Diamonds in the coal dust
Understanding art can be a difficult task, even more so when one has no experience at all with it.
That’s the dilemma facing a group of English coal miners in a Northumberland coal town in the 1930s, when they end up taking an art appreciation class.
“The Pitmen Painters,” showing at Golden’s Miners Alley Playhouse, 1224 Washington Ave., through April 7, tackles the different ways people come to love art.
The play is written by Lee Hall, famous for writing “Billy Elliot.”
According to director Rick Bernstein, the play is based on the true story of miners in the town of Ashington who accidentally became famous artists while trying to learn about it.
“In the 1930s these miners were offered some classes on subjects like biological evolution and economics, but an economics instructor couldn’t be found, so they ended up in art appreciation instead,” he said. “They didn’t know anything about art, so after trying to teach them, the teacher thought they would learn better if they created art.”
The result was an amazing body of work created by the miners that lasted through World War II and has been lauded by many critics and art fans.
Producer Paige Larson said that a former Miners Alley actress told her about the play and when she read it for herself, it immediately intrigued her.
“It reminded me of what we do at Miners Alley — create art for the working class,” she said. “It really touched my heart, because these men had a real tough life in the mines, but are really great characters.”
Larson said that the actors had a lot of fun with the Geordie accent, which can be extremely difficult to understand. She said the playbills will have a short glossary for audiences to help them understand.
“We spent a lot of time working on the accents and phrases, because we really wanted to get the rhythm, which is very specific to the region,” Larson said.
Bernstein said that in a way the cast and crew became the Pitmen Painters through working so hard to capture the culture and work the painters created.
“I think it really kind of mirrored the journey for all of us,” he said.
One of the things that Bernstein found most remarkable about the story is how important it was for the painters to be a group.
“These guys weren’t egotistic, and just had a passion for art, and used it to tell their story,” he said. “A couple were offered stipends so they wouldn’t have to work in the mines any more, but they didn’t want to leave the people they worked with.”
The miners’ passion for art, even though they never expected anyone to see what they created, mirrors Bernstein’s own belief on the need to create art as an outlet, even if it’s just for yourself.
“For these painters, it was kind of a salvation — a way to get out of their dark world,” he said. “In a way the play is like ‘Billy Elliot,’ ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Rocky,’ with lower-class people doing something more.”
For tickets and more information, call 303-935-3044 or visit www.minersalley.com.