David Greenham has advice for Maine’s policymakers wringing their hands over lost jobs and industries: Learn your history.
As part of his research for a new play about jobs in Maine, the actor and playwright read the inaugural addresses and State of the State speeches from virtually every Maine governor.
His research shows that Maine’s current angst is nothing new. Since the 19th century, leaders have lamented the loss of the fishing industry, the shoe industry, papermaking and other sectors of the job market.
“This isn’t the first time the state of Maine has worried about jobs and worried about industries shutting down,” Greenham said. “People were pretty upset when we lost the ice industry a long time ago. But we survived that.”
The Maine Humanities Council commissioned Greenham to write and produce “Maine at Work,” a 30-minute one-man presentation in which Greenham uses his oratory skills to provide context to the current discussion about jobs, industry and Maine’s way forward in the new economy.
The state’s unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in December, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. That was slightly better than the national rate of 6.7 percent that month and improved from 7 percent in December 2012. On unemployment, the state ranks about in the middle of the pack compared with other states, but the nature of work in Maine has changed dramatically generation to generation.
Through discussions with everyday Mainers and political and economic leaders, Greenham traces the history of Maine from its early roots as an agricultural state to its post-industrial boom in manufacturing to its current status as a place where most jobs are in the health care, service and retail sectors.
“Is that what we want?” Greenham said. “Do we want to effect a different change? And, if so, how?”
He offers no conclusions, instead presenting information as a starting point for community discussions about jobs, the workforce and how communities see themselves.
Hayden Anderson, the council’s executive director, said that discussion is important. Oftentimes, political leaders frame policy debates around a current crisis or issue, forgetting the lessons of history.
“We just want to provide a different perspective,” Anderson said. “We have a foundational belief that if you get a group of people of good will in the same room, that’s how you solve problems. We believe that if you learn from your past, that’s how you look forward to your future.”
Greenham has performed the show once and hopes to present it 30 times across Maine this year. The production is free to host communities, courtesy of the Maine Humanities Council, which has invested $20,000 in the production.
About a dozen communities have signed up. Upcoming performances are March 18 in Houlton and March 27 in Norway.
Greenham will perform the show in schools, libraries, museums, dance halls and Granges. Like the vaudeville performers of a century ago, he will perform anywhere people gather.
Greenham has a long history with Maine theater. He spent 14 years as producing artistic director at the Theater at Monmouth and currently works as the program director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he teaches drama.
He lives in Readfield and serves as chairman of the RSU 38 school board.
This is the third time that the council has hired Greenham to add historical context to statewide dialogue about political and social issues. He is dedicating the show to the group’s former director, Dorothy Schwartz, who died March 3.
In 2006, he and his acting partner, Dennis Price, created “Taxing Maine,” which focused on the history of taxation in the state. In 2009, he examined community development, growth and the common good in “As Maine Grows.” That piece also featured Price.
Greenham does not use props or a set, and presents the show as a monologue. He will adapt the script to the history of work and industry in the community where he is presenting it.
In addition to reading governors’ speeches and interviewing economists and labor historians to develop “Maine at Work,” Greenham talked to more than 100 Maine workers about their jobs and their working lives.
One of Greenham’s conclusions is that Mainers don’t see themselves as valuable. He called it “our self-esteem issue.”
“We don’t really talk about ourselves in a great way very often,” he said. “There is this idea that, if you are in Maine, then it must not have worked out for you somewhere else.”
In 1847, Gov. H.J. Anderson spoke of “the accumulation of unemployed capital” as an opportunity for growth.
That phrase struck Greenham as compassionate and positive. Today, the government tends to treat unemployed people as a drag on resources, and much of society views unemployed people negatively.
“I think it would be really terrific if our current leaders on the federal and state level thought about our unemployed as unemployed capital rather than as shiftless people who are trying to get away with something,” he said.