Thursday, April 24, 2008

Play: A scene from Industrial Strength, a work about work

What follows is a scene from a play written for a particular talent. David Jon Krohn is an actor, a mime, a dancer/choreographer, a juggler, a wire walker, a technician and an electrician. After a series of long conversations about his work and his life, I wrote this play around his talent. David plays "The Electrician," the central figure in a play about the kind of physical labor that I believe will one day be lost to the robot and the computer.

The play included fire eating, juggling, arc welding, plaster-board workers on stilts, power tools, dances, songs, poems and a fly in finale, where the electrician, suspended with an invisible chord from a two-ton crane, levitated over the audience like an angel.

This country was built on the backs of laborers who expended their lives in the hard work of providing for their families, surviving in a society that lacks respect for honest labor and grew from the sweat and blood of millions of unsung workers. This play honors the workers who created the very substance of our lives.

What follows is just a short scene from the 70 minute play, Industrial Strength, which ran for two seasons, performed in a working factory, the Wanner Metalworx, an operating metal fabrication plant that allowed the company to set up during the weekend. In many sold out performances, during two separate summers, the show played to standing room only with standing ovations. The theatre was created out of nothing, lights strung, folding chairs set up, a ticket taker at the door. We broke not only the fourth wall of the stage, we broke the theatre with a play housed temporarily in an industrial district that is now becoming gentrified loft apartments. This scene begins on a suspended platform above the audience, after a fitful dream, the electrician wakes and dresses for work.

The Electrician:

"Work. Energy required. Movement, required.
Must have movement over distance.


[Taped: The wind of time and space has worn away
the night and the light breaks in
like a blind thief to steal the rest.]

(Tape ends and the electrician continues awakened from the dream.)

“Power is defined as the amount of energy required to move one pound one foot
in one second - foot-pounds-per-second.

“Some days, I don’t have the power to move one foot,
which feels like it weighs a ton, one inch off the ground, for one second.”

(The Electrician climbs down.)

[To Self:) "Rubber souls, rub her soles, rub a dub dubber, royal black rubber stack soles, socks with no holes. It’s cold. Long John, long John, he had the strangest shoes he had a heel in front he had a heel behin’ and you never could tell which way he’s gone. Coverall, cover me . Cover me all. Coveralls cover me."

"Can’t be late. Where are my tools? Where is my tool belt ?"

(Two crew members put on his belt.)

“The belt is a vestment of tools.
My tools are my armor.
My tools protect me.
My hands protect me.
I gird myself in tools to touch the fire in the wire."

The Crew

“My tools are my armor. My tools protect me.”

The Electrician

“My life is in my hands with the tools
Hand tools in my power belt bring power to my hands.
Without these hands there would be no power.
No wonder I protect them.
I will not be grounded. My belt will protect me.
The fire will not pass through me.

The Crew

“My tools are my armor. My tools will protect me.”

The Electrician

(He removes each tool from the belt, shares it with the audience and hands it either to a crew member or an audience member. A crew member takes it and reverently lays it down.)

"Tester tells me if the wire glows hot.
Hot is an awl in the eye, a hole in the heart.
Hot is death, sure enough.

"These are my hand tools. They keep my hands working.
They keep me focused on my task; extend the power of my hands.

(He juggles the screwdrivers)

"These are drivers, Phillips & flat blades all insulated for their purpose
to screw the power, to wire it to the line, to pour it through the sockets. Torque!
This is a speed driver. It torques fast. Torque! Torque!

"Here’s my big hammer, handle it thus. Bam! Punch a hole. Bam!”

The Crew

(Throughout his speech, the crew repeats key words to stress their impact: Torque! Bam!, etc.”)

The Electrician

“Torpedo level, Magnetized, sticks to steel.
Box or pipe it’s straight and square.

"Square is important in times of stress. (Crew begins square box step)
Square comforts us. Keeping things square is part of the ritual, straight and perpendicular is secure.

"The squarest work is the surest work. Precision is protection.
Tape, mounted so I can measure and still it stays in my belt.

"Tiebacks keep it neat, or hold it in place until I strap, screw, or anchor it down.
Crew starts to stagger during box step, getting more off-balance.

"Nothing is left loose. Loose is not safe.

"My belt protects me. My tools encircle me.
Even if I accidentally open it, He opens belt and spins around my belt will not fall.

"Electricians work with fire the way lion tamers work with cats.
The predictable, learnable part is a matter of nerve and practice.

(A Crew member hands him a torch. He eats fire."

"But the danger comes when your back is turned,
when you think you understand,

(A wrench falls, clanging to the concrete.)

"when someone drops a wrench from up above or a wire gets crossed.

(The electrician stops, walks closer to the audience, and in a more intimate tone says,)

"I saw a guy on a job once

(Movement Crew “explode” arms, fall to prone position.)

"the fire blew out his elbows;
and as he went to his knees, the fire blew off his kneecaps.

He was dead before he hit the ground.

(Preacher, a member of the crew, Rises up and says)

“Born to toil! Born to die!”

The Electrician

(He goes back to the belt, fondling each tool as he takes it from its holster.)

"Cable knife, wicked blade. Hooked, like a weapon.
locks into position to skin service cable.
Drywall saw, quick-toothed, rough-cut access wires within walls.

"Inside that darkness one needs light.
I carry my own on my belt.
You have not known darkness until you work with high voltage blind.

"Small crescent. Adjustable, Many wrenches in one.

"Grippers: Channel locks snap open to accommodate any size object I need to grip.

"Bent-back dikes, diagonals, slice on an angle through solid metal
clean and close to the wall

"Lineman’s pliers, Kleins, the best. What’s in a name? Quality protects me.
This part grips, this cuts, and the jaws don’t touch.

"And these, solid, long-nose pliers, Notch strips insulation, then I twist
and cut the wire with this. Screw the wire into the terminal,
Torque! and I’m done to a turn.

(Begins a paranoid gathering of tools, reloading his belt.)

"My tools protect me. My belt girds me
I will not touch the hot wire My dream of white fire and burnt skin will not come true.
"I will not fry, I will not die. I will not be grounded.

"My tools bring power to bear. Torque! Screw! Hot ... it’s hot!
Watch the wire! Screw the power! Electrician runs off


“Adam was condemned to live by the sweat of his brow. Adam was damned to toil and
worry and die!”

(Music begins. Actual factory sounds arranged by experimental composer, Keith Fleming)

( DC Generator for crane turns back on.)

.......... SCENE 8 ..........


They perform phrases of tool-inspired movement and then move up the bay toward the crane with the electrician approaching them. As he passes they light him with hand-held work lights on extension cords.

.......... SCENE 9 ..........

“The Electrician”
(Entering suspended from a crane like an angel)

“The clouds kiss and growl before they gnaw holes in each other.
Grumble and flash. Their moisture fills the air.
Fronts collide and winds blow. Lightning forks. Thunder cracks.
That’s power. That’s electricity. Molten white and firing. Fire-ring.

(He descends, lowering himself with the controller, from the crane)

“Sometimes, you have to work the wires hot,
everything is insulated.

(Juggling the tape rolls as the crew circles)

“I insulate with tape: Insulation is part of the ritual,

ALL Crew say colors with electrician .

green, ground;
white, neutral;
black, hot.
green, ground;
white, neutral;
black, charred.
green, ground;
white, neutral;"

This is a small sample of a complex work, too complex to present in writing, the acting and the location made it come alive, but it imparts a flavor of the evening, filled with darkness, the smells and dirt of an actual factory.

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