Social Education
April/May 1998
Volume 62 Number 4

Workers’ Theatre as an Inquiry Process for Exploring Social Issues of the 1930s

George W. Chilcoat
Drama provides a learning environment that brings students together in active groups to pursue a common goal. It can be used in the social studies as a vehicle to help students explore a given social issue and present it in dramatic terms. The workers’ theatre of the 1930s functioned in this way. It was a didactic tool used in a radical attempt to dramatize the struggle of common workers to bring about social change through collective action. The theatre became a public forum, involving politically active workers along with professional actors in the analysis of social issues using principles of inquiry and problem solving.
To introduce students to the social conditions and issues of the 1930s, this article suggests a drama activity based on one of the more original and popular theatrical forms developed during the 1930s: the mass recitation play. The mass recitation was a dramatic form in which actors chanted in verse, using rhymed or unrhymed couplets, to the accompaniment of choreographed movements and gestures. The mass recitation was nothing more than a 1930s version of today’s rap music. Although it may look complicated, its makeup is easily adaptable to the capabilities of middle and high school students. Before proceeding to discussion of the mass recitation, however, it might be helpful to consider how this form evolved.

Workers’ Theatre: The Historical Background
One response to the economic and social upheavals of the Great Depression was the birth of a self-consciously “proletarian” workers’ theatre movement that aimed to dramatize the conditions of the working class in order to promote social change. Although the working class was considered to include farm as well as factory workers, blue collar workers organized into labor unions were clearly more conscious of a collective identity. The workers’ theatre movement embraced politically left-wing thought and activity. Initially identified with Communist or Marxist ideology, most workers’ theatres moved toward a less radical position as Stalin’s purge trials of the middle and late 1930s brought on disillusionment with Soviet Communism.
There were three phases of workers’ class theatre in the thirties: the amateur workers’ theatre, the left-wing professional commercial theatre, and the Federal Theatre Project. Amateur workers’ theatre began in the late 1920s in the form of immigrant drama clubs devoted to the defense of the underprivileged within ethnic neighborhoods. Workers wrote, produced, directed, and staged their own propaganda plays from a working class perspective for working class audiences. With the onset of the Depression, there was a proliferation of these drama troupes, from 50 in 1929 to 400 by 1934. By the middle of the decade, however, amateur workers’ theatre was giving way to professional left-wing theatre and the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Professional left-wing theatre companies—such as the Theatre Union, the Group Theatre, and the Mercury Theatre—attracted large working class audiences with full-length social problem dramas performed in stationary locations. The Federal Theatre Project, begun in 1935, absorbed a good part of the amateur workers’ theatres, offering its members at least a meager livelihood along with the opportunity to present social issue dramas at cheap prices. These were pioneer theatres meant to represent a “new frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and despair, and at the same time against selfishness, special privilege, and social apathy.”1
Workers’ theatre rejected the dramatic forms of commercial “bourgeois” theatre on the grounds that they did not represent the real life of the working class. Most of the plays presented by the left-wing professional companies and the Federal Theatre Project used a general formula as follows: describe a social problem, offer a solution, convey a gesture of social consciousness, and side with “the people” against both real and alleged forces of political and economic oppression. This in turn derived from a new theatrical style called agit-prop (agitation-propaganda) that was characterized by a classic problem-solving pattern of action.
The original agit-prop was the work of small theatrical collectives—perhaps 10 to 15 men and women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. It was “street theater” performed at picket lines, factory gates, shop meetings, bread lines, churches, or perhaps a street corner during a tenant eviction. The typical agit-prop play was short in duration—from 5 to 30 minutes. It began in the present by demonstrating an everyday problem in the life of the working class. It then moved to the past to explore the causes of the problem. It returned to the present—eliminating unsuccessful alternatives along the way—to conclude with a dynamic collaboration between stage and spectators in devising a solution to the problem and urging collective action.
Agit-prop plays were moveable theatre, with scenery limited to a black cloth or sketched sheets of paper to suggest place. Costumes and props were likewise minimal. Theatrical forms included single event dramas and revues (a combination of events with a common theme). Both the Federal Theatre Project and professional left-wing theatres produced revues using a rich profusion of forms: songs, skits, pantomimes, choral readings and poem chants, stage debates and staged trials, animated posters, literary montages, living newspapers, short melodramas—and mass recitations.
The death knell for the workers’ theatre movement came in 1939. Amateur troupes had already been disbanding (dropping to 12 by 1940) as the result of better economic conditions resulting from New Deal reforms, as well as the industrial retooling prompted by the imminence of World War II. The demise of left-wing professional theatre was also economic, reflecting a continual struggle between the desire to do plays that were afraid of nothing and the knowledge that such productions would be avoided by monied patrons. The Federal Theater Project was killed by Congress in June, 1939, on the grounds that it was unnecessary as an employment device and too politically controversial for government support.
Despite its brevity, the workers’ theatre movement of the thirties exerted an enduring influence on the American theatrical tradition. Political activism and theatrical innovation had joined to produce a creative ferment of ideas. Members of the working class—with enthusiasm and in great number—had written, acted in, and viewed politically-oriented plays; debated social issues and their possible solutions; and taken realistic actions to gain more control over their own lives and situations within their communities.
Workers’ theatre sought to counter the feelings of insignificance and helplessness experienced by those who were relatively powerless in the face of economic catastrophe. Although there is no evidence that workers’ theatre caused much change at the national level, there is ample evidence that it did in fact improve conditions in some local communities and neighborhoods. What ran through these plays offered much promise in helping working class people to empower themselves. Never before or since has the American stage come so close to being a truly democratic theatre.

The Mass Recitation in the Classroom
Producing a mass recitation play in the classroom is a small group process (ideally six to eight students) involving collaborative discussion and decision making. Each group develops a story line based on an assigned topic. Although this article describes use of the mass recitation to study events of the 1930s, the technique could be applied to any contemporary or historical topic.
The mass recitation activity accommodates students of all ability levels and makes use of varying talents and interests. All students should participate in researching the historical information. While some may be more adept at script writing, and others at stage work, almost all can participate in acting out the scenes. No single factor is as important to the success of this activity as how students are grouped, which should be balanced in terms of sex, abilities, interests, and leadership. It is recommended that each group have one week in and out of class to develop its play.
The story line is converted into a 10 to 15 minute mass recitation play following the set of guidelines described below.

Guidelines for a Mass Recitation
There are nine steps in the mass recitation activity:
> Step 1. Choose an issue to form the story line
> Step 2. Research the information
> Step 3. Design the mass recitation
> Step 4. Improvise on the story line
> Step 5. Make simple scenery & props
> Step 6. Rehearse
> Step 7. Perform the mass recitation
> Step 8. Do a “break out” (optional)
> Step 9. Evaluate the experience.

The nine steps in more detail are:

> Step 1: Choose an issue to form the story line.
The conditions that make up the issue should be viewed as a problem needing to be solved. From this problem comes the story line, which involves at least two conflicting positions that are portrayed through a sequence of events. Each event should illuminate a specific point about the issue, such as:

> Step 2: Research the information.
Investigate the background of the issue with regard to immediate and underlying causes, the people involved, public or private actions taken, and historical effects. Good primary sources include newspaper reports/commentaries, public speeches, eyewitness accounts, and popular representations of the issue (as in songs, poster art, etc.).

> Step 3: Design the mass recitation.
Mass recitations did not use “acts,” but rather, a series of rapid-action episodes arranged to tell a story. One to five episodes is an appropriate number for a mass recitation play. Economy is important and every minute counts. Whatever number of episodes is chosen, a mass recitation is loosely divided into five parts:
1. Begin with an event that describes the problem
2. Recognize the importance of the problem
3. Establish the causes of the problem
4. Examine alternative solutions until only one remains
5. Advocate a specific course of action to solve the problem
Next, put the story line into the desired number of episodes. This involves six activities simultaneously:
Characterization. Each character in a mass recitation is brought to life by the use of body movement, a cardboard sign hung around the neck, and sometimes, a mask. Body movement should be broad, exaggerated, and energetic. The cardboard sign names the character for quick identification by the audience. Masks to represent characters can be made out of paper grocery bags by drawing and cutting out the desired face or object.
Dialogue. Dialogue is put into a simple arrangement of metered poetic prose, either in rhyme or free verse. Some pointers for creating effective dialogue are: employ short sentences, use verbs frequently to carry the action along, keep the action in the present tense, include references to reinforce each character’s behavior, avoid dialogue that does not advance the action, and delete lines that do not contribute to the main purpose of the scene. Lines are read in a chant-like manner by individuals and groups.
Arrangement of Voices. As dialogue turns into script, vocal arrangement and movement become the instruments to execute the patterns, rhythm, and pitch that produce meaning and emotional effect. Vocal arrangement simply means who (individual, chorus, or various combinations) chants what part of the dialogue and how (in what tempo and rhythm; using what volume, tone, and pitch of voice; stressing what words). The importance of contrast—between antagonist and protagonist, individual and chorus, deliberation and action—is essential throughout.
Movement. Mass recitation is very physical. Accompanying the vocal arrangements are movements and gestures that need to be choreographed. These are based on the tempo (beats) and involve who moves when and where. Movement should be simple, controlled, and clear in meaning (e.g., swinging an imaginary sledge hammer as if one were driving pegs into a railroad tie, or pulling an imaginary rope as if one were hauling a boat to shore). In determining movement, it is helpful to ask three questions: Where should individuals and groups be at the beginning of the play? During each episode? At the end of the play? (See Figure 1)
Music. If music is used, it should be very simple, such as drumbeats to emphasize the verbal and physical rhythm characterized by specific combination of voices and movement.
Dramatic Structure. There are four basic types of drama structure in mass recitations: (1) the simple chant in a fixed position by all characters (see Figure 2); (2) the simple chant combined with short pantomime scenes using a second set of characters to reinforce the dialogue; (3) the simple chant with movement and gesture by one character and/or the chorus (see Figure 3); and (4) the complex chant with movement and gesture by a number of characters and groups.

> Step 4: Improvise on the storyline.
The process of improvisation involves acting out the characters and events of each episode in order to create or refine the dialogue. The group should discuss, act out, and analyze the story line in order to establish the basic structure of the play. Each episode should be simple and to the point.
When the group is satisfied with each episode, one member should script the exact wording of lines with accompanying voice arrangements, movements, and gestures.

> Step 5: Make simple scenery & props.
The basic scenery consists of a simple cloth backdrop tacked onto a wall or hung between two poles held by students during the play. Drawings and sketches identify scenes, settings, situations, and characters. Tempera paint works well on cotton cloth for scenic depictions.
Painted cut-outs can either be stationary or carried on stage by the characters in the episode. For example, the scene involves a board of directors’ meeting. The characters come on stage carrying a painted, flat-surfaced, cut-out conference table behind which they pretend to sit. Signs can also be used to identify scenes, settings, and situations.
> Step 6: Rehearse.
The importance of rehearsal goes beyond the obvious. It involves further refinement of the characters, episodes, vocal arrangements, and movements and gestures worked out through improvisation. It is also the last chance to adjust the timing, which is crucial to the success of a mass recitation.

> Step 7: Present the mass recitation.

> Step 8: Do a “break out” (optional).
A characteristic of mass recitations is the use of the “break out.” This involves having the actors step out of character and halt the play’s action in order to discuss the proposed solution with the audience. Similar to this is a “cut out,” which leaves the play open-ended and asks members of the audience how they would resolve the problem. The audience can offer any number of alternative solutions. Student groups could follow up discussion by re-working their original conception and presenting the play a second time.

> Step 9: Evaluate the experience.
Evaluation is what makes any drama exercise important as a learning process. There are three critical moments when class discussion is most apt to enhance learning: (1) in choosing the problem or incident on which to focus, (2) in developing the episodes that illuminate alternative solutions, and (3) in reflecting on the performance and student reactions to it. The focus is on the activity as it relates to understanding the events of the 1930s (or any other time period chosen).
Three types of questions the teacher might ask to evaluate and promote learning are:
Questions analyzing the structure of the play
> Who are the main characters?
> What are the main events?
> What are the connections between characters and events?
Questions analyzing the issue or problem portrayed
> What is the issue or problem?
> What appears to be the cause of the problem?
> What solutions were proposed to solve the problem?
> Are there other solutions not mentioned in the play?
> How could solutions be implemented?
Questions evaluating the play as a class activity
> What did you learn from doing this play?
> What did you learn from watching this play?
> How could this learning be useful in other situations?

A Critique of Using Workers’ Theatre
Participants in workers’ theater considered it both a political and an educational tool for solving problems. They believed that bringing together working class actors and audiences in a dramatic process of collective decision making would better equip workers to affect the real world of public policymaking. According to Jeffery Goffin, such a process of “collective creation” can help to maximize student learning about historical events and issues.2
However, the “agit-prop” nature of workers’ theatre does raise at least two questions with respect to its use in the social studies classroom. First, is this activity anything more than a historical recreation lacking any real punch in studying current problems? In fact, I designed this activity for studying historical events, in particular, labor history during the Depression. I find that using theatrical (and other cultural) forms of a given period helps to recreate the flavor of the time and therefore increase historical understanding.3 I would also argue that using agit-prop to recreate the past can prompt students to apply their learning to contemporary events. In the spirit of agit-prop, the past is prologue to understanding societal problems and devising solutions to them.
A second criticism is that the very nature of agit-prop is to a great degree inharmonious with the purpose of social studies education. Agit-prop theatre is very partisan and usually presents arguments on one side of an issue only; that is, it indoctrinates. Social studies education, on the other hand, should promote and encourage analysis and thoughtful consideration of all sides of an issue.
I believe this problem is easily resolvable. One way is to have the entire class study and identify the various sides of a historical or contemporary issue. Students who favor different positions can form groups to design a play that presents their interpretation of the problem and its best solution. The value of this as a learning process would rest on the evaluation that follows the performances. Second, play groups can do what most agit-prop plays did: “break-out” after a solution is proposed or “cut-out” and leave the play open-ended. Either allows the “class-audience” to offer its recommendations.
A final use of this activity would be to target a contemporary issue and move its discussion beyond classroom walls. Students could present their plays to other classes, to the whole school, or to the community at large. Such presentations should include time for follow-up discussion. This could be a valuable way to acquaint the community with issues that concern students—and might even lead to some form of social action.

1. John O’Connor and Lorraine Brown, Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theater (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980 or 1978), 26.
2. Jeffrey Goffin, “The Collective Creation in the Classroom,” in Bernie Warren, ed., Creating a Theatre in Your Classroom (North York, Ontario: Captus University Publications, 1995).
3. George W. Chilcoat, “The Living Newspaper: Theatre as a Teaching Strategy,” Social Education 52, No. 6 (October 1988), 436-443.

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The Library of Congress’ American Memory website includes a site on New Deal Theater at:

George W. Chilcoat is an associate professor in the College of Education, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.