He was frightened by the material.” To make matters worse, she decided to have her husband, George C. Scott—yes, that George C. Scott—re-choreograph the climatic fight scene. After running through the new version, Schneider, who knew nothing of Scott’s involvement, objected to what he saw. A huge blowout ensued with Dewhurst storming out and refusing to take any more notes from her director. Eesh.

To make matters worse, the play went into rehearsal in the form of three long acts. Albee promised to cut and cut he did, but for every scene that was scratched, the narrator got a long monologue to replace it. Roscoe Lee Browne, who played the narrator, said, “I would have a new speech incorporating most of a scene they just deleted. They didn’t realize I was complaining when I said, ‘Gentlemen, there’s something wrong with this fellow who comes to tell you what you’ve just seen, what you’re now looking at and what you’re going to see.’” Dewhurst became increasingly frustrated over having to fight the narrator for her territory on stage. Browne, her friend, said, “In her rage, she would say to Schneider, ‘you have this wonderful actor stuck out there.’ By the time we were in previews, Colleen was in deep trouble with the piece. She knew of course she needed another eye to see what she was doing. It couldn’t be anybody onstage, and she would not allow the director to do it.”

Enter George C. Scott. At his wife’s request, he sat quietly in the back of the theatre, diligently taking notes. Scott, Dewhurst, and Browne all got together afterwards and went through the play line by line. Scott recommended cut after cut of the narrator’s speeches and gave them both his notes. By the time they were finished, the narrator’s role had been sliced from over twenty speeches to eight. Now came the tricky part: convincing Schneider.

Browne went to his director with Scott’s ideas disguised as his own. Much to his shock, Schneider admitted that the cuts made sense, but they’d have to be approved by Albee. That evening, Albee came backstage at Browne’s request and the two of them sat down the script. Albee’s replied, “You’re still saying those dreadful words? Take them out!” When asked if he ever told Albee about Scott’s influence, Browne replied, “Never! Never, never, never. It would have been most indiscreet to mention it.” Did Schneider ever know? No, Brown replied, he “would have wondered, who else was directing the play?”

Not exactly the portrait of professionalism you’d imagine backstage on Broadway. Happy to report that the most drama we’ve had thus far are an onslaught of Crazy Merlie jokes followed by uncontrollable laughter.

Pretty good story, huh?

Your humble dramaturg,


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What We Drinking?

“The whiskey they drank that evening is important. Otherwise, it would be hard to account for what followed. Perhaps without it there would never have been a cafe. For the liquor of Miss Amelia has a special quality of its own. It is clean and sharp on the tongue, but once down a man, it glows inside him for a long time afterward. And that is not all. Things that have gone unnoticed, thoughts that have been harbored far back in the dark mind, are suddenly recognized and comprehended. A man may suffer, or he may be spent with joy--but he has warmed his soul and seen the message hidden there.”

--The Narrator, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Cafe’

Now that’s some good liquor. Where can you get some of that, you may ask. Well, it’s my job to tell you. Fair warning, though. As it happens, some Georgia Moon corn whiskey (today’s equivalent) has been floating around our space for about a year now. When a bottle of liquor lasts that long around Signal, it says something.

It turns out it was the northern Irish (God bless ‘em) who brought the process of moonshine to the American colonies during the 18th century. It’s a relatively simple process in two steps: fermentation and distillation. The fermentation is the process of breaking down the starches of the corn grain into sugars. To speed this up, sugar, yeast and malt can be added to the mix, making up the mash. Once you had the mash, the distillation of the alcohol was achieved by heating it, which would separate the alcohol from the water. That vapor would then be chilled and, voila, moonshine. This was all done in a homemade still and then kept, usually, in mason jars (though Miss Amelia of “Ballad” was fancy and kept hers in barrels).

Before the Civil War, moonshining wasn’t even moonshining yet; it was a respectable practice by farmers who were just making a little extra on the side with their excess crops. Crafty. It wasn’t until the federal government tried to tax what they referred to as “luxuries” in the 1860’s that the term “moonshiner” came into play. Those that didn’t want to pay the tax on the liquor they were making were forced to carry on under the light of the moon. Not paying taxes was one thing, but when prohibition came along, moonshining made the transition from tax evasion to out and out against the law.

Now, we come to the 1930’s; around the time of our “Ballad.” Despite prohibition, moonshining was a good option for farmers and, given the economic climate, it was often the only option. At that time, unskilled laborers were making around 40 cents an hour, but one trip to Atlanta would bring in forty dollars. Hmmm, twenty dollars or four hundred dollars a week? Easy enough to figure that one out. Now, the danger wasn’t so much in making the moonshine, but in transporting it. It had to be at night and it had to be fast. So, bootleggers, or “trippers,” became adept at souping up their V-8 Fords into what was called “tanker cars”...and even more adept at driving them. This, folks, was not only the inspiration for “The Dukes of Hazzard,” but the beginning of Nascar as we know it. In fact, the first stars of Nascar all got their start running liquor in the moonshine business. So, when Cousin Lymon tells Miss Amelia he wants to “go in the Ford tomorrow,” he’s not talking about a country ride in the jalopy.

Thirsty? Yep, me too.

Your humble dramaturg,