A touching script

MARSHALL – In less than half an hour, almost 150 people perished in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

The story of that tragic day will unfold onstage as the Southwest Minnesota State University theater department opens its 2013-2014 season.

The SMSU theater department is presenting “The Triangle Factory Fire Project” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24-26 and Nov. 1-2 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, in the SMSU Fine Arts Theatre. The show is being directed by SMSU theater professor Nadine Purvis Schmidt.

The play revolves around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 in New York City that killed 146 people, mainly young immigrant women.

“I have been fascinated by the story for about 20 years,” Schmidt said.

She said that she remembered watching an episode of “Homefront,” an ABC show from the early 1990s that took place in the mid-1940s in Ohio. One of the characters portrayed by John Slattery talked about how his mother died in the Triangle fire.

“It just kind of stuck with me and haunted me for years,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt wanted to find a script that had some meaty content. She started looking and found six. “The Triangle Factory Fire Project,” which is written by Christopher Piehler in collaboration with Scott Alan Evans, stood out.

“This was the one that really caught me,” she said. She said the script contains information from newspaper articles, testimony from eyewitness accounts, reports from the fire commission. “It just has a real immediacy to it.”

Schmidt said she read the first excerpt of the script online, and she felt emotions right away.

“I started tearing up and said ‘that’s the one,'” Schmidt said.

The second act centers around the court case, where Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were put on trial for manslaughter.

“It’s been interesting working with the students on it,” Schmidt said. “They’ve been really well-focused on the people in the story and bringing it to life.”

Like Schmidt, the script affected the actors as well.

“It was really heavy,” said Shannon Coyle, who portrays Margaret Schwartz, one of the young women who died in the fire. “I felt really upset about it. I could put myself in that place and see how scary it was.” During the trial, the prosecuting attorney tried to prove that the locked door on the ninth floor caused Margaret’s death.

“I started reading the script, and I had to put it down, it was so touching,” said Sara Mills, who plays Bertha Schwartz, Margaret’s mother.

“This play is so powerful on so many different levels, from sweatshops to women’s rights, to fire safety and working regulations,” said Jan Mason, who plays Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont.

Mills said her character is the one “who loses everything,” when the fire hit.

“There isn’t much you could lose but your family,” Mills said.

“For me, that’s the hardest part of knowing that there isn’t anything left for my character,” she added.

One of messages in the play is “we are all responsible,” Mills said, and her character doesn’t blame anybody, she blames everybody.

“I think that’s the biggest message from the story,” Mills said.

People should realize where these safety precautions come from, Coyle said. The fire had led to legislation that required improved factory safety standards.

“It’s really sad that people had to die to have that standard,” she said.