Immediacy--the sense that the audience partly creates what it sees--is what sets theater apart from its younger cousins, television and film.
Theater was, perhaps, never more immediate than on June 16, 1937, when 850 ticket holders waited outside the Maxine Elliott Theatre in Manhattan, hoping that the U.S. government would allow a new and controversial opera by Marc Blitzstein, "The Cradle Will Rock," to open.
The show was part of the federal theater program financed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that Congress inaugurated in 1935, only to be cut by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt two years later in an attempt to balance the growing budget deficit.
But was it just the money that was at issue? Or was the government uncomfortable with the content of the opera, which gave a pro-union slant on a steel strike at a time when steel strikes in Pittsburgh and Youngstown, Ohio were outranking the rising threat of Nazism for front-page attention?
"It had nothing to do with money at all," said John Houseman, the managing producer of the WPA, who worked on the project with the then 22-year-old director Orson Welles. Houseman, best-known as Professor Kingsfield in the movie and television show, "The Paper Chase," spoke by telephone from his home in New York.
"Naturally when the labor strikes and the general problems occurred, they didn't want the taxpayers' money putting on a play about labor discord," Houseman said. "But we were bad boys, Welles and I, and we said we would put it on."
Adele Stevens and Ann Mitchell, two San Diegans who attended the opening of the original show, met last week with the director and actors working on the San Diego Repertory Theatre's revival of "Cradle" to tell them how the cast, crew and audience made the show go on despite the government's ultimate nay.
Rep director Robert Beneditti said that he is revising his production (which is set to open June 29) based on the eyewitness accounts of Stevens and Mitchell.
Stevens remembered how Welles, the handsome director with whom she was so taken, told them that the WPA would not open the theater. But there was an alternative.
"Orson Welles told us, if we could help move the piano, we would be able to see the play," Stevens said. "The crowd was in an uproar. Of course we would be able to do it."
Stevens said she was one of the many who helped push the piano on a dolly 20 blocks to the Venice Theatre.
Houseman recalled that rent for the Venice Theatre was $100, which they raised from the journalists covering the event. The tickets, which cost from 25 to 50 cents for WPA productions, as opposed to $3.30 for top Broadway musicals, were free that night, he said.
Once at the theater, Welles told the audience to imagine the scenery and orchestra as Blitzstein played the piano and the actors who, in accordance with union rules, would not perform on a non-Equity stage, sang their parts from the orchestra pit, without make-up or costumes.
"Every time someone sang, there was great applause," Stevens said. "It was not the play I remember so much as the energy and joy we had in seeing it go on, no matter what the circumstances. It was unique."
Said Mitchell: "It wasn't just a play, it was a challenge. We were young. . . . To walk 20 blocks was like spitting on a frog. It was a very exciting evening."
To recreate that excitement, Beneditti said he will be telling audiences to come to the Balboa Theater, which will not open, just as the Maxine Elliott did not. There, actors like those in the original production, will entertain the audience until one man, in the spirit of Welles, will rouse the crowd to walk around the corner to a bare Lyceum Stage, possibly even wheeling the piano there on a dolly.
Beneditti first directed the play last March in Santa Monica. Before that production, he also interviewed members of the original audience. However, it is only from Mitchell and Stevens, he said, that he heard the detailed description of Welles' role and the piano being wheeled on a dolly.
"I got much more information from these folks," Beneditti said. "Their memories were sharper. They had more feelings about it."
Both Stevens and Mitchell said they are looking forward to attending the show at the Rep, although they wondered how well today's audiences will understand yesterday's passions.
Beneditti said he thinks that, after 51 years, the show has become relevant again.
"I think we're in a very anti-union period under this Administration and that made me more interested in union matters," Beneditti said. "But my main interest is in the theatricality (of the piece), the kind of experience under which it was done. I enjoy that kind of evening in the theater."
Beneditti certainly has Houseman's support for the production.
"He's trying to recreate the feeling by doing it as we did it," said Houseman, who has talked to Beneditti about the show. "It's the only way to do it."
Diversionary Theatre planned to present Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep" before the show emerged as this season's San Diego Repertory Theatre opener. Now Diversionary has substituted Ludlam's "Stage Blood" July 7-Aug. 7 at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre in Balboa Park. Steven Samuels, managing director of the late Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York, who is editing Ludlam's plays for Harper & Row, will be in town June 23-26 as a production consultant. Directed by Diversionary's artistic director Thomas Vegh, the show is about a seedy troupe of actors preparing to open "Hamlet" without an Ophelia.