Tintypes Blog #2: Immigrants — We Get the Job Done

“Lights come up slowly, revealing CHARLIE — an immigrant just off the boat, taking his first look at the strangeness of New York City . . . Attached to his jacket is a numbered immigration tag . . . Exhausted from his journey and overwhelmed with emotion, HE lets his bags drop to the ground, breathes in deeply the air of the New World, then impulsively takes his cap off his head and drops to his knees to kiss the ground.”

This image is the opening moment of Tintypes, an immediate light on one of the show’s central themes — immigration.

The turn of the twentieth century was an era of mass migration, with over 20 million people moving to the United States between 1880-1920.  Europe was particularly plagued by political, religious, and economic conflict at the time, leading millions to seek a better life overseas. Tintypes emphasizes Italian and Jewish immigrants in particular; over 600,000 Italians immigrated to the U.S. from 1890-1900, and over 2 million Jews fled Eastern Europe for the U.S. from 1880-1920.

Approximately 12 million people traveled by ship and entered the U.S. through the gateway of Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay. Upon arrival, upper class passengers did not have to go through an extensive inspection process due to assumptions that they were less likely to pose a medical or legal threat. Steerage passengers, on the other hand, traveled in poor conditions at the bottom of steamships and underwent more scrutinous inspections upon arrival. Still, the process typically took less than 5 hours, and entry rates of the era were approximately 98%.

The journey was not simple for all, however. Legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for instance, reprehensibly restricted immigration from China. Suspicion-fueled limitations continued to increase as World War I progressed, leading to laws such as the Immigration Act of 1917.

Still, Tintypes honors the struggle, contribution, and drive of immigrants. In fact, four of the five historical figures in the show are immigrants — Charlie Chaplin came from England, Bert Williams from the Bahamas, Anna Held from France, and Emma Goldman from the Russian Empire. In this spirit, I leave you with one of Emma’s lines from the show, a sentiment that — for many reasons — resonates in complicated ways today:

“How often I thought back to that last day of my journey to New York. Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbour and the Statue of Liberty emerging from the mist. Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity. She held her torch high to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We too, Helena and I, would find a place in the generous heart of America.”

Posted on by Anna Joaquin in General Leave a comment

Getting Out blog #4 – “What’re these bars doing here?”

Hello, for the last time!

I’m writing this two days before opening night–and you’re likely reading it afterwards–so as you can imagine, the technical aspects of the productions are all more or less settled, and the actors have fully adapted to them. Since the process is complete, and we here in the room are essentially viewing the show as you will see it, this seems like a good time to talk about the visual meanings of our particular production of Getting Out. It’s important to address design, because as realistic as the show is, we’re still jumping between time periods (in a sense, between realities) as Arlene’s memories physically play out surrounding the present environment.

I do mean that literally; the section of the stage dedicated to being the ‘present,’ a somewhat shabby apartment, is physically hemmed in by steel platforms, concrete blocks, and a prominent jail cell in which Arlie sits, looming over everything. The implication is immediate and wordless: Arlene has gotten out of prison physically, but she remains mentally incarcerated. The way her mannerisms and words underline that are reflected in the place she faces when she speaks. The fear is always there.

The lighting underscores these moods; when fully and evenly lit, both worlds might almost be mistaken for the same place, but our lights don’t let you think that. The cold blues and sharp shadows that only partially illuminate the ‘prison’ sections bear down on anyone standing in the ‘past,’ making it feel like everyone is sectioned off from each other, even if they’re in the same room. The apartment is lit warmly by contrast, but the presence of the prison lighting makes you suspect how genuine that warmth really is. It’s warm in the way that a fever is warm, exposing every inch of the apartment critically in the same way that Arlene is critical of her new home.

What you hear jars you as well–it’s not always what Arlene is hearing in the moment, after all. It’s often what Arlie heard once, maybe not even what she heard at the moment, currently being replayed. It’s always noise, though, always something that makes sure you’re not alone, even when you’d least expect sound–like in solitary confinement. These echoes still overlap with the realities of prison, though: Genuinely silent moments in many prisons can be rare.

Like the last time, I did a lot of talking about the work of others in the cast and crew. We’ll end with some comments from some members of the design team on the specific thoughts going through their head when working on Getting Out.

Anna Martin, Costumes: “Since Getting Out is a very naturalistic play, I wanted to start with the costume pieces that were absolutely essential and then build outwards from there. The khaki of the prison scrubs and the dark navy of the guard uniforms became the backbone of the color palette and ultimately helped set the play’s overall tone and mood. Everything in the world we’ve created is slightly subdued, from the cold lighting in the prison cell to the desaturated apartment Arlene moves into. By using mainly soft, muted tones, I hoped to create a bridge between the scenes happening in Arlene’s past and those in her present.”

Joe Palermo, Sound: “The sound design for Getting Out is based around the idea of Arlene’s surroundings personifying her experiences. When she’s in prison the ambient sounds are only as raucous as she is, and so on. In her apartment the narrative changes a bit and the ambient noise ebbs and flows to heighten the stress of the audience to match Arlene’s.”

Nathan Kubik, Lighting: “The design was inspired by a lot of location-based research that illuminates the environment in which Arlene would be living, whether that be in her run-down studio apartment in Louisville, or her solitary confinement cell in an Alabama prison. As a team we worked together to create a final product that allows for the two worlds of the play, past and present, to intertwine with one another, as the script requires. Through the implementation of all the design areas in tech it feels that Arlie and Arlene’s worlds are truly interlocking and part of one another.”

Sophie Hamm, Scenic: “The exciting challenge for the scenic design of Getting Out was creating a space where Arlie’s world in prison and Arlene’s world in her apartment could exist simultaneously. The location of the prison cell above and the catwalk around the front has the effect of surrounding Arlene in her apartment. Even though she has been released, the prison world still seems to trap her inside.”

 

See you in the audience,

 

Nate

Posted on by Nathan Ferguson in General Leave a comment

Getting Out blog #3 – “Ruby, if a gallon of milk could bounce back, so can you.”

Hello for the third time!

Now that we’re in our final rehearsals, I’d like to share some meditations on the play’s ideas. This is one of the aspects of dramaturgy I enjoy the most, really. A good play, in my opinion, delivers on a few central ideas with subtlety, so that by the time it’s over, the audience feels like they really understand the setting that the performance presents. The absolute best plays, as far as I’m concerned, do this by relating their issues to events and feelings that the audience already understands. Even if the drama has to come from those events being larger-than-life, and the problems the characters face are life-threatening or world-shaking, as long as the dynamics at work are fundamentally and recognizably human, then—I think—a play will bridge the gap between its highest ideas and the life that every audience member lives. Getting Out accomplishes all this with remarkable finesse; it makes the work look easy. Its themes are clear because they resonate within every line, and its characters are people that many of us may see every day. Here I offer some thoughts on the big ideas that fuel the drama in Getting Out.

Probably the biggest theme that comes to mind is “Reciprocity.” I don’t mean that the play just wants you to listen to the golden rule and you’ll be fine, though. Arlie was an innocent child to start, and the world never gave her anything but pain, so of course she fights back . . .  and then that leads to a life in which she fights more and gets beaten down more. This reality is reflected in Arlene’s final conversation with Ruby, when she reveals that she initially went to prison for returning a stolen item to a museum–one which she didn’t steal in the first place. Getting Out, then, encourages you to turn the other cheek and meet spite with kindness not as a moral lesson, but as a reminder that—in its view–everyone deserves empathy. The play suggests there isn’t always any logical or just reason why people are in the state they are, so don’t think they have some sort of moral defect for being there.

That idea leads me to another concept Getting Out plays around with: Survival. Everyone in the play has a clear and deliberate survival strategy developed through their interactions with the prison system. Arlie survived by fighting anyone who hurt her, and Arlene survived by strictly obeying the law. Bennie used his authority to force people to negotiate with him. Carl manages because he refuses to cooperate entirely and escapes. Arlene’s mother compartmentalizes her incarcerated children, keeping them at arm’s length socially and only giving them basic necessities. Ruby, from what we see, likely got through prison by being unfailingly positive. Whenever each character is confronted with any problem, they each tend to fall back on these strategies; Arlene sticks to what’s right, Bennie tries to force his way, Carl tries to con and evade people, and so on.

If it seems a bit tricky to relate those kinds of experiences to the lives of spectators who– in many, many cases–have not lived through the US prison system, I would note that I do think the actors have managed to connect to the material with aplomb. As a result, I hope that audience members will, too. Even if the abuse that Arlie faces is much worse than you have ever witnessed, perhaps for some it will seem to come from a very familiar place. Being underestimated, doubted, or belittled is a very common experience, and even though the way Arlie experiences it causes her severe physical and emotional harm, when she fights back many of us may like we want to fight with her. Some of us may feel as if her pain is similar to ours, and on some level, she does what a certain part of human nature wants to do to abusers and belittlers: Spit in their faces. Afterwards, when Arlene regrets doing that, many of us may also understand why she does, and be willing to forgive her because we believe that it’s not her fault.

I’m sure there’s a lot more I could think of and draw out of Getting Out, so once you see the play, I’m interested in what you discover in it yourself.

Looking forward to opening,

Nate

Posted on by Nathan Ferguson in Blog Series, Dramaturg Post, General, Theatre Leave a comment
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