Walt Disney is pissed. “Why the hell would anybody need to unionize at a place like this? We got volleyball!“
“Burbank,” a play by Cameron Darwin Bossert at The Wild Project through September 18th, tells the story of the 1941 strike and unionization effort by Disney’s animation artists, using just three characters: Walt himself (portrayed by Bossert), his chief animator turned chief antagonist Art Babbitt (Ryan Blackwell) and a long-time, low-paid Disney studio inker & painter named Betty Ann Dunbar (Kelley Lord.)
Kelly Lord, Ryan Blackwell as animator Art Babbitt and Cameron Darwin Bossert as an unsuited Walt Disney
Art discovers Betty Ann passed out on the lawn outside the Disney studios in Burbank, California, newly built from the windfall profits made by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” four years earlier. Those profits were not shared with the staff who created the animated movie. Betty Ann, a loyal Disney employee since “Snow White,” had fainted because she was hungry; she is not even making enough of a salary to afford a full meal each day.
Art rebels, despite – or perhaps because of – his prominence at the studio. He is the man who created Goofy, conceived the Wicked Witch in “Snow White” and the dancing mushrooms in “Fantasia,” and is in an unhappy marriage with the woman who served as the model for Snow White.
The playwright’s sympathies are clear. At a meeting of Disney employees, Walt speaks eloquently and at length about what they’re together trying to do with their animated films (“…To touch people’s hearts. ..”) But then, he ends with: “Oh. Uh. I’ve done things out of order. If you received tonight’s invitation on a yellow card you’re fired. “
But if Walt is depicted as cheap, anti-social and even crude (“I’m no good at this fuckin’ small talk shit,” he says at one point) he is also almost comically obsessed with perfection. He fusses over Donald Duck and other unnamed animals (“the stork almost works, he just needs more appeal”), in the process offering a glimpse into the animation process.
“Burbank” is a low-key play with low production values. The set is little more than an office desk and drawing table; there is no person listed in the program as the set designer. There is no director listed either, though the acting is consistent and credible. In one way, the minimalism is wonderful; a refreshing (even thought-provoking) contrast to the behemoth that Disney has become. But, even though it’s a full eighty minutes, “Burbank” doesn’t feel like a complete, self-contained play. Maybe that’s because it isn’t: It’s part of an ambitious project about Disney workers with the overall title “A Venomous Color,” which includes “The Fairest,” a play by Bossert (produced last October) about the all-women ink and paint department (of which Betty Ann was a part) rushing under trying conditions to complete “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There is also “Disney Girls,” a six-episode online series which is currently available (and which I now feel compelled to watch.)
These are just some of the shows created by the Thirdwing hybrid theater company, founded by Bossert in 2020, which exhibits some of the creative fervor and ambition of, say, a young Walt Disney. Will they become a world-wide empire and lose their soul?
At The Wild Project through September 18
Running time: 80 minutes no intermission
Written by Cameron Darwin Bossert
costumes by Yolanda Balaña, lighting by Joey Neil, sound design by Deeba Montazeri, fight choreograph by Michael Hagins
Cast:Ryan Blackwell, Kelley Lord, and Cameron Darwin Bossert.