Theatre recreates factory fire

By Stephanie Ball

Women screamed and ran to the elevator shaft and locked door of the Triangle Factory stage in the Brookhaven College Performance Hall March 8. Smoke billowed from the factory’s 10th floor windows.

The actors coughed and fell to the ground. The flames projected on the stage’s brick background rose floor by floor, enveloping the textiles and the lives of the trapped factory workers.

Theatre Brookhaven recreated true events from the 1911 Shirtwaist Factory Fire. “The Triangle Factory Fire Project” was directed by Michael A. Robinson, a professor, costume designer and former Brookhaven student.

The actors performed the rendition of Christopher Piehler’s “The Triangle Factory Fire Project” 100 years after the fire.

Darise Error, theater professor and house manager, said the play is relevant today in regard to the deregulation of business and the violent moves against collective bargaining. “The Triangle Factory fire, however, is evidence of what happens when the workers have no voice and the profiteers are allowed to operate unchecked,” she said.

The play began with black-and-white photos of actual Triangle Factory workers displayed on the canvas backdrop. The reporter, played by Chris Rager, opened the first scene standing between the row of auditorium seats with a spotlight illuminating his face and notepad. “Every day I see someone on the worst days of their life,” Rager said. “I calm them and let them tell their story.”

The factory workers described what they were doing the day of the fire one by one. Nearly 500 immigrants from Poland, Russia and Italy represented the workers forced to work 14-hour days.

Victor Godefroy, who played lawyer Charles Bostwick, said the cast rehearsed for a month and the director brought in his lawyer to help prepare the trial scene. Godefroy said he was shocked when he first read the script because he had not heard of the event.

“This play is very powerful, to say the least,” Godefroy said. “Not only is it in memory of the victims of this fire, most of whom were women, but it also reminds us what happens when we don’t bring proper justice to the corrupt.”

During the fire scene, the fire department actors said the fire roared at 4:45 p.m. and engine 72 arrived within 30 seconds. The factory workers waved for help, while others jumped out of the eighth story windows.

The women could not escape the factory because a door was locked by the executives. Margaret Schwartz, played by Wendy Gamon, pounded repeatedly on the exit door and collapsed after crying out, “My God, I am lost.”

The reporter narrated that all the events happened in less than seven minutes – including the fire, the screaming and the thuds of the bodies falling to the ground. Some women jumped to their deaths while others managed to escape to the roof of an adjacent building. In all, 146 workers died that day.

Elizabeth Elieson played Ethel Monick and May Levantini, two survivors of the fire. “I think we all felt the burden of the fact that these are real people and real events,” Elieson said. “I hope, at the very least, the audience recognized what was sacrificed.”

The play ended with a trial scene in which Jeremy Taub and Sahar David took the stand as executives. In the play, as in real life, the executives were found not guilty and later opened a new factory.

Haven Abedin, English professor, said she loved the production and next time she visits New York’s Washington Square, where the fire occurred, the factory workers will be on her mind.

“The actors’ performances, the haunting photographs of people and scenes related to the fire, and the script from the survivors’ accounts all brought the tragedy vividly to life,” Abedin said.