Les Invisibles: Joan Holden & The Working Poor in America


It seemed like an implausible task. Take a non-fiction book about the working poor in America and turn it into a play that would be both informative and…entertaining.


Yet, when Bartlett Sher, artistic director for Seattle’s Intiman Theatre, first hatched the idea of adapting Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America into a play, the San Francisco native knew exactly which playwright would deftly balance both the politics and theatrics that would be required to pull off the adaptation without falling into the trap of appearing overly preachy. 


Often called one of the most prolific unknown playwrights in America, Joan Holden wrote over 30 plays in as many years as the principle playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe—a Bay Area institution whose scathing political satires have made it one of the most respected theatre companies in the world. So, when Sher dialed up Holden, who had recently retired from the Troupe in 2000, he knew he was recruiting one of the most talented and experienced virtual unknowns in the business.


The Voice of the Mime Troup


Despite its name, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has little to do with the contemporary image of the silent, white-faced, Marcel Marceau type of mime performing the classic “trapped in a box” routine in some city park. The Troupe instead uses the term “mime” in the ancient sense, which means to mimic, and their mimicry is anything but silent, drawing on song, dance, slapstick, and the farcical elements of the commedia dell’arte to create radical theatre that encourages the audience to laugh at the absurdities of the current political climate. 


Holden joined the company in 1967 at the invitation of her then husband Arthur Holden to adapt Carlo Goldoni’s 18th Century anti-war novel L’Amant Militaire into a satire of the Vietnam War. Although the SF Mime Troupe was approaching its 10th anniversary as a Bay Area institution for its confrontational politics and its annual presentation of free performances in Golden Gate Park, L’Amant Militaire would take the Troupe to whole new level of agitprop theatre. After premiering the show in San Francisco, the Troupe took it on a tour of college campuses, close on the heels of recruiters for the Dow Chemical Company, manufacturers of Napalm.


In subsequent years, Holden wrote a number of ground breaking scripts for the Troupe including The Dragon Lady’s Revenge (1971 ), based on an expose about the CIA’s involvement in the Indochina heroin trade, Steeltown (1984) dramatizing the plight of steel workers and the need for union solidarity, and the OBIE award winning Seeing Double (1989) about the Israeli - Palestine conflict. Although she considers much of this work to be the equivalent of staged political cartoons, the Troupe’s commitment to guerilla/Brechtian theatre was recognized in 1987 with a Tony Award for Excellence in Regional Theatre.


The Challenge of Adapting a Nonfiction Book


Yet, even for a playwright as experienced as Holden, adapting a book like Nickel and Dimed posed challenges—not the least of which was that the book is journalistic in nature, not dramatic.


Initially begun as an assignment for Harper’s Magazine, Ehrenreich’s book documents her experiences as she goes undercover to work as a waitress, house cleaner, and Wal-Mart clerk to investigate the brutal economic realities facing the millions of working poor in America. Although she provides plenty of gripping stories about everyday people fighting to make ends meet, and even recounts her own challenges trying to keep herself fed with a roof over her head on a salary of $7.00 an hour, there is no clear dramatic arc to the book that would make it a natural candidate to be adapted into a play.


Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich keeps an objective distance from her subject  which doesn’t necessarily make for good drama. To build a compelling arc on which to hang the many stories from the book, Holden needed a narrator who was emotionally invested in the plight of these disenfranchised workers. She found her answer by turning to Ehrenreich herself to create the character of Barbara, a middle-class journalist with working-class roots whose stranger in a strange land perspective anchors the story. Holden even provides Barbara with a fictional middle-class boyfriend whose persistent questioning about the necessity of telling this story serves as a catalyst for Barbara to reveal her inner motivation.


Premiering at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 2002, Holden’s adaptation has proved as successful as Ehrenreich’s bestselling book, enjoying sold out houses at The Mark Taper Forum and other regional theatres throughout the country.  Ironically, Sher doesn’t believe audiences are responding to the play because it tells the story of the poor in America, bur rather because the play addresses the white, middle-class audiences who regularly attend the theatre. By bringing them face to face with the often invisible waitresses, janitors, and house cleaners whose pitifully low wages subsidize their lives, the play encourages theatergoers to consider the ramifications of America’s shift from an Industrial to a service oriented economy as well as the impact even a small increase in the minimum wage can have on the lives of the millions of low wage workers in America when even a few dollars could mean the difference between sleeping in an apartment or sleeping in van outside the Days Inn.