Invisibles: Joan Holden & The Working Poor in
It seemed like
an implausible task. Take a non-fiction book about the working poor in
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.
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
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.
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
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.