Recently, TheatreWorks artistic director and UCCS instructor Murray Ross asked his theater history students, who had been educated in Colorado schools, if any of them knew about the Ludlow Massacre. None of them had heard of it.
None claimed any knowledge of the event, 100 years now distant, in which Colorado National Guard troops and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company guards attacked a camp of about 1,200 striking miners and their families. The bloody battle ended in destruction when the militia torched the settlement. About two dozen people were killed that day, including two women and 11 children who had fled to safety in a cellar beneath one of the tents, but became trapped and unable to escape the blaze.
What happened at Ludlow was significant, so TheatreWorks, with the Denver-based experimental theater company, the Lida Project, are reviving the memory of what has been described as the deadliest strike in U.S. history and the events of the 1913-14 Colorado Coalfield War through a new, jointly created play that will premiere at TheatreWorks this week, and then in Denver next spring.
Lida's artistic director Brian Freeland describes Ludlow, 1914 as "dramatic vaudeville." He says the story plays out initially as a series of unconnected events that later make sense as a whole — similar in style to the old vaudeville circuit. Freeland says they didn't want to create a traumatic retelling of what happened. Murray says the production is more of a collage of events that relies at times on suggestion and symbolism instead of slides or footage of actual events. This isn't a Ken Burns-style documentary.
With 18 actors, six of whom are children, the cast is larger than most TheatreWorks productions. And the design team also has its share of interesting roles, including an "anti-gravity consultant" responsible for the rigging of objects that float in the air, and an "incandescence artisan" in charge of intricate lighting effects. There will also be projection screens that fill the space with images such as sky, backgrounds and text, and more abstract visuals of textures, shadows and patterns.
The massacre itself is generated from the movement of the actors, costumes and props, along with lights and projections to create what Freeland describes as a "broad spectacle."
A century later, the issues that culminated in the Ludlow tragedy are still relevant. The play explores what it's like to be a laborer and what it means to be a boss. Ross explains the story is "personal and social and political. It touches on so many different significant subjects, such as class war, wealth inequality, use of fossil fuels — things which are really quite complex and very active now."
Freeland adds that the power structures operating in 1914 are really no different than those in existence today. NBC recently reported that the top 1 percent of all Americans received nearly 20 percent of all the available income, the greatest gap since the Roaring '20s.
While Ludlow didn't end well, this interpretation isn't entirely bleak. Freeland says, "sometimes power inequalities are tragic and sometimes they are funny. And sometimes they're confusing." Which isn't very different from how things are today.