Written by BJ Jones
In 1969 I joined the United Mine Workers. I made varnish for Mobil Chemical one summer during college. Midway through the summer the UMW went out on strike for wages and conditions and we were on the picket line. During my time off my buddy and I headed to upstate New York to go to a rock concert which was getting rained out, but … that’s another story.
As I left Mobil to go back to school they offered me a full time job, but I told the shift manager that I was headed back to class and that I was going to be an actor. He looked at me with barely concealed pity and said I would always have a job at Mobil. I thanked him and headed out of the factory and into my life. Well, that factory has since closed, and here I am directing a play about my fellow mine workers who were also artists.
That shift manager was a great guy, but he couldn’t conceive of making a living as an actor. I’ve thought of those guys over the years, and I wonder if they ever had dreams like I did. I wonder if they had gifts unopened, and fires unlit. I was the first of my generation in our family to graduate from college and in Cleveland in the late 1960s, making a living as an artist, let alone even being one, was outside the realm of possibility.
At the end of college the Artistic Director of the Cleveland Play House offered me an apprenticeship, and the fire of my passion for theatre was lit, unquenchable 40 years later. And here I am, working on Wellington Avenue, just down the street from where I made my Chicago debut at the old Ivanhoe Theatre.
I am so deeply moved by the thought that regardless of education, experience or class, the artistic impulse resonates from within everyone. Unrecognized, undernourished, it will not grow, but the flicker of recognition and validation can set the wheels of creation spinning.
At the end of the first act, the miners are talking about their work and their moment of self discovery. As a group they tell us:
… If you can overcome whatever you need to overcome, no matter who you are, where you come from. That is what is important about art; you take one thing and make it into another, and transform … who you are.
Perhaps that is the Pitmen Painters greatest work of art … themselves.
BJ Jones is the Artistic Director of Northlight Theatre in Skokie and makes his TimeLine Theatre debut as director of The Pitmen Painters.