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Chatham Mills breathes again with Working

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For better or worse, what we do between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. is how we often define ourselves. We crave for our work to be recognized, and that is the premise of Studs Terkel's celebrated oral history, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

Thirty-two years ago, Terkel's work was adapted for the theater largely by Stephen Schwartz, best known as the composer for Godspell and Wicked. Although the production, Working, A Musical, closed after 24 performances, it still received six Tony award nominations.

The musical also managed to survive in the American theatrical repertory, no doubt partly due to its undemanding technical requirements but also because America's relationship to its workers is a fraught one that demands theatrical exploration. When 29 people die in a West Virginia coal mine, and we're told that 100,000 American coal miners have died on the job since 1900, we get an important reminder of the danger that shadows so many workers.

Fittingly, a production of Working will take place in Chatham Mills. Built in 1924, the factory produced woven labels for 72 years until developers purchased it and began adapting the space for tech companies and other businesses.

Ellen Bland, continuing a practice popular among the area's homeless theater companies, saw Chatham Mills as the perfect place to put on Terkel and Schwartz's musical. The mill's high-ceilinged weaving room, which once resounded with the clacking of industrial looms, is now a theatrical set in various stages of construction.

Timeliness, says Bland, who teaches theater at Central Carolina Community College, is just one of the reasons she selected Working for her college's spring production. She also chose the play based upon the students in her theater production class; it was particularly varied in age and background, typical of a community college classroom, and Bland felt that this might be the year to pull Working off her shelf.

The show consists of monologues from 24 hours in the lives of ordinary, blue- and white-collar Americans. Working was written in the 1970s, another tough economic era, and thus speaks to the situation in which many Americans find themselves today. (Some things are different, though: In 1980, one consequence of blue collar discontent was the election of a Republican president, Ronald Reagan.)

Tapping into the history of industrial labor written on the unfinished floors of Chatham Mills, Bland has found inspiration in her cast. With the help of Susie Whorley and stage manager Draw Lasater, Bland added a short monologue drawn from the experiences of Whorley's mother, who worked for 26 years in another now-closed mill, in Martinsville, Va.

"She walked to work after feeding her four children breakfast, than spent eights hours a day sewing swim trunks and jackets," says Whorley, adding that her mother lost her job when she had a stroke. After that, she received a pension of $100 every three months until her death.

Whorley has been in many of Bland's productions. For the past 18 years, her day job has been as a phone operator for UNC Hospitals Cancer Center. She calls her work inspiring, even if it seems like an unglamorous desk job. "When you can make a cancer patient laugh," she said, "you feel that you've made a difference."

Not every role in Working is a serious one. Morgan Jones provides comic relief with the character of Conrad, an UPS delivery man. The 23-year-old Jones, one of Bland's star students, hopes to go on to acting school and describes his character as "a little perverted and creepy, not a nice-guy role but fun to really figure out and bring to life."

With each production, Bland and Lasater work to pull in people who aren't particularly avid theatergoers but who might come to a show that connects with their lives."We consider the audience we want to attract, and here in Chatham County we could not successfully put on a play just for theatergoers," said Lasater.

Bland notes that Working is well suited for nontraditional audiences. "Instead of being a 'book' musical [with a distinct narrative behind a fourth wall], this show is written as a mosaic of individual pieces that are presentational," she says, referring to directly addressing the audience.

Working reminds us that the work we do doesn't define us to as great a degree as the hopes and aspirations we carry in our souls. Work is how we make ends meet, but dreams are what make the work bearable.

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