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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


In THE TORCH-BEARERS, George Kelly uses satire to critique the Little Theatre movement. Here are some related facts regarding the role women played during this time:

Women received little training or education in the arts in the antebellum period.

“It is likely that the arts seemed so compatible with notions of proper activities for ladies because of society’s assumption that both women and the arts were ruled by feeling rather than rationality.” (The Torchbearers: Women & Their Amateur Arts Associations in America, 1890-1930)

The Little Theater movement followed the great melodramas of the late 1800s. This new theatre was more intimate and psychological.

This movement was thought to revitalize American theatre, and brought names like Ibsen, Shaw, and O’Neill into the spotlight.

Some women believed that their participation in theatre would help build America’s democracy and strength. Theatre was thought to teach social principals and ethics that would lead to a more progressive society.

Before the Little Theater movement, the pageant was enormously popular.

The pageant was made up of amateur performers and included acting, singing, orchestral accompaniment, dancing, costumes and props. A pageant usually consisted of 6 twenty-minute episodes designed to touch on a theme such as the history of a town.

Pageants were championed by progressive reformers with goals of bringing wholesome and uplifting entertainment to a community.

Pageants required enormous effort and mass organizing, and so the Little Theater emerged as a more manageable and refined alternative.

Little Theater groups or clubs tended to use the same performers and support staff on each production and so failed to reach out to the number of community members that pageants had involved.

Clubs could become exclusive and minority members of the community were usually only invited in to play stereotypical roles.

While men were present in this community theatre, women were the mainstays and ran clubs along with playhouses across the country.

In the 1920s, 1,000 little theaters were in existence, providing 32,500 productions a year and using 335,000 amateur actors for their 12.5 million audience members annually.

▪ “Mary Russell spoke for many women of her era when she argued that a healthy public theater in America not only built democracy but reflected its strength…She spoke of drama as ‘an effective means of teaching the social principles and ethical truths necessary for harmony and progress in society.’” (p. 146, The Torchbearers: Women and Their Amateur Arts Associations in America, 1890-1930)

Little Theater clubwomen considered themselves “torchbearers” who could lead others to embrace values and ideals through theatre.

Women’s clubs combated “vulgar” culture and made a space for themselves in the public sphere by promoting the arts.

Involvement in the movement was broad, and included young working people, immigrants in settlement houses, workers in labor colleges, and students in thespian clubs.

One quarter of all little theater plays were written by amateurs, and mostly women.

The Drama League of America formed as an outgrowth of a women’s club. It was largely a women’s group, and became one of the most influential theatre organizations of the early twentieth century. The league was interested in creating uplifting theater to provoke social change. By 1915, its membership peaked at 100,000.

By 1926, however, the board of directors consisted of seventeen men and five women.

The men in the league were largely figureheads, using their reputations to gain publicity. Women lost much of the control and visibility their volunteerism had earned.

The Drama League initially concentrated its efforts around members’ dissatisfaction with commercial theatrical offerings.

The league started to brag that its endorsement of a show guaranteed financial success. Some theatres agreed, and some regarded the league’s approval as a marking of a tedious and pretentious play.

Until 1930, the league served as a catalyst in the nation’s sudden interest in amateur theatre and sponsored galas and conventions prompting social networking and the spread of theatrical knowledge.

As churchgoers came to accept the use of drama for religious education, the league attached itself to religious institutions.

In 1930, the league merged with the Religious Drama Association for a time.

By Amy Lipman, Dramaturg for THE TORCH BEARERS

[photo] © Sam Hough for WTF ’09

[pictured] Katherine McGrath in THE TORCH BEARERS, Dir. Dylan Baker

© [scenic design | David Korins; costume design | Ilona Somogyi; lighting design | Rui Rita] 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is interesting background information. I'm sure it will help my enjoyment of the play.


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