July 29, 2002
Intiman Theatre presents world premiere of 'Nickel and Dimed'
by Deborah Stone
Arts and Entertainment
Opening this week at Intiman Theatre is the world premiere of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," a new play by Joan Holden based on the best-selling book by Barbara Ehrenreich. In her book, Ehrenreich provides a humorous, penetrating and often frightening account of what it's really like to live in low-wage America.
In the service of investigative journalism, the author spent much of 1998 living in three different parts of the country, going "undercover" and finding jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, nursing-home aide, cleaning woman and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Ehrenreich did just about everything she could, often working seven days a week, but she was unable to make ends meet on the $6 to $7 an hour minimum wage she was paid.
During her experiences, she lived in trailer parks and motel rooms, eating lots of cereal, chopped meat and noodles, while listening to the hardship stories and struggles of the working poor. Her investigation concludes that minimally decent survival for an unskilled worker, even one working two jobs, is unachievable. This is primarily due to pathetically low wages and a lack of affordable housing in our country.
Ehrenreich's book is both illuminating and valuable. Its picture of the working poor is achingly vivid, conveyed with a deep sense of moral outrage. "Nickel and Dimed" has received widespread attention and acclaim as one of the most significant works of social criticism of our time.
The decision to pursue the theatrical rights to Ehrenreich's book came when Intiman Artistic Director, Bartlett Sher, heard Ehrenreich do a television interview. He was inspired by her words and intrigued with the possibility of bringing her experiences and message to the stage. After securing the rights, Sher got playwright Joan Holden of San Francisco to do the script. Holden, long-time playwright for the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe and known for her original socio-political plays, immediately ran out and bought Ehrenreich's book.
"After I read it, I really wanted to do the project," says Holden. "I had such a strong reaction to the book and felt a mixture of admiration and shame for not knowing what Barbara reveals. I was shocked at how wide the gulf is between the classes. She makes visible the invisible lives of people we pass everyday."
Holden feels she was chosen to write the play for her work, which has always been about issues of the time. She adds, "I also feel that my political point of view is close to Barbara's and we both use humor as our weapon.
" Laughter lowers defenses. In addition, I think I was selected because of my ability to synthesize lots of information and make it entertaining, without losing value or the message."
It was a challenge for Holden to create a play from Ehrenreich's book, as she had to develop characters and scenes from what she describes as "small seeds." She also had to omit some details and parts, as well as exaggerate others.
"I think that readers will definitely recognize lots in the book when they see the play, but I had to condense the material," comments Holden. "Plus I had to fill in lots of gaps because the book is a nonfiction account, a report of what Barbara noted and observed. There's not a lot about Barbara as a person because she didn't report about herself."
Holden met Barbara once and was impressed with her straightforward approach and her ability to disarm people with humor.
"I liked her right away," says Holden. Since then, she has communicated with the author via e-mail to help her in filling in the gaps for her script. "I sent her the script and she liked it," comments Holden. "I needed her approval psychologically and I also wanted her to comment on certain details."
Holden's desire for her play is that it gets done again and again, throughout the country.
She feels that it helps put a very important issue on the table Ñ an issue she hopes won't go away until steps are taken to change such areas as living wage laws, national health care and the subsidized housing situation.
"I hope that audiences who view the play go home and rethink their prejudices against welfare, dole and government assistance. I hope they do things like leave larger tips for restaurant workers, hotel maids and cleaning women and regard such individuals with more compassion and humanity."
"Nickel and Dimed" will be directed by Bartlett Sher and feature Sharon Lockwood as "Barbara" and an ensemble of five actors playing multiple roles.
The show runs through Aug. 25 and in conjunction with the production, Intiman will work with a series of community partners to foster a public conversation about living wages, housing and other issues relevant to the Puget Sound region.
Among the projects will be a selection of photographs, on view in Intiman's lobby by Seattle-based photographer Susie Fitzhugh, capturing the personal and working lives of women in the area who are raising families while earning a low-income wage.
Post-play conversations will follow every performance of "Nickel and Dimed," and on Aug. 3, a special conversation between Barbara Ehrenreich and Joan Holden will be held. It is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.
For ticket information about the show, call the Intiman Ticket Office at (206) 269-1900.