We often describe localities, particularly cities, with language originally intended to describe the personality or character of living, breathing human beings. Friendly. Hard-working. Cool. Why do we do this? What do whole cities have in common with individual people? Is this fair? Is it helpful? Could it be harmful? Do we do it for every city? Can it be done for Flint? Can it be undone? Or redone? What roles do geography, history, politics, and more play in the development of such personifications? These are just a few of the complex questions explored by UM-Flint’s cross-disciplinary project between the departments of theatre and history entitled Glen-wood: Restoration of Spirit.
Seeds of Possibility
Assistant professor of theatre and project director Janet Haley said the seed of the Glen-wood idea arose out of a 2008 conversation with fellow Flint native and president of the Genesee County Historical Society, Mike Freeman. “He shared an idea for a Glenwood Cemetery fundraiser. UM-Flint theatre students could perform short biographical speeches on the site for a fall costume dress-up tour.”
Haley was intrigued, but busy with other obligations at the time. She was also leery that such an idea could be construed as just another “haunted Halloween” exhibit, undermining the real historical and cultural merit of the place and the people interred there. Those fears quickly ebbed and new possibilities flooded in when Haley was introduced to UM-Flint assistant professor of history Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch. “She provided the information that shook my head and heart,” said Haley.
Pflugrad-Jackisch, an expert in pre-civil war American history, said, “The creation of Glenwood Cemetery, established in 1855, was connected to both the rural cemetery movement and the rapid growth of Genesee County and the city of Flint in the mid-nineteenth century.”
She explained how the rural cemetery movement “developed in response to the nation’s rapid industrial urbanization and population growth,” and how, “Antebellum urban planners and landscape architects designed rural cemeteries to be peaceful and picturesque outdoor spaces where people could go to escape the noise, filth, and pollution of urban life.” The rural cemetery movement is credited with laying the physical and philosophical foundation for the American park system that gained steam after the civil war.
Today, creation of public spaces for quiet respite, communal recreation, and reconnecting with nature and neighbors is once again at the forefront of public policy and urban planning discussions. The Ginsberg Center at U-M Ann Arbor has recognized the undying role of such places in promoting the health, vibrancy, and quality of life of all communities, and awarded the Glen-wood project a 2010 Arts of Citizen fellowship to increase awareness and action around the issue in the Flint area.
Research & Development
So how does one begin to weave together broad themes like rural cemeteries, local history, and individual and community identity? How do you make them relevant to Flint’s present and future? And as difficult as each of those notions is to tackle separately, how does one do justice to each as distinct ideas, as well as blend them seamlessly into a new whole—within the format of an outdoor theatrical performance?
First, professor Pflugrad-Jackisch had history students in last winter semester’s “Sin, Salvation, and Celebrity in Early America” class dive into the lives of the men and women buried at Glenwood cemetery. “As part of the class, students did a series of short papers that were kind of like encyclopedia entries,” said Pflugrad-Jackisch. “They went to the university archives and did firsthand research to put together biographies of the people who were buried there, but also of the history of Flint. The idea was to give the theatre students detailed profiles of local individuals, as well as historical context of what was happening in Flint throughout various periods.”
Pflugrad-Jackisch said the fact that their research would be used to craft an original theatrical production fostered a deeper examination of the very essence of the study of history. “It made them think seriously about the discipline of the history. As they put together these documents about the people who are buried at Glenwood cemetery, one of the questions they kept asking was, 'What are the theatre students going to do with this?' How creative were they going to be? Because for historians, there is a limit. There are facts. There are firsthand accounts. There is some interpretation, but the aim is to reduce the amount of grey area. So how are these very creative people going to take this evidence and turn it into a theatre production and still stay true to the facts?”
Haley said, “When the theatre students who were part of the writing team received the research papers from the history students, we had conversations about how to use their work. We took a step back and acknowledged that these students had already had discussions and made decisions about what was important to include and emphasize. We wanted to respect and reflect their work.”
For Haley’s writing team, the research supplied by their classmates in the history department was a wealth of useful detail and inspiration for creativity. Yet with so much material and so many potential directions—not to mention the special considerations for the outdoor environment—the synthesizing of it all would be a challenge. Haley said, “One of the biggest challenges with a project like this is defining parameters. Some basic considerations, like it can only be 90 minutes because it gets dark, help create those limits. But also, with so much history, so many great stories, it cannot be about everything. We can’t include every detail of every individual’s story. So you have to start thinking about other connections, other vehicles and devices to help achieve the same effect and convey the same ideas.”
It made them think seriously about the discipline of the history.— Professor Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch, History
Haley added, “This project is made collaboratively. It’s not one person sitting at home on the computer writing scenes and dialogue. This project is inspired by the place. We come here and we experience, observe, and absorb the physical aspects of the space, along with the historical research. We discuss the ideas, connections, and feelings conjured up by that coming together of the physical with the more cerebral—and more soulful.”
The writing team explored symbolism, particularly the symbols used in rural cemeteries of the era, and creative character development as ways to link themes together. The team eventually landed on the idea of having real and fictional characters represent the ethos and other dynamics by which Flint had been shaped throughout the years.
E.H. Thompson became the inspiration for a character named “Nostalgia.” Thompson, whose leadership was instrumental in the construction of the first plank road between Flint and Saginaw and the establishment of the Michigan School for the Deaf, was also Michigan’s preeminent Shakespeare enthusiast of the time. He donated his private Shakespeare collection to the founding of U-M Ann Arbor’s Shakespeare library.
Other characters, or “Spirits of the Age,” were developed as composites of broader ideas, rather than as representations based on real people. Theatre student Josh Clark played the role of “Chance,” described in the playbill as, “a laborer who married above his station; one who falls as society rises.” Clark said the Glen-wood project was “more challenging than some of the other productions I’ve been involved with. There are more considerations in need of more brainstorming. Like how are you going to get the audience here? How are they going to move through the space? And how will our scenes move in and around them?”
As part of the solution to such logistical concerns, as well as part of the solution for how they could bring Flint’s present and future into the narrative, the writers and actors again drew inspiration from place, symbolism, and creative character conception. Haley said, “The gift of this project is actually in the unexpected. Peter Lemelin, the sexton here, and his family call this place home. His daughters play here. This is their backyard. When Charlotte zooms through on her pink bike, and we’re rehearing a scene, there’s this moment when the 19th century and the 21st century intersect. We’re keeping things like that in the show.”
There are so many examples of people of all kinds who stepped up and took leadership roles throughout the early years of this area’s history.— Beth Brooks, MLS Community & Theatre
One of the most poignant examples of how such junctions were brought into the performance could be seen in the character “Chloe,” played by theatre student Jessica Flemming. Chloe was described in the playbill as “an isolated poet and private history buff.” She lived in the here and now, and gave voice to the idea that the ideals represented by the characters of yesteryear did not die with them. She saw them as very much alive in individuals, and the entire Flint community, to this day.
The inspiration for Chloe was a blend of historical biography, symbolism, place, and the desire to find a way to crystalize everything the Glen-wood project was about. Haley remembers being struck by the beauty and power of the monument marking the Morrison family’s resting place at the rear of the cemetery on one of her first visits to Glenwood. Chloe Morrison was a poet whose writings often focused on the future, possibility, and hope. The monument itself portrays a young woman with her head lifted towards the horizon, one hand on her heart, and her other hand (now broken) grasping an anchor at her side. Through their research, Haley and her team learned that the anchor was a commonly used symbol of the time, representing hope. She said, “One of the main themes of this project is hope, and that hope is active. There’s the anchor, and the rope casts out while the ship is at sea, but it’s still anchored. That action and that tension of the rope is still there, and still positive, still engaging, and still nurturing.”
Beth Brooks, a recently retired teacher from Grand Blanc and current graduate student in the MLS Community and Theatre program, was the leader of the writing team and deeply involved with research as well. Brooks and fellow community and theatre grad student Philip Barnhart played the roles of “sacred and profane” tour guides for the performance. Barnhart’s character was “Reverend Memory; clergyman who stands for decorum and truth.” Brooks’ character was the “Pioneer Spirit of Polly Todd; a tavern keeper who adores the anecdotal.” As an educator herself, Brooks found the project to be an ideal model of experiential learning.
Brooks also believes the deeper messages put forth about how individuals interact with their community and their community’s past, present, and future have great educational value in their own right. “I’m hoping I can entice a number of my former students to come to the performance,” she said. “They tend to separate themselves from the city. Yet there is such a rich heritage here. There are so many ties here—not just to the auto industry, but to government and politics and culture. There are so many examples of people of all kinds who stepped up and took leadership roles throughout the early years of this area’s history. I think they should learn about that. It might help motivate them to become more civically engaged in their community today. It certainly has done that for me.”
Beginning in the Winter Semester of 2011, the UM-Flint Theatre Department will once again explore important community concerns through the creation of an original theatrical production. This time, Professor Andrew Morton and his students will tackle the issue of arson in Flint.
Morton said, “We've been talking a lot in class about how this type of work succeeds where journalism perhaps fails. Often with an issue like this, where it is happening so often, you can develop a sort of immunity to it. You read another article that a fire has happened and it doesn't affect you as much over time. But putting the human side back into the story, actually hearing the words of people who've watched their home burn down, or people who were injured responding to these fires, or firefighters who've lost their job, it can be a cathartic experience and help alleviate the feeling that people aren't listening to them or their concerns."
Are there other local issues you think might benefit from this type of theatrical approach? Submit your ideas (100 words or less) to Pillars.