What do a bunch of coal miners know about art? Once you put some paints in their hands, actually quite a bit, as it turns out. “The Pitmen Painters,” onstage at Theatrical Outfit, is a story about class, privilege, and art appreciation.
The play was written by Lee Hall, best known for writing “Billy Elliot,” and is based on the true story of the Ashington Group, who were coal miners in northern England in the 1930s and ’40s. Though having no formal artistic training, the Group’s work became celebrated by the British art world.
“The association with this group expanded their horizons,” says the production’s director, Adam Koplan, “they got to travel.”
The story begins with the men taking an art appreciation class through the Workers’ Educational Association. Their teacher suggests that in order to learn about art, they make some on their own.
“For them, everything was a scientific thing,” says actor Brian Kurlander, “you learned information and that information gave you access to knowledge. They wanted to know the secret that the upper class knew about art that they didn’t know. And [their teacher] was saying ‘There’s no secret, it’s how you feel.'”
That class conflict is a central theme of the show, which Koplan describes as the tension between the value of group achievement versus the value of individual achievement.
“One of the things I love about this play is that it gives us access into understanding why art is so important,” Kurlander says. “It’s a deep human need to express yourself.”
“The Pitmen Painters” runs at Theatrical Outfit Feb. 27 through March 24.