This week, we continue with our series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
In June 1931, with America’s working class still deep in the grip of the Great Depression, a handful of actors in New York City performed Art is a Weapon, a skit first adapted by the New York’s Workers’ Laboratory Theatre. It begins with a Capitalist, with a “silk topper and over-refined accent,” making his declaration about the limited uses of art. The workers respond by making the distinction between proletarian and bourgeois art; between art intended to amuse and enlighten the elite and art meant to liberate workers.
“Ladies and gentlemen … there is a misunderstanding here. First you introduce yourselves as a theater group … and now you talk about political propaganda. These are two distinctly different subjects. Art has nothing to do with politics. Art is free. Art for art’s sake.”
And the workers respond:
“Art is a weapon
theater is a weapon
Workers’ theater is a weapon
Workers’ theater is a weapon in the class struggle.
A weapon in the class struggle.”
— “Art is a Weapon,” a skit by the Shock Troupe of the Workers Laboratory Theatre (1931, adapted from the Prolet-Büehne in German)
One of the central principles of the Workers Laboratory Theatre at 42 East 12th Street was how different it was from bourgeois Broadway, with its upper class viewpoint and lack of concern for workers and their social problems. It declared as its mission to reach out beyond the elite of the American theater and speak to the working class, or millions of people who had never been to the theater in their entire lives. To do this, actors believed they had to meet the workers where they already were– union meetings, in front of factories, in the subways, on the streets of the city. They performed with few props or scenery, and their plays typically ended with calls for action among the working class.
The theater group got its start in a loft building on West 21st Street, and took up its location as a residents-cum-theater at 42 East 12th Street in the early 1930s. Before that, the 12th Street location had been an immigrant boarding house from the 1870s until the end of the century and then a factory warehouse until the 1900s began.
The boarding house days of 42 East 12th were under the auspices of the United Hebrew Charities, and a piece from the Lower East Side history blog The Bowery Boys shows that the organization filled the lodging house with Russian Jewish and Italian immigrants fleeing persecution and poverty in Europe in the late 19th century. An excerpt from the book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island noted how many who arrived on the steamship Massilia in January 1892, during Ellis Island’s first month in operation, ended up in the 12th Street building along with seven other facilities. Among them were victims of typhus contracted on shipboard.
In the Workers Theater days, the group published Workers Theatre magazine (1931-1933) each month with an annual $1.50 per year subscription– advertised on the Table of Contents of every new publication– and a circulation in the thousands at its peak. One writer, Albert Prontis, explained the value of a theater company that performed with few props and costumes (“traveling light” was how he expressed it). It made it all the easier to appear at Union Square on May Day, when “all workers will come to demonstrate the solidarity of the working class and to protest against deportation, lynchings, wage-cuts, and oppression by the Capitalist Class.”
The depression heightened the group’s sense of urgency about dramatizing the country’s pressing social issues: hunger, unemployment, and lack of social security among the lower-income working class in America. Unemployed, its very first production, was reflective of the group’s mission:
1st worker: I am hungry.
2nd worker: My family is hungry.
3rd worker: I want to work.
4th worker: I want a job.
5th worker: Won’t somebody give me a job?
1st worker: I am hungry. Why can’t I have food? I see lots of food in restaurants. I am cold. Why can’t I have a coat? I see many coats in clothing stores.
(Capitalist comes in and sits in hair at left of stage.)
Capitalist (picks up phone, listens, laughs): There isn’t anyone that can have a better yacht in the world. I want special attention paid to the bar. One one side – (sees the workers) – what is the damn noise out there? I can’t talk.
Servant: Master, master, it’s the unemployed complaining.
Capitalist: Unemployed complaining? What have they got to complain about?
The play goes on to present to workers a solution: “We must organize; organization is our weapon,” the lead actor says. Other plays depicted the plight of the African American, under titles such as “Newsboy” and “Scottsboro.”
“Daughter,” taken from an Erskine Caldwell short story, was described by a critic for the New York Amsterdam News as a play that “concretely and specifically deals with an important and pressing problem facing the Negroes in the South today, and shows how a white sharecropper heroically sacrifices his own chance of being cleared of the crime of murder by refusing to allow a Negro to be convicted of a crime which the Negro has not committed.”
“Newsboy” was also performed in Harlem in 1934, after which the actors recruited for “Negro actors to join the theater” for an upcoming production called “Black is Only a Color.”
The author Jay Williams, in his 1974 book Stage Left, devotes many pages to the history of the Workers Laboratory Theater, which struggled to meet its monthly rent. Over a hundred people were on its rolls; the majority of them had other jobs or were students who were only free to participate in the lab’s activities at night. Williams explains that they formed what became known as the Evening Troupe. A permanent corp of a dozen others became known as the company’s Shock Troupe. On very short notice, they could do emergency performances on command at strike meetings or other labor-sponsored events, to educate, to entertain or just to maintain worker morale.
Williams, who himself performed with the troupe, describes its two business offices, one for the magazine and one for theater administration. The latter came courtesy of a one-woman band, Lucy Kaye, who worked for an interior decorator during the day and gave her evenings over to the company, typing scripts, and handling calls or requests for bookings. Half of her $25 a month salary went to her family and the rest she donated to the Shock Troupe.
In the building’s open space, the workers constructed a stage out of lumber stolen from building sites around the city and used the room not only for full-scale performances but also for classes, lectures, symposia, rehearsals, meetings, rent parties at which the actors entertained with sketches, dances and playlets. The actor Will Lee and his girlfriend Becky Roland, a member of New Dance Group of New York City, were special favorites.
Money was so tight at a salary of $1 a week that two of the actors broke building code and often slept on a mattress they stored behind the stage. Williams also writes that the bathroom basin leaked brown water, so Saxe and Lee would use the public baths a block away at least twice a week. In time, some of the Shock Troupers moved to a rented flat on 13th Street and Second Avenue but all the outreach activity remained at 12th Street.
A 1997 article from The Nation magazine tells the story of the theater group from an interview with former actor Ed Bruskin. He describes how actors would buy vegetables for dinner and make “bathtub salad” by mixing the vegetables in the “only place big enough to hold food for twelve.” Between shopping for day-old produce on Third Avenue, Bruskin said that the shock troupe played to rave reviews from enthusiastic crowds everywhere– except on Wall Street.
The Shock Troupers developed a routine of their own. They rose at 8 a.m. and after breakfast walked over to 12th Street for performance classes, and discussion of the events of the day, which often became the subject of their plays. They also submitted to what they called “self-criticism” sessions, during which, as Williams put it, they “let their hair down and said exactly what they thought of each other.” Lunch was a pot cheese sandwich and after dinner back on 13th Street, they returned to 12th Street for rehearsal with the evening troupe.
As the labor movement responded to worker pay cuts with strikes, the Workers Laboratory Theater brought out more plays. As the National Recovery Act went into effect and labor unionism spread, the Workers Laboratory Theater would perform two or three times a day, rehearsing on subways en route to bookings and sometimes staging their plays on the back of trucks in May Day parades. An actress who performed with the group, Amelia Romano, said in an oral history that despite the financial difficulties of the Great Depression, despite the “great social upheaval” of those years, “out of it came tremendous creativity.”
In the years since the theater company’s demise at the end of the 1930s, the building at 42 East 12th Street became loft and commercial rental space until the 1980s when it was converted to condominiums on the upper floors. Nimble Fitness has been on the the ground floor since 2008, and upstairs, the apartments go for as much as $3 million.