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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/2/15

From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks: the Remarkable Story of Labor Leader Harry Bridges

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MAB: Well, his message certainly seems as important today as it was when he first delivered it!

Ian, you also wrote and perform another one-man play--"To Begin the World Over Again: the Life of Thomas Paine," which we discussed on OpEdNews here. At first glance, Paine and Bridges seem so different, yet there must be some similarities, perhaps similar traits in both men, which attracted you to their stories... can you share a bit about that?

Ian Ruskin as Thomas Paine in To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine
Ian Ruskin as Thomas Paine in To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine
(Image by Tom Dempsey, copyrighted, used with permission)
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IR: I see Harry Bridges and Thomas Paine--both greatly misunderstood figures in history--as being on the same historical arc in the fight for equality and justice, with Karl Marx somewhere in the middle!

And Paine and Bridges had so many personal as well as philosophical similarities. For instance, they were both immigrants to America and each was in his 30's before he began to fully take his place in the world. Both men came from households with two religions (for Paine Church of England and Quaker, for Bridges Church of England and Catholic) and these experiences deeply influenced their attitudes to organized religion. They both spent time at sea, experiences that helped shape their political understanding.

Paine was adamantly against slavery, Bridges was just as adamantly against prejudice and discrimination, particularly against black workers. Both men fought for a more equal society through the re-distribution of wealth. Paine saw graduated taxes on the rich and, mainly upon landed gentry, as the path to this balance; Bridges believed it could be accomplished through union negotiation to redistribute some of the companies' profits back to the workers.

Both men's dreams for Americans, although over 150 years apart, were basically the same: a chance to make a decent living, see your children educated, and have a social structure that would care for the less fortunate. In 1800 Paine was calling for what we now know as Social Security, unemployment benefits, welfare, veterans' benefits and free education, and Bridges spent his life fighting for or trying to protect these same things. We have made some progress since Bridges' time, and much progress since Paine's, but there is still a long way to go and you can be sure that, if they were here, they would be in the thick of the fight.

Ian Ruskin as Harry Bridges
Ian Ruskin as Harry Bridges
(Image by Ian Ruskin)
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MAB: Well, they both ARE here, in many ways, because you have brought them, and their ideas, back to life! And while your live performances have reached many people, film can expand this reach out to so many more. As mentioned, your PBS movie about Bridges has reached over 150 million--and it's available in DVD form, too, right? So it will continue to reach more people. And I know you are currently in the process of filming your Thomas Paine story for PBS. These are exciting developments--these important stories from our history have so much relevance today. What do you hope your audiences will take away from these performances?

IR: Making the film of "From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks" was thrilling and I worked with amazing people: musicians Jackson Browne, Arlo Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion among others and a great crew led by the legendary Haskell Wexler. I have performed the play live to about 50,000 but this was a way to take it to millions. And yes, the DVD is available at the website.

Haskell Wexler (L) directing Ruskin (center) during re-enactment sequences with ILWU Local 13. 2003.
Haskell Wexler (L) directing Ruskin (center) during re-enactment sequences with ILWU Local 13. 2003.
(Image by Ian Ruskin, used with permission)
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And now we are in pre-production for the Paine play as we raise post-production fund raising. We're following in the same footsteps, (with many of the same crew including Haskell), and we'll be filming in March! The people at NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association, which distributes programs to PBS, are very excited about distributing this project, and we will also offer it to the BBC or Channel Four in England, France Televisions in France and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Paine was, after all, a citizen of the world.

And my hope is that the stories of these two men will show that we can make a difference if we, individually and together, strive for equality and justice. There was nothing extraordinary in the background of either of these men, yet they ended up doing extraordinary things and making the world a better place. A good idea to take home with you.

MAB: Absolutely, "Power to the People!" And readers who want Information about the Paine film can find it here.

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Meryl Ann Butler is an artist, author, educator and OpedNews Managing Editor who has been actively engaged in utilizing the arts as stepping-stones toward joy-filled wellbeing since she was a hippie. She began writing for OpEdNews in Feb, 2004. She became a Senior Editor in August 2012 and Managing Editor in January, (more...)

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