Some of England's most influential artists in the 1930s and '40s are guys you've probably never heard of -- guys like Oliver Kilbourn, Harry Wilson, George Brown and Jimmy Floyd.
They weren't responsible for any of the major artistic movements in Europe; they didn't invent a new painting technique. They were founders of The Ashington Group, miners who challenged the notion that only the elite could be artists. And they're the subject of Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters, presented this weekend by Theatre Tulsa.
In 1934, a group of miners from Ashington, in northern England, hired Robert Lyon, a lecturer at Armstrong College in Newcastle upon Tyne, then part of Durham University, to teach them about art. As director Vern Stefanic explains, they didn't originally intend to hire an art professor.
"In this era in England, they had what was called the Workers Education Association," Stefanic said. "It was an effort made by the government to provide some of the workers with the education they were not able to complete because, when they were 10 years old, they went to work at the coal mine. Usually they would study history, economics or biology."
But no history, economics or biology professors were available to teach this group, so Lyon began lecturing about art, showing them slides of Michelangelo's work, but soon felt that his students weren't quite getting it.
"After a few sticky sessions, he hit on the notion of setting examples, making the class members experiment for themselves in different techniques, starting with lino-cutting and progressing to knives and then brushes," explains The Ashington Group's website, ashingtongroup.co.uk.
"It was a flukish thing; he has them create art themselves," Stefanic said. "And he was not teaching them just about the techniques of painting; he was opening them up to the mindset of creating and the mindset of art. That was pretty exciting."
The group held its first exhibition in 1936 at the Hatton Gallery in Armstrong College in Newcastle, and visitors were fascinated by their work, finding it a "rare and admirable exercise in working men's art."
"...(I)t represented a true development of documentary culture," The Ashington Group website says. "These men painted their own lives, testified to experiences that no one else from trained art backgrounds could truly understand."
And they continued to work every day in the mine.
The group continued its working until the 1980s, but its most influential period ended around 1940. Hall wrote his play based on William Feaver's book and staged it in 2007 at Live Theatre in Newcastle. It moved to National Theatre in 2009 and enjoyed a short run on Broadway last fall.
Stefanic and many of the actors involved in Theatre Tulsa's production compose a group that meets periodically for lunch to discuss new plays and brainstorm productions to perform in Tulsa. Kurt Harris, who plays Lyon, brought the script for The Pitmen Painters to Stefanic, who "fell in love with it" and shared it with the rest of the group. All jumped on board, and it was scheduled to run at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center in April.
Though Theatre Tulsa had the rights to the play, the company had trouble securing the rights to the artwork that is projected onto a screen behind the actors during the show (that and a couple of chairs are all that make up the set), and so the show was postponed and moved to Philbrook Museum of Art, 2727 S. Rockford Road.
The setting couldn't be more perfect for the play, Stefanic said.
"Getting the chance to present a play about art at one of America's premier art museums is an incredible honor for all of us," he said.
Though Hall's play ends optimistically, the political climate in England didn't allow for such an ideal conclusion for the real pitmen.
"The play ends on optimistic note for them, believing in this great world of, dare I say, socialism, of equality, and of pitmen being able to become artists and intellectuals," Stefanic said. "You find out, in history, England went a different way. Coal miners were being crushed by the government.
"Their work wound up being popular, but history was against them. The play has a little bit bittersweet end to it."
The cast, in addition to Harris, includes Jarrod Kopp, Craig Walters, Don Miller, Nate Gavin, Hunter Cates, Sara Wilemon, Susan Webb and Michael Bernart.
The Pitmen Painters runs Thursday and Saturday-Sunday, July 7, 9 and 10 and July 13, 14 and 16 at Philbrook. All shows start at 8pm except for the 2pm matinee on July 10. Tickets are $18. On opening night, for an additional $22, theatergoers may attend a black-tie party with the cast after the show.
Tickets may be purchased online at ticketstulsa.com, ticketstorm.com or at the museum.
Summer heats up
The Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Second St., continues its SummerStage Festival.
LOOK Musical Theatre is still presenting Evita and The Light in the Piazza. Evita runs July 7 and 9 at 8pm, with an additional July 9 performance at 2pm, in the PAC's John H. Williams Theatre.
The Light in the Piazza, a 2005 musical by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas about a young, naïve girl who finds love in Italy while vacationing with her mother, plays July 8 at 8pm and July 10 at 2pm in the Williams Theatre.
Tickets to both shows are $29-$32.
Tulsa Folkloric Dance Theater presents Invisible People, a show that tells the story of everyone who has ever wished or dreamed for a better life, in the PAC's Liddy Doenges Theatre July 8-9 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $18.
Tulsa Project Theatre presents an original new musical, Nanyehi, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee, July 10 at 2pm on the Charles E. Norman Theatre. The story is of Nancy Ward, born Nanyehi, who risked her life and used her esteemed position to promote peace among the Cherokee Nation, European settlers, the British and other Native American tribes. The show is free and open to the public.
Tickets to all Tulsa PAC shows may be purchased online at tulsapac.com.
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