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Theater Project Gives Unemployed New Tools to Tell Their Story

April 06, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

Susan Franklin Tanner's 1982 Nissan has become a fixture in the parking lot of the steelworkers local union in Huntington Park. Gray and dull, the car blends in well with the automobiles of the union men. It's set apart only by its bumper sticker:

If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn't.

Susan Tanner is asking.

Her mission in Southeast Los Angeles over the last year and a half has been to give voice to men and women "whose voices are usually the last to be heard." Tanner's TheaterWorker's Project--funded by the California Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the local Liberty Hill Foundation--provides unemployed and working people with tools to tell their stories through poetry, prose, song and, finally, theater pieces.

Tanner originally worked with six former steelworkers whose worlds crumbled when the Bethlehem Steel plant in Vernon closed. With the guidance of Tanner and poet/playwright Rob Sullivan, the men wrote a play called "Lady Beth" (the affectionate name given the mill by steelworkers). The men are currently starring in a production of "Lady Beth" at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Los Angeles (through Wednesday ).

Tanner recently has turned her attention to unemployed single mothers from communities near the plant. The women, she finds, have different ways than the men for coping with poverty and preserving self-esteem.

"I knew there was a distinct female voice coming from this community that still needed to be heard," said Tanner, a 38-year-old television and stage actress who in the past has taught acting in settings such as public schools and correctional facilities. "The three women I'm working with now have stories that

intertwine around each other about how they have survived in a society that has not been helpful.

"The men (steelworkers laid off when the plant closed) had fought a battle and lost. These women are still engaged in fighting a battle. We (workshop members) are in the unknown." Tanner sees dramatic possibilities in the fact that the fate of the fledgling playwrights continues to unfold between each week's session.

During their initial meetings, Tanner remembered, the steelworkers held fiercely to a way of life established in the plant. It was understood that they did not talk freely about personal disappointment with outsiders, particularly a female outsider.

With the women it was different from the start. Meeting in a storeroom at the union hall, Tanner and the group chat with a sisterly ease. One day someone brought in brownies she'd baked; another day the women discussed ailments and Tanner passed on the name of her chiropractor to a workshop participant. One afternoon Tanner and Carolyn Williams discussed men and sex just like two old friends, with Williams drawing on experiences from her days on the street.

New Kind of Creativity

"Draw me a picture of your street life," Tanner asked Williams. During the course of the continuing workshop Tanner will use drawing, singing, improvisational exercises and other methods to help the women plumb a kind of creativity they haven't explored in the past. Tanner placed a full spectrum of crayons and a sheet of paper in front of Williams, 35.

Although she protested that she was not an artist, Williams reached for an orange crayon and drew a large star.

"That's how I felt at the time (when she was engaged in illicit activities)," Williams said. The Watts resident said she felt like a star because of the fast cars, attention and penthouse suites the life could buy. "I don't knock it today because there was so much I learned out of it. I feel like I'm still a star," she said, "but I was one of the few that was lucky to come out of it like I'm looking now and not all beat up."

Among the questions raised by the workshop, Tanner said, is "how do these women maintain their dignity and sense of self?" while using survival techniques that tend to erode dignity--such as prostitution or petty theft (which workshop member Michele Meindl said she has resorted to in the past).

While she was dealing drugs and working as a prostitute, Williams said, she sometimes made $5,000 to $10,000 a week. It's a period her mother--workshop member Janice Smith of Compton--remembers with mixed emotions. On the one hand there was money everywhere, she said; but there also was the fear that Carolyn would be caught.

". . . Then you got busted," Tanner said. She was acting as narrator to Williams's life story, which was being taped on an old paint-splattered Panasonic recorder. After several sessions like this one, Tanner and the workshop members would search the tapes for common themes that could serve as "a metaphor for the female underclass in this country."

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