Working Theater believes this transformative experience should not be a privilege or a luxury, but a staple. We recognize that we live in a society that is often polarized by economic, cultural and class differences and that these differences can be divisive. However, what makes us different is sometimes the most interesting thing about us.
We want working people, Americans working in the industrial and service economies, who may be unable to afford commercial theater prices or feel that it does not resonate with their lives and experience, to make play-going a regular part of their cultural lives.
Toward that goal, we offer low ticket prices and tell stories that reflect a diverse population of the working majority, that acknowledge their complexity and oft-denied power in an increasingly complex world, which we hope will unite us in our common humanity.
In our mission statement we say that we commission and produce plays about “working people for working people.” What are we talking about? Who are the “working people” of 21st century America?
While it is truly difficult to define “working people” in a way that will satisfy everyone, here is what we think. To begin with, it is easy to see that the phrase has its roots in the term “working class” used by Marx and Engels and many other 19th century social critics. For them, class was about an individual’s relation to the means of production. Either you owned the factories and the land and the tools or you didn’t. If you didn’t, and you worked for a wage paid by someone who did, you were a member of the working class. Over time, they believed, as the industrial economy matured, conditions for the working class would inevitably grow more dire until, collectively, workers had “nothing to lose but their chains.” Ultimately, they would revolt, seize the means of production, and assume their rightful role as the leaders of a more just society.
Clearly, much has happened since then that Marx and Engels, for all their brilliance, did not anticipate. Financiers, managers and others who do not technically own the means of production have become vastly wealthy. Conditions for the working class, however defined, have in most respects gotten better, not worse, over the last century, and the revolutions made in their name have largely failed the test of producing a freer and better society. So, scholars and social activists have struggled to redefine their terms in a manner that reflects today’s realities. Not surprisingly, in a society so much more complex than the simple class definitions of the 19th century can encompass, that has proved to be difficult, and the definition of class, and of “working people,” remains a much-debated topic.
We at the Working Theater use the term “working people” to refer to the wage and salaried workers of modest means who work in factories, stores, offices, classrooms and every other type of workplace throughout America. Among them are skilled professionals such as teachers and nurses, and the skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers who account for the vast majority. Some eight percent are in unions, but the rest are not. What unites this broad and diverse group is that they work every day for a living, they struggle to house and educate their families, to obtain adequate healthcare, and to provide for a decent retirement.
The Working Theater welcomes and indeed depends on the interest and support of all kinds of people – lawyers, managers, doctors, bankers, as well as those we think of when we use the term “working people.” But we believe that it is this latter group that is underserved in the theater, and we are proud of our mission to produce plays about working people, in all the richness of their varied experience, that will appeal to working people and encourage them to experience the theater.
Director of Special Projects for Unions,
Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations