Lang Theater Commemorates Tragedy Centennial
Lang’s spring production, “From the Fire,” a theatrical tribute to the 146 workers who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory 100 years ago, opened on Wednesday, March 23 to a standing room only crowd at Judson Memorial Church, just steps away from the factory’s original location.
The production, written and directed by Lang professor Cecelia Rubino, is dubbed “a dramatic oratorio” and combines aspects of song, theater and dance to convey a humanizing and inspiring view of lives of the workers, mostly young girls, who were killed in the fire.
In under two hours, the audience is introduced to a cast of workers — from young mothers to young lovers — as they battle the merciless working conditions at the TSF, first with humor and then with their actions. The production places heavy emphasis on the 20,000-person strike that TSF workers took part in before the fire and the resounding impact that the tragedy had on working and fire safety conditions in the future.
All of “From the Fire”’s characters are based on accounts of workers, some who perished and others who survived. The characters are a stark contrast to the grainy black-and-white photos of fallen, burnt bodies lining Washington Place that splashed across newspapers and blogs for the tragedy’s centennial.
Celine Robinson, an assistant to the publicist and Lang senior, said that “From the Fire” was meant to “provide a day in the life story” instead of reciting a historical account of tragedy.
“This isn’t a sad story,” said Robinson. “It’s the story of everything that has come out of the TSF and everything that caused the TSF and how we avoid it again.”
Rubino’s characters are vibrant: the girls gossip and dream about their futures; they aren’t emotionally restricted by their 12-hour workdays or the conditions at the factory. They remain human, and Rubino, along with the actors of the performance, celebrate their quality of resilience to the fullest degree.
Of 32 performers, 23 Lang students took part in the production, the rest professional performers. Lang freshman Anina Denove, whose rebellious character Alta worked alongside her sister at the TSF, called the performance a “visualization of the fact.”
The show is extraordinarily professional and exhibits high production values. The audience, surrounding the stage on three sides, sits in two sets of bleachers, two areas filled with chairs, and in the Judson balcony. Images are projected onto an exposed wall of the church’s interior.
Rubino conceived the project nearly four years ago after seeing an oratorio commemorating the death of four nuns during the civil war in El Salvador written by “From The Fire”’s composer Elisabeth Swados. Rubino began writing a script after Swados composed three songs for the 99th anniversary of the fire, commemorated at Judson Memorial Church.
Rubino said that some theaters in the city have expressed interest in performing the oratorio, and that she intends to add to the script.
“I still feel the piece has another draft in it, maybe another 15 minutes,” she said. “A bunch of places are already talking to us, so I do think it’ll have another life.”
Rubino hopes to bring the message of the TSF across the world, and has submitted an application to bring the project to the Edinburgh International Festival.
With the help of Lang alumni she has submitted an application to the festival, which takes place over the summer, and is awaiting reply. However, if it is accepted, the practicality of the trip would depend on fundraising, something that should come as no surprise to Rubino.
“From the Fire” is the most expensive production in New School history and was made possible largely because of fundraising efforts by Rubino and her associates. The budget exceeded $100,000 after contributions from anonymous donors and grants. The New School provides $20,000 of funding for the Lang spring production, but Rubino noted that, in addition to renting Judson Memorial Church, outside performers and those with other roles, like composer Elizabeth Swados, had to be compensated for their services.
“It’s really a story of strength,” said Denove of her first Lang production. “I was extremely grateful to be part of the show — to be part of something greater.”