The Waistmaker’s Opera, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the shirtwaist maker’s strike, one of the first major strikes led by women, premiered in May 2010; produced by Downtown Art, lyrics and staging by Ryan Gilliam, music by Michael Hickey.
The production was staged in the streets of NY’s former garment district and the Lower East Side, at sites connected to the historical events, and in a vacant lot on East 3rd Street. Audience and cast were connected to the recorded score via synced MP3 players while moving through various locations to witness live dance and staging during Act 1; Act 2 was performed live at 3rd Street. In 2014, Downtown Art restaged the performance at University Settlement on Eldridge Street. The libretto follows historical events closely, often weaving extensive quotation and language into modern song.
One hundred years ago, on November 23, 1909, sparked by events at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, more than twenty thousand garment workers, most of them young women in their teens and early twenties, launched an eleven week general strike in New York. The strike drew together an unlikely coalition – working girls, middle‐class progressive women, female college students, and even women leaders of New York society. Dubbed the “Uprising of the 20,000”, it was one of the first successful major strikes of female workers in American history.
The story of the strike has long been overshadowed by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire which took place almost a year after the strike settled, the worst workplace disaster to have occurred prior to 9/11, in which 146 workers died within 30 minutes, most of them teenage girls. The waistmakers have often been remembered as victims of that fire– in the opera the artists intend to focus on them as they lived ‐ their accomplishments, their courage, their extraordinary determination.
Original cast: Lily Abedin, Doris Alcantara, Ari Anderson, Alyssa Burgos, Lauren Burgos, Olivia Cabrera, Lena Feliciano Hansen, Michela Garabedian, Lili Gehorsam, Gal Gelbard, Isabel Jenkins, Jeanne Kessira, Alice Quinn Makwaia, Mariana Quinn Makwaia, Claritza Quezada, Isabella Sullivan, Lindiana Timmons. Musicians: Hans Bilger, Zach Crumrine, Eli Greenhoe, Michael Hickey. Associate Producer: Veracity Butcher
2014 cast: Paige Acevedo, Cassidy Dawn Graves, Kara Green, Gihee Hong, Ruth Ipince, Joyce Laoagan, Madison McGhee, Hila Nauss, Sadah Proctor, Ariel Rosen-Brown, Amy Secunda, Umi Shakti, Hadley Todoran, Kelsey Watts. Musicians: Steve Castiñeiras, Nick Salgo, Michael Hickey. Stage Manager: Egypt Dixon. Assistant to the Director: Zen Anton
EXCERPT FROM ‘STRIKE’
GIRLS: Shall we wait like this? Do we wait?
Hats and coats beside us. Do we wait?
Who will get up first?
GIRL: Not me, not first
GIRL: First they will remember
GIRL: The bosses will remember
GIRLS: Strike, a general strike, there is a general strike
GIRLS: Who will get up first? Not me, not alone
GIRL: I don’t want to be alone
GIRL: Hush, girl, you’re not alone.
GIRLS: We’re union. Union. Strike!
GIRLS: Who will get up first, who, someone who
Who, someone who
GIRL: What difference does it make who is first and who is last
GIRLS: We’re together. Be together. And walk.
Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk.
It has begun
Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk out.
Strike. Strike. Strike. Strike. Strike!
EXCERPT FROM ‘TEN DOLLARS A WEEK‘
Ten dollars a week | That’s a good week – when the season is high
Ten dollars a week — you can kind of get by | Yes, with that you can buy
One bed in a crowded room | Four flights of stairs | Two meals a day if you’re careful then there’s | a few dollars left you can send home
Something to help your sister who’s ill | A dollar to pay the doctor’s bill
But on ten dollars a week there still | might be something unspent
Something more than the rent | Something still in your pocket
Of course ten dollars a week is a good week when the season is high
But there are times when the work can run dry | The low season
Months when the work disappears | A few months that can feel like years
You have to fight your fears
And shoes are two dollars a pair, but they’re quickly worn through, what can you do?
Half hour for lunch – I try not to eat more than a bite | I like something sweet
My purse strings are tight cause I’m saving my pennies to treat myself to a new
Hat | How I want a new hat | That | Makes me feel like a lady
Let me tell you something about the way that we work.
Seven in the morning, at our machines | Seven at night, maybe we leave
Unless the bosses tell us to stay not for more pay, there’s never more pay
A slice of pie but no pay | it’s a long day | ending at eight, ending at nine they never say
you’re expected to stay | It’s a long day
Six days a week you can’t help but dream of Sunday
Let me tell you something. The bosses are not what you’d call educated men.
Despite how they bark, they’re no better than us | And once they were us, men,
just men, but they call us down | Not by name, the names they call us
Not my name, they call us 21 42 86 159 I’m Faster! My name’s Faster!
For them we’re just part of a big machine, a big machine they are running
So it’s hard not to dream Of Sunday | Sunday – when you can sleep
No, not sleep | Even though you’re weak from the week
You need to keep your spirits from sinking
So you put on your new hat and you hold your head high | as high as a lady
And with a bold heart you go forth to find a life that’s more than this deadening grind
To insist that the world | Notice your hat | And that