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March 17, 1960

Visiting Lecturer in Drama Norris Houghton, co-founder of New York’s Phoenix Theatre, and the Vassar Experimental Theatre used the Living Newspaper technique developed by the theatre’s founder Hallie Flanagan during her directorship of the Federal Theatre Project to produce “Standing Room Only,” a study of the global overpopulation. The Living Theatre format, which Flanagan based on her study of Russian revolutionary theater, combined journalistic research and data on a public issue with broadly drawn characters representing segments of the public or public figures, mixed media, offstage commentary and dramatic stage effects to, in her words, “dramatize a new struggle – the search of the average American today for knowledge about his country and his world; to dramatize his struggle to turn the great natural and economic forces of our time toward a better life for more people.” The tecnique learned, she said, “from the chorus, the camera, the cartoon.”

America’s first Living Theatre in at least a decade, Houghton’s production involved a cast of some 80 students, faculty, Poughkeepsie residents and professional actors and was the result of extensive research in the first semester by an “editorial board” of students in Drama 270-370 for a script that was being revised up until the show’s dress rehearsal. “This illustrates,” Houghton told Mary Walther ’61 for an article in The Miscellany News, “the most important tendency in theatre today, that is, it brings back the rapport between audience and actors, and breaks through the barrier set up by the restrictions of realistic drama.”

“With its production of ‘Standing Room Only’ last week, Mary Davis ’60 wrote in The Miscellany News, “the Experimental Theatre justified its right to the title of ‘Experimental.’ Using film clips, a narrator (Richard Kronold [a professional actor]), a ‘representative’ of the audience, Jane Q. Public (Nancy Gannett [’60]), and a large cast including many non-actors, Experimental Theatre not only presented the facts of the problem of the population explosion but took a controversial stand on it by advocating contraception as the quickest and simplest solution. And in its exciting, if not completely successful, exposition of the problem, Experimental Theatre illuminated the possibilities for the theatre inherent in the living newspaper form as well as the problems it may present. For if [the play’s] more successful aspects cause one to wish that the living newspaper form were more used in the West than it has been, it also offers an explanation for its continued use and success to educate and propagandize among illiterates in Communist China.”

Laura Browder, Rousing the Nation: Radical Culture in Depression America, The Miscellany News

The Years