Ramona: A Quick Distinction

But wait.

It’s true, we are finally settled into the concrete rows of amphitheater seating. Yet it seems critically important that before the show starts, I discuss with you a distinction that might seem a bit esoteric. Ramona calls itself “California’s Official Outdoor Drama”. It also is titled The Ramona Pageant. But there is a difference between pageants and outdoor dramas.

Stick with me for this one.

Historical Outdoor Dramas generally belong to a genre known as the “symphonic drama,” created by Paul Green, a member of the celebrated Carolina Playmakers based in Chapel Hill, NC. Green had just won the 1927 Drama Pulitzer for In Abraham’s Bosom, a play about a Negro sharecropper who unsuccessfully attempts tries to rise above his given station. His work in general was animated by a deep commitment to social justice for the downtrodden (including Johnny Johnson, an anti-war musical drama written with my hero and yours—and if he isn’t, he should be—Kurt Weill.).

In this righteous vein of providing art for the unlikely, Green formulated his ideal of “theater for the common man,” the symphonic drama[2]. Symphonic dramas would be historical plays, generally set outdoors at the site of the historical event, and would synthesize poetic dialogue with music, dance, pantomime, and the dual spectacles of theatrical design and nature.

The symphonic drama was clearly inspired by historical pageants, a popular form of American historical performance that had its first hey day at the turn of the century.[3] Pageants aren’t plays, necessarily, but instead spectacles that celebrate the unique qualities of a locality, either through a town’s creation myth, or some other exceptional tale that reveals the spiritual or emotional truth of its geography.[4]

Here’s the point (finally, finally):

The symphonic drama attempts to use all the elements of spectacle in service of a story, of traditional rising and falling action building to dramatic climax.

Pageants use a story in the service of a spectacle. You don’t go for logical progression. You don’t go for the well-made play. The story is not the play: the story is the accumulated meaning of the tableaux vivant, moving pictures.

Hence, Ramona.

[1] This continues after his death—the Paul Green Foundation grants emerging playwrights and also works to abolish the death penalty in North Carolina, plus administering a writing and performance project for North Carolina women’s prisons. Right on.

[2] Green’s first symphonic drama about the disappeared Roanoke settlers, The Lost Colony (still running lo these 70 years later), was produced by the Federal Theater Project in Manteo, Outer Banks, North Carolina. As the outdoor drama movement had its surges in the 1950s and 1960s, Green’s blueprint for everyman’s theater held sway; it continues to be the gospel truth at the Institute for Outdoor Drama (IOD) at UNC-Chapel Hill.

[3] Pageants were once big business. Mark Sumner, former head of the IOD, told me about a working for a roving pageant company. They’d go from town to town, putting up pre-fab spectacles, tailored to the locality. He recalled borrowing bales of tobacco (does tobacco come in bales?) from farmers for a tobacco pageant in a farming community.

[4] Quite a few towns still have a local pageant going: remind me to tell you sometime about The Legend of Rawhide in Lusk, Wyoming.

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