Spectacles of Labor: Performance and the Working Class

In recent years, legal attempts to limit the rights of labor unions have resulted in bills such as Wisconsin’s Act 10, which restricts the collective bargaining of public-employee unions, and “Right to Work” laws in Michigan and Indiana. The demonization of unions and workers’ rights continues to propel legislation restricting and weakening worker protections, including child labor laws, rights to sick leave, and safety protections. Although labor’s struggle against these legislative, social, and cultural efforts is not new, the recent reenergized attacks against labor warrant an opportunity to revisit, reimagine, and theorize the ways that spectacles of labor exist as contested spaces and performative interventions in the battle for laborers’ rights. The conflicts surrounding labor rights and the spectacles they inspire continually reevaluate how a person’s labor defines one's humanity and one 39;s worth to oneself, community, and the state.

Our symposium will bring together an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars from across Pittsburgh and the US who wish to reexamine spectacles of labor on stage, screen, and the streets, the historical narratives of labor and working class culture that they create, and their resonances in this present moment of labor activism. The event is supported by the Humanities Center, Center on Race and Social Problems, Department of Theatre Arts, and Department of English. In bringing together a range of scholars from the humanities and beyond, the symposium will highlight the value of humanistic thinking to labor issues and its role in the images and tactics used by workers. How can we use performance to locate and analyze laborers’ frequently silenced stories and how do they contribute to social policy and social action? In what ways does engaging with scholars from different disciplines shift our questions concerning race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in the workplace? How do public spectacles of labor participate in the ongoing struggle for social justice?

The symposium will include a panel, two key speakers, a response, and a staged reading. It will be open to the university community and the wider public. The evening’s events are designed to involve active undergraduate participation and make visible the intersections of their humanities education and contemporary performance with present day labor issues. The evening will start with a talk and response by Dr. Barry Witham and Dr. Nick Coles that look across the twentieth century to contemporary labor and performance in the present. A reading of Pins and Needles will follow and feature Pitt undergrad and graduate students. Even though Pins and Needles is over eighty years old, it continues to speak to contemporary issues facing American workers, gender and race conflicts over work and domestic life, and the connections between international politics and the everyday lives of American workers.

Through our discussions, we intend to engage with different disciplines’ approaches to labor and performance and how we can work together with the public to further the conversation through public events, further symposia, performances, and working groups, and publications, including a potential journal issue featuring the day’s essays.

This event is also sponsored by the Departments of Theatre Arts, English, and History of Art and Architecture, the Humanities Center, the Center on Race and Social Problems, and the American Society for Theatre Research. For more information contact Michelle Granshaw.


Friday, October 2, 2015 - 1:00pm

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Location and Address

Humanities Center, room 602 Cathedral of Learning