In 1941 Disney’s animators went on strike for better pay and working conditions. Walt Disney fought back, firing many, but eventually had to recognize the union. Burbank: Walt Disney in Crisis, a compelling, hard-hitting one-act from Thirdwing, dramatizes the strike using only three characters. In the process it suggests parallels with our age that go beyond the current resurgence of union organizing.
Written by and starring Thirdwing founder Cameron Darwin Bossert as Walt Disney, Burbank is the second part of Thirdwing’s “A Venomous Color,” a series of plays and streaming videos about Walt Disney Studios from 1935 to 1941. The production features razor-sharp performances delivered in the fast-talking, whip-witted vein of 1930s Hollywood. Hardworking animator Art Babbitt (Ryan Blackwell) is the foil to Bossert’s Disney in the wake of the commercial failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio, which are pressuring the company to make cuts to keep afloat and appease the shareholders Walt Disney resents so much.
Betty Ann Dunbar (a tight, subtle performance by Kelley Lord), a shy but steely inker, charms and inspires both men. At first she embodies the studio’s low-wage employees, then the dilemma of an ambitious artist who must decide whether to join a career-threatening strike. Eventually she demonstrates a woman’s ability to succeed in a man’s world — even 80 years ago — and to exercise agency over her own destiny. The feminist undercurrent extends to Babbitt’s wife, whom we don’t meet but learn is making an independent living as a dancer and needs Babbitt so little that they are divorcing.
On the other hand, another figure, also unseen, lurks like a cautionary tale: Adriana Caselotti, who voiced Disney’s “Snow White” but whom Disney then blacklisted so moviegoers wouldn’t recognize her voice behind a different character and “spoil the illusion of Snow White.” Shades of blacklists and cancellations past and present.
Bossert enables fiery monologues by “casting” the audience as assembled Disney workers. The most powerful of these shows Walt Disney’s painful internal conflict:
Answer to a buncha’ Wall Streeters, in New York, who think they know what’s gonna be popular with the public? Tell the fella who created Mickey Mouse what’s gonna be popular with the public? You know what’s popular with those highflying East-coasters? Gin and women and benzadrine! But you know that’s not what inspires me, boys. You know the aim. To touch people’s hearts. That’s all. To give people things they love, to do things that have never been done, to bring joy and beauty into the world.
But then, realizing he’d forgotten to make an important point: “If you received tonight’s invitation on a yellow card you’re fired.”
Elsewhere Disney rails against the public’s demand for more of the same – more princesses, not experimental or oddball entertainment like Fantasia. This immediately brought to my mind juggernauts like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars franchise, more and more of the same squeezing out original creativity.
On the other side of the divide is Art, who sums up the workers’ point of view thus: “We make the dreams, but that doesn’t mean we gotta live in one.” So true. The production resonates, and captivates, from start to finish. The 80 minutes fly by.
Even Art’s sobriquet is perfect — art itself is the fundamental subject itself, its seamy side and its lofty one, artistic endeavors and the art of human relations. Art Babbitt’s first encounter with a poverty-stricken but too-proud-to-say-so Betty Ann is a marvel of drama played both for comic effect and to perfectly touch our hearts.
I overheard an audience member saying that when Bossert began writing the play it had more than 20 characters. If that’s true, he has chiseled it down like a sculptor. The spare set and production match the play’s economy. No director is credited, but Bossert is clearly in charge, and if the prospect of an auteur starring in his own play puts you off, take my word for it that in this case the casting is spot-on.
Burbank shines the spotlight on a milieu in some ways far from our own. But in pointed style it makes clear that in its grime and glory it reflects our own too.
Burbank runs at the wild project through September 18. Tickets are available online, but for the price of two you can purchase a membership that includes, in addition to two tickets, single tickets to upcoming productions and access to all streaming content including the series “Disney Girls.”