The Ballad of Joe Hill
Swim Pony Performing Arts
"Affecting and thought provoking."
J. Cooper Robb, Philadelphia Weekly
"The fact that Joe Hill doesn't fit our usual picture of a hero is intriguing and complex and makes me what to know him more."
Adrienne Mackey, director of The Ballad of Joe Hill
Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue (map)
$29 / Members save 30%
Student + 25-and-under tickets $20
Director Adrienne Mackey
Lead Artists Adrienne Mackey and Bradley Wrenn
Lyrics Joe Hill
Additional Text Tim Martin
Lighting Maria Shaplin
Costumes Rebecca Kanach
Performers/Creators Ross Beschler, Robert DaPonte, Dawn Falato, Justin Jain, Ed Miller, David Sweeny, Bradley Wrenn
Past Festival shows
Lady M (2011), Recitatif (2007)
This presentation of The Ballad of Joe Hill is supported in part by the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Wyncote Foundation, The Charlotte Cushman Foundation, The Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts Project Stream, and the Samuel S. Fels Fund.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night
Alive as you and me
Said I, "But Joe, you're ten years dead."
"I never died," said he.
"I never died," said he.
Inside Eastern State Penitentiary, a lone woman sings a haunting refrain before kicking off a raucous vaudeville party with a ragtag band of clowns. With dark humor and the high-energy movement of early animation, they enact the story of Joe Hill, union leader, songwriter, and the defendant in a sensationalistic murder trial that ended with his execution.
This re-imaging on the company's 2006 Philly Fringe hit features huge and loud singing steeped in union-style song, music made from found percussion—saws, vases, pots—and the lyrics of Joe Hill echoing down the prison cellblock. Prepare yourself for a journey of railcars, murder, sham trials, secrets taken to the grave, dreams, mystery women, and the war between unions and robber barons.
In short: music, humor, great physicality, daydream, vilification of the underclass.
Interview with director Adrienne Mackey
FringeArts: How did this show come into being?
Adrienne Mackey: We originally heard of Joe Hill through a Utah Phillips—another folk singer and Wobby, or IWW member—who passed away a few years ago. Hearing the story, the idea of Joe Hill dying for a larger cause kind of stuck. We began to look more into the music Hill wrote and read up on the story. His case was a national media frenzy that divided the county. Half of the country felt a kinship with Joe, that an attack on him was an attack on them, the other half that if he was freed it would spell disaster for the country. It feels incredibly familiar.
I think in some ways it's the inscrutability of Hill that draws me to him. He was a stubborn guy, a funny guy, but a shy and somewhat hard to understand person. He did an amazing thing, giving his life up, in some cases seemingly going out of his way to deny himself the chance to live. He stuck to principles that are often hard for me to understand and how and why he did what he did. The fact that he doesn't fit our usual picture of a hero is intriguing and complex and makes me what to know him more.
FringeArts: What's different this time around?
Adrienne Mackey: It's been amazing to me how thoroughly different my sense of the story is based on the new research that's been done since we did the first show. It goes to show how perspective is so important in how we make meaning of the past. We're also looking at bringing in more of the media presence—in the sense of newspapers of the time period—and how it informed the climate that surrounded Hill as he was convicted and going into trial. Like many major trials today, the media helped create an environment that whipped the public into a fervor.
FringeArts: Why Eastern State Penitentiary?
Adrienne Mackey: There is nothing like seeing the massive structure of the prison cell block that we perform in to drive home the reality of what it must have been like to sit in that tiny space for months just waiting for someone else to decide whether you live or die. There is a beautiful stillness that is oppressive. And it creeps in on the edges of our play—you can feel the clowns of the show, sort of like Hill's humor made manifest, fight to push out that sadness to keep spirits high.
Who was Joe Hill?
Joe Hill came to the United States at turn of the 20th century from Sweden. It was a time of change, particularly for the American West, which was increasingly coming under corporate control, and violent battles over workers' rights. Into the middle of this stepped Joe Hill with the idea that people get to control what they make.
He was a union songwriter who espoused the idea that a pamphlet gets read once but a song is sung a thousand times. His songs helped drive him to become a union leader. Hill helped start the Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World). While in Salt Lake City, he was arrested for a shooting with little evidence, and was executed in 1915, after stopping his own appeals process. Throughout the trial he maintained to have a secret alibi, whom he never named.
Since the original show, historians dug up letters that put his trial and life into a whole new light, and changed the "truth" of the history.
About Swim Pony Performing Arts
Helmed by artistic director Adrienne Mackey, Swim Pony Performing Arts is loud, strange, and never seen before on earth! In 2010 the company premiered its critically acclaimed first work SURVIVE!, a 22,000 square foot choose-your-own adventure installation exploring how humanity understands the universe and man's place within it. For the 2011 Live Arts Festival the company created Lady M, an all female take on Macbeth that Philadelphia City Paper called "a peppery, satisfyingly complex dream-theater stew." In 2012 Swim Pony received a Knight Arts Challenge for "Outside the (Black) Box" to weave the arts into non-traditional spaces. The following year brought a second Knight Arts Challenge "Cross-Pollination," which will combine creators of different genres into original and surprising short performances. Also watch for a first showing of the company's newest traveling sound installation The Game of Regret as part of the Mandell Residency at Drexel University in 2014.
Adrienne Mackey is the founder of Swim Pony Performing Arts, a company dedicated to works that are loud, strange and never seen before on earth! In the spring of 2010 she directed SURVIVE! - a 22,000 square ft choose-your-own adventure installation exploring how humanity understands the universe and man's place within it. In Fringe Arts 2011, along with co-creator Catharine Slusar, she premiered LADY M - an all-female take on Macbeth called "a peppery, satisfyingly complex dream-theater stew" by Citypaper - to Philly stages. In 2012, she received a Knight Arts Challenge for "Outside the (Black) Box" to weave the arts into non-traditional spaces including The Giant Squid (a collaboration with Philly based Berserker Residents) which performed in science lecture halls across the Philadelphia area. The following year brought a second Knight Arts Challenge "Cross-Pollination" which will combine creators of different genres into original and surprising short performances. Adrienne is a recipient of the prestigious Independence Fellowship, a former LAB fellow and New Edge Resident and creator of more than 10 original theatrical works since 2005. Watch for her newest traveling sound installation The Game of Regret as part of the Mandell Residency at Drexel University in early 2014.
James Michael Baker is a writer, producer, recording and performing artist, lip balm entrepreneur, and Kentucky transplant that has called Philadelphia home for the past 7 years. His musical endeavors, most especially with The Spinning Leaves and as spiritual adviser "Rumi Kitchen" in Johnny Showcase and the Mystic Ticket, have produced 3 full length albums, 2 EPs, Fringe hit "Purr, Pull, Reign" and tours spanning 38 of the United States and 10 countries. He is thrilled to be sharing the amazing music and ideas of Joe Hill and the One Big Union, joining such a brilliant cast, and justifying his B.A. in History from Transylvania University. Love to Mackey, Wrenn, Sweeny, Bee, and the fam!
Ross Beschler's recent credits include City Theatre (Maple & Vine); The Wilma (Bootycandy, Under the Whaleback, Our Class); People's Light & Theatre (End Days); Theatre Exile (Knives in Hens; and EgoPo Classic Theater (The Golem, Marat/Sade, Waiting for Godot, and Hell, in his adaptation of the novel L'Enfer).
Robert DaPonte has been an actor in Philadelphia for 8 years and studied at The National Theatre Institute in Waterford, CT. Favorite roles in Philadelphia include Larry in Mr. Marmalade (Theatre Exile, Barrymore Nomination for Best Ensemble), Estragon in Waiting for Godot (EgoPo Classic Theater) and Prof. Broom in The Giant Squid (Berserker Residents/Swim Pony).
Dawn Falato has performed her original solo and ensemble-based work in the US, India, and in the UK. Other companies she has worked with include The Public Theatre (HAIR in Central Park), Philadelphia Theatre Company (THE HAPPINESS LECTURE with Bill Irwin) and The Dell'Arte Company. This is for Dawn's social activist grandpa, the late Robert Camlin.
Justin Jain is a founding member of The Berserker Residents and has also performed regionally with Arden Theatre Company, People's Light, and Theatre Horizon, among others. National credits include: Milwaukee Rep, Ars Nova NYC, and extensive touring with The Berserkers. Up next: The Talkback for FringeArts. www.berserkerresidents.com
Justin Jain is a founding member of The Berserker Residents and has also performed regionally with Arden Theatre Company, People's Light, and Theatre Horizon, among others. National credits include: Milwaukee Rep, Ars Nova NYC, and extensive touring with The Berserkers. Up next: The Talkback for FringeArts.
Rebecca Kanach works as a designer, stitcher, and dresser within the Philadelphia community. Her recent projects include: Matthew Neenan's At Various Points with the Pennsylvania Ballet, and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret (resident designer) My Dinner with Dito. She is excited to mount another piece at the Penitentiary after a hit Bastille Day, and can also be credited on the FringeArts piece Go Long Big Softie by the GroundSwell Players. Much love to her Ladies and a big Thanks! to Swim Pony.
Tim Martin is pleased to be back with the Union Grand after writing scenes for the first incarnation. He is a member of Curio Theatre, Artistic Associate of Commonwealth Classic Theatre COmpany, and the Asst. Production Manager at Longwood Gardens. Philly area productions of his work: Once Upon A River, Tales from Turtle Island (Hedgerow), Echo (Trible of Fools with Adrienne Mackey), The Nutcracker, Alices Adventures in Wonderland, and Anansi and His Stories (Curio Theatre).
Michael Mayo is thrilled to be assisting the fabulous Adrienne Mackey, as well as the fantastic cast and team on this remount production of The Ballad of Joe Hill! Michael would like to thank everyone involved, as well as his supportive friends and family. Michael will be attending Headlong Performance Institute this fall.
Ed Miller has worked as an actor/writer/director in the Philadelphia area over the past 10 years, working with the Arden Theatre, Theatre Exile, Secret Room Theatre, Smokey Scout Productions, and Montgomery Theater. Many thanks to Adrienne and all the amazing people involved in this show. For Pap Pap.
Maria Shaplin is a Philadelphia-based lighting designer with a commitment to new, experimental work. She is a member and resident lighting designer for The Riot Group and co-founder and resident production designer for Applied Mechanics. She is lucky to work with many great companies in Philadelphia and New York, such as New Paradise Laboratories, The Berserker Resdients, and Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental. Maria has designed lights for Swim Pony's Survive!, and Lady M, and is thrilled to be working with them again this year. Maria has a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA from Temple University.
David Sweeny is an actor and musician based in South Philadelphia. Previous festival credits include Cankerbossom (Pig Iron) and Purr, Pull, Reign (Johnny Showcase). He is the creator of Johnny Showcase and the Lefty Lucy Cabaret. This performance is dedicated to the memory of John Stephen Sweeny.
Flora Vassar's recent projects include work with The Resource Exchange - Philadelphia's first and only creative reuse center - and Pop-Up Repair, an artistic intervention in the cycle of use-and-discard consumerism. Local theater credits include work with Arden Theatre Company, Theatre Exile, Swim Pony, The Berserker Residents and Resonance Ensemble (NYC).
Bradley Wrenn is a performer, producer, writer and creator whose work focuses on comedy, spectacle, physical humor and puppetry. Bradley is a founding member and co-artistic director of the Berserker Residents (with Philly based performers Justin Jain and Dave Johnson): a company dedicated to original works of alternative comedy emphasizing site specific work with a comic book meets clown aesthetic.