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  • Working in the Wings: New Perspectives on Theatre History and Labor eds. by Elizabeth A. Osborne and Christine Woodworth
  • Stacey Connelly
Working in the Wings: New Perspectives on Theatre History and Labor. Edited by Elizabeth A. Osborne and Christine Woodworth. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015. vii + 246 pp. $40.00 paper.

Editors Elizabeth Osborne and Christine Woodworth, much like archeologists, discover artifacts, treasure, and the spooky remains of forgotten theatrical traditions in Working in the Wings: New Perspectives on Theatre History and Labor. In this collection of essays dedicated to the sweat and toil that make a theatrical performance seem cool and effortless, Osborne and Woodworth, along with twelve other historians of American theatre, recover work of all kinds—from the most manual and menial labors to the most intuitive and inspired creative acts—that often goes unacknowledged in the theatre, because it is either obscured, unpleasant, undervalued, or simply unfathomable.

In the introduction to their subject of invisible work, Osborne and Wood-worth articulate the paradox of trying to capture and study work that is meant to remain hidden: "The legacy of shrouding the work of artists and craftsmen in order to foster a deceptively seamless or even intentionally ruptured night at the theatre has created enormous challenges for theatre and performance scholars hoping to document the creative process—the specific people and acts required to realize a work of theatrical art" (2). But the editors and their fellow scholars accept that challenge with essays spanning the eighteenth century to the present, covering a range of topics, from cake walks to comic operas, from domestic labor to domestic partnerships, from massive make-work programs like the FTP's Caravan Theatre to the obsessive, lonely labor of the tortured creative artist. What unites them all, however, is an intense focus on the hidden and sometimes grueling labor from which a finely crafted product or performance emerges. Mindful of the intrinsic connection between theatrical work and imaginative play, Osborne and Woodworth guide readers through what might seem like an eclectic exhibit of unrelated curiosities. Their coauthored essay, "The Work of Play in Performance," ties together this scholarly collection through logical groupings, persistent themes, and important questions: "How do we theorize the work of play when it has intentionally or unintentionally been hidden from view? What is missing from the current conversation about theatrical work? In short, what does it mean to work, and to create work, in the theatre?" (2). Moreover, these questions are situated within the larger context of recent events and conversations surrounding economics, employment, labor unions, wages, and [End Page 323] work-life balance. No matter how far afield some of the essays might seem from contemporary notions of theatrical work, the authors draw striking parallels between their subjects and the current discourse surrounding workers' rights and the dignity of labor.

The first group of essays unites under the rubric "Working Conditions" and reveals the decidedly unglamorous day-to-day of work in or around the theatre: from labor unions and commercial scenic studios to underemployed actors trying to pay the bills. Sara Freeman discusses the working/life partnership of director Les Waters and designer Annie Smart, and Chrystyna Dail pulls back the curtain on the remarkably progressive UAW workers' theatre and its groundbreaking satire Discrimination for Everybody! Tom Robson's analysis of nineteenth-century scenic studio catalogs challenges prevailing assumptions about New York as the center for this highly competitive industry, and Christine Woodworth's "Don't Quit Your Day Job: Situating Extratheatrical Employment in the Performance Archive" weaves a fascinating tale of two actresses, Neysa McMein, a brilliant painter, and Kitty Marion, a housemaid, teacher, and union organizer, who made their names not in theatre but from their important work as artists and activists who drew inspiration from their theatrical milieus.

Part 2, "Inscription, Erasure, and Recovery: Palimpsests of Labor," presents essays about faded traditions and forgotten workers, including Dorothy Chansky's "Retooling the Kitchen Sink: Representing Domestic Labor in American Performance after 1963" and Jerry Dickey's illuminating analysis of the cake-walk contests of the Gilded Age, as performed by African American waiters. In "Beaten, Battered, and Brawny: American Variety Entertainers...


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pp. 323-325
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