Ninety years before the Twin Towers were attacked, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Waist Company in the Asch Building at the corner of Washington Place and Green Street in lower Manhattan. As fabric used to make the popular shirtwaists — turned out at the rate of 2000 a day — ignited, the conflagration spread rapidly to the floors above. Within minutes, employees unable to escape through an eighth-floor stairwell door that appeared to be locked were leaping to their deaths from window ledges or dying of smoke inhalation at the tables where they worked, often as their hair and clothing burned.
Although the calamity was on a much smaller scale that the 9/11 tragedy and didn’t make international headlines as did the more recent attack, it rocked the city. Photographs of the horrific event, many of them showing bodies on the sidewalk, roused citizens to action. As a result of the negligence that was assumed to have accounted for more than 140 deaths, fire law reforms were enacted. There was an impact on unionization locally, in an era when union organizers had already been rallying workers — including the women and men who labored at Triangle Waist — for a number of years.
Now, as if it were a foreshadowing of what was to happen only a mile or so to the south fourscore and 10 years later, the event is the subject of The Triangle Factory Fire Project. The piece, conceived and directed by Scott Alan Evans, has been compiled from records by Christopher Piehler in collaboration with The Actors Company Theatre. It’s a harrowing enterprise any way you look at it, and most people will look at it in a state of shock not much less acute than that experienced by bystanders on March 25, 1911.
Piehler’s work is the latest in a series of similar enterprises that can’t rightly be called plays. They’re theater documentaries of the sort that have been popularized by Anna Deavere Smith, who has made a practice of interviewing people associated with a particular issue, editing their testimony, and then impersonating the interviewees as if she were making a documentary film. The Laramie Project, which concerns the death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, follows Deavere’s formula, though it requires an ensemble rather than a solo performer. (Smith has also written pieces for more than one actor.) Only months prior to The Triangle Factory Fire Project, David Hare unveiled his addition to stack at London’s Royal National Theatre: The Permanent Way, in which nine actors play characters involved in four train wrecks that resulted directly from the nationalization of England’s railroads.
As the offerings in this relatively new genre accumulate, it appears that the impetus for them is often outrage. In Fires in the Mirror, for instance, Smith offers a balanced account of the Crown Heights incident but the emotions behind the clash of African-American and Jewish communities over the deaths of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum are manifest. Hare also makes a show of dealing in reportage, yet an air of irate editorializing surrounds his enterprise.
Director Evans and TACT cast present the Triangle Waist fire and its upsetting aftermath with the urgency of people whose feet are being licked by flames. They’re telling a horror story — another hair-raising tale from the annals of union-forming days, in which management isn’t severely admonished when workers suffer. (One wonders if the Enron case will ever inspire a theater documentaries.) Presented in, roughly, three parts, TTFFP covers the lead-up to the fire, the fire itself as described by people both in and outside the building, and the resulting trial: Shirtwaist owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were charged with negligence but went free because the jury wouldn’t conclude, on the basis of evidence and testimony, that the stairwell door had been locked in accordance with the bosses’ demands.
Piehler has chosen to examine the catastrophe through the life and death of one of the employees, Margaret Schwartz (Rachel Fowler), a composite of three women who died just inside the locked door; this character is the only instance in which the dramatist interferes with the facts. He brings on breathless co-workers and even a New York University law professor (Kyle Fabel), observing from a nearby building, to announce the fire’s progress with mounting terror. There’s no question that this verbatim segment is the toughest one to sit through; perhaps the most trying moments are those recounted by reporter William Shepard (Jamie Bennett), who talks about bodies hitting the pavement in what he comes to think of as a “thud-dead” rhythm. Piehler may play excessively on audience sympathies by having Schwartz’s mother, Bertha (Francesca di Mauro), enter frequently with a tintype of her daughter clutched in her hand. The trial — wherein proprietors Blanck (Timothy McCracken) and Harris (Bennett again) deny knowing anything about the alleged locked door and other witnesses deny being paid to swear that the door was always unlocked — provokes another kind of fury.
The actors, playing multiple roles, deliver the survivors’ recollections while darting about Mimi Lien’s multi-level set and in and out of Mary Louise Geiger’s shifting lights. They’re all quick on the shift from one part to another, often simply walking upstage and then striding downstage again, having slipped in or out of a fashion accessory and in and out of an Irish or Jewish or white Anglo-Saxon accent. Evans does everything he can to guarantee that no one in the audience mistakes Piehler’s script for a static oratorio. The skilled performers show up in muted period clothes as the suffrage-plugging Mrs. O.H.P. Belmont (Nora Chester), building owner Joseph Asch (James Murtaugh), union organizer Rose Schneiderman (Kelly Hutchinson), New York City district attorney Charles Bostwick (Kyle Fabel), defense attorney Max Steuer (Scott Schaefer), and various cutters, seamstresses, shipping clerks, bookkeepers, and floor girls unlucky enough to have reported to work on that fateful day. Not a single one of these actors fails to present his or her own vivid tintype of a characterization.
There’s something compelling about theater documentaries such as this one, especially at a time when film documentaries appear to have a broadening appeal. (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, a realization of the movie-maker’s outrage over the Bush administration, just won the grand prize at Cannes — possibly for political reasons as much as for what’s on celluloid.) But documentaries call for different standards of judgment than plays. They must be cogent, to the point, accurate, broadly informative, a proper mix of objectivity and subjectivity. To some extent, the actors in theater docs must subordinate performance ego to subject matter; to an equal extent, audiences must understand that their emotions are going to be affected in a different way than if they were attending a traditional play.
The Triangle Factory Fire Project meets all requirements. It’s likely that no one leaves the theater unmoved by what’s recalled in searing detail; it’s even possible that some observers will be moved to do something about contemporary workplace injustices. Documentary theater is polemical — and, at a time when there’s so much to be outraged about, what’s wrong with that?