May 3, 2017
By Lynne Squilla

In 2003, Mark Rylance, world-respected Shakespearean actor and then-Artistic Director of the Globe Theater in London, was in Pittsburgh to perform “Twelfth Night.” He was also taking in Pittsburgh’s dramatic labor history: tales of gigantic struggles and heroic sacrifices made by ordinary working people. These stories touched him deeply, and he realized their power as a potential stage play.

“I came to Pittsburgh in 2003 looking for a new play worthy of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater,” says Rylance, “I discovered a story worthy of this globe (planet Earth) we hope to continue living on. It has obsessed me ever since.”

The story that obsessed Rylance most was the 1892 Battle of Homestead. He began to research it in earnest, with help from local historians (the late) David Demarest and Charles McCollester, among others. The result is a play-in-progress, being co-written with theatrical artist Peter Reder.

In June and July 2017, Rylance returns to Pittsburgh for the 125th Anniversary of The Battle of Homestead. He and Reder will present pieces of their new work-in-progress for the first time in front of an audience. Rylance will also perform some of his favorite Shakespeare in An Evening With Mark Rylance and Friends at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Homestead.

Prior to that must-see program, Rylance will host a Meet and Greet fundraiser on June 30 at the Bost Building in Munhall (the steelworker union’s headquarters during the epic battle). All proceeds benefit the non-profit Battle of Homestead Foundation, to enlighten a broader audience about Homestead and the greater Pittsburgh area’s important place in the struggle for fairness, justice and prosperity for the working class.

The July 6, 1892 Battle of Homestead is one of the most iconic moments in American labor history. It was the fateful day when locked-out steelworkers of the Carnegie Steel works at Homestead, together with citizens of the town, broke into the closed and fortified mill, nicknamed “Fort Frick” after CEO Henry Frick. On the bank of the Monongahela River, they confronted a private army of Pinkerton agents hired by Frick as they attempted to land and secure the mill. The ensuing battle raged throughout the day, with gunfire, burning oil and cannon shots. At day’s end, the Pinkertons surrendered, but seven workers and three Pinkertons lay dead, with others wounded. The surviving Pinkertons were led away through a gauntlet of enraged women, children and townspeople. The conflict marked a watershed in U.S. labor relations and casts a deep shadow to this day. It is a story of Shakespearean proportions and power.

Rylance’s events to honor the Battle of Homestead are but two of a series of lectures, films, plays and education initiatives in 2017, presented by The Battle of Homestead Foundation with sponsorship help from The Waterfront, The Rivers of Steel Heritage Area and The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

In the 1990s, Mark Rylance met Chicago actor and activist Sam Wanamaker, who’d been blacklisted during the McCarthy years for un-American activities. Sam founded Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London and Rylance became its first Artistic Director from 1995-2005. Rylance first visited Pittsburgh in the 90s, playing “Hamlet” for the Public Theater. He has played on Broadway and has become more widely known for his roles in films such as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and The Big Friendly Giant. He is currently working on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, scheduled for release July 21. His television work includes the BBC miniseries Wolf Hall that aired on PBS in America. He has written two original plays and was recently created a Knight Bachelor in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to the theater. He is a committed activist for a number of environmental and human rights causes.

Tickets for Mark Rylance Meet and Greet: $150. Visit battleofhomesteadfoundation.org.

Tickets for An Evening with Mark Rylance & Friends: $25 – $50. Visit ticketfly.com or http://www.librarymusichall.com

Lynne Squilla is a freelance writer, television documentary and event producer, working as consultant to the Battle of Homestead Foundation.