New resonance

In the wake of the Bangladesh factory collapse, artists tell a century-old story that’s as fresh as the morning headlines

PUTNEY — Two Sandglass visiting artists are reinterpreting a tragic historic event in a startling new way.

On June 15 and 16, at 5 p.m., writer Patrick Keppel and composer Bradley Kemp will present “Triangle,” their play in tabletop and shadow puppets, dramatic text, and live musicians, at Sandglass Theater.

This multimedia work explores the legacy of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 garment workers died. It was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of New York City.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits - a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks - many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and 10th floors to the streets below. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.

While vocalists perform Patrick Keppel's haunting text, puppets act as silent, spiritual incarnations of the story's dream-like metaphors, woven together by Bradley Kemp's richly layered improvisatory soundscape.

The “Triangle” cast features New York vocalists Amy Carrigan (Meredith Monk Ensemble) and Michael Douglas Jones (Anthony Braxton Ensemble), Kamala Sankaram (Philip Glass Ensemble); Brattleboro puppeteer Finn Campman and New York puppeteer Jamie Moore; and New York musicians Stephanie Richards (trumpet, Asphalt Orchestra), and Zoe Christensen (clarinet, Painted Bird Ensemble).

Scene and light design are by Josh Moyse and Josh Goldstein.

The work's co-creators, Keppel and Kemp, are engaging in a week-long residency at Sandglass that culminates in these two evening performances. The “Triangle” artist residency and performances at Sandglass Theater are supported by a Jim Henson Foundation Project Grant.

“Triangle” was created with the support of the Henson Foundation, the Vermont Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kemp is a member of the punk-chamber ensemble Anti-Social Music in New York City. His music mixes acoustic and electric forces, the sounds of found objects, and song-like melodies as it crosses folk, avant-garde and minimalist genres.

The Houston Symphony and Detroit Symphony have performed his orchestral arrangements of opera arias.

Kemp also has recorded an album of original folk music with singer Heather Masse of the American roots trio The Wailin' Jennys.

Keppel, a Brattleboro-based short story writer, novelist and playwright, is chair of the liberal arts and graduate departments of language at the New England Conservatory of Music. His plays have been presented at The Boston Playwrights' Theatre, The Huntington Theatre's Studio 210, the Boston University School for the Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

In 2008, Keppel presented a spoken-word version of “Triangle” at the annual conference of the Association for Humanist Sociology in Boston.

Keppel describes “Triangle” as a multimedia work, with a mixture of spoken text, sprechgesang (an expressionist vocal technique between speaking and singing), fully sung pieces, including some beautiful songs, jazz style improvised music and ambient sounds. While other characters played by live actors stand on the stage at the periphery, on a table in the center of of the action sits a puppet that represents the garment workers.

“Not a cute Muppet, but a haunting figure,” says Keppel.

The setting is a New York shirtwaist factory seven years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In the libretto, the forewoman, Joan, tells three younger seamstresses her story of the Triangle workers' strike and of her survival of the subsequent fire.

At the same time, the former owner of the Triangle factory, Blanck, presents his version of the strike and fire, teetering among feelings of anger, grief, and guilt.

Together they dramatize the psychological difficulty of maintaining ideals, or even of expressing one's basic humanity, within a framework of social injustice.

“'Triangle' began as a straight play, which originally was part of a longer work that I was writing,” Keppel says.

When a composer came to Keppel to collaborate, they decided this fragment could be used as a basis of a sort of opera.

That work ultimately fell through, but some time later, when another composer, Kemp, proposed working on an opera with Keppel, the playwright had a handy libretto in hand. Within a short time of collaborating, the piece seemed to Keppel no longer a detached fragment: it had taken on a life of its own.

In 2001, the two artists presented an earlier version of the work in Brooklyn as part of the centennial of the Triangle fire, which Keppel calls “a critical moment in labor history.”

There were numerous shows and exhibitions about the event, but Keppel believes “Triangle” was substantially different from the other commemorations of the fire.

“For one thing,” he says, “our piece takes place sometime after the fire, and we explore how with some distance people conceptualize the fire.”

Keppel believes that “Triangle” doesn't simply dramatize the fire as a lamentable tragedy, which was a seminal event in U.S. labor history now softened in memory by the passage of time and workplace safety laws.

Rather, the play also seeks to remind us of where we see (or don't see) similar events today. Somewhere, these Triangle women are still trapped - just as on April 24, when an eight-story garment factory in the capital of Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,127 and injuring 2,500. This is considered to be the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.

The play asks two hard questions: How do we understand a system that continues to allow and even encourage such practices? To what extent are factory owners and corporations that profit from them also trapped by the system?

Keppel wants to resist merely demonizing the factory owner as a villain in a melodrama of history.

He believes that Blanck is part of a system of which he too was a victim. Yet, Keppel hardly wants to let Blanck off blameless, for the man did indeed own the factory and had locked the doors, which resulted in so many deaths. Indeed, Blanck and his daughter were in the building during the fire, and they nearly perished.

“In many ways, his workplace was considered progressive at the time, a much better place to work than the sweatshops in New York,” Keppel says.

Some reforms were later made after the fire to improve conditions, but it was hardly a clear victory for workers.

“Conditions were not that much better,” says Keppel. “Doors were still locked. And because of even these minimal restrictions, soon enough businesses moved elsewhere, down South, and then overseas to Third World countries.

“In its day, lower Manhattan was the Third World. Just as now we demonize places like Walmart as we naively imagine if that 'evil' company could clean up its act everything would be fine, we fail to implicate ourselves in a much grander catastrophic system.

“The Triangle factory was hardly an isolated incident. As became apparent just a few weeks ago by the factory collapse in Bangladesh, wherever this labor moves, tragedy inevitably follows.”

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