Dramaturg, Brianna Randolph learns more about the 2016 production of Letters to Medford.
What inspired you to write this play? How did that lead to its creation?
The play began with the discovery of a letter to the future that we found in Charles Brooks’ “History of Medford” that was written in 1855. In the book, at the end of his history of Medford –in which he writes the history from 1630 to his present day, 1855- Brooks includes a letter to Medford with the date 2055, two hundred years into the future. We’ve looked at this book many times for reference and I had never seen it before. It is what started us on this project.
What message or point did you want the audience to take away from the play? Do you think you achieved that/ that it came across clearly?
There were a few things we were trying to do. One was to get people into the Medford Historical Society & Museum, which is where it is set, and where it is performed. We wanted people to see how we could really bring to life the history by setting it in this dusty old place. Also, we wanted people to have this confrontation between history and the future, and really disrupt the idea of a museum piece by having these historical figures shake up our world and shake up each others’ worlds. We really wanted to play with this meeting between the past and the future.
Looking at the historical characters in the play, how did you mesh the reality of their personalities and histories with the fiction of the piece?
When we first started working on it in 2014, we had three great actors play the historical figures, and I really couldn’t have written the historical characters without the work that Matt, Melissa and Nicole put into them. They did such a wonderful job of interpreting the figures and adding some really great elements to the characters as well as making them their own. That is why I am so pleased they are all back for this second run. The actors were able to offer such an original interpretation and help me find the voice of each character as we went through it. It was really collaborative.
The historical characters very clearly represent the past and the teens the future. What does the archivist represent, if anything?
I think the archivist is a kind of gatekeeper who holds the past in a box. Before I started writing the play, I read George Orwell’s “1984”, and there might even be a couple of lines that resonate in it about who gets to keep history and who gets to hold onto history and who takes care of it. The play is not political, but this is a good question for researchers in the archives. The archivist is the one who catalogues it and makes it available and gives you access to these kinds of historic materials. So the archivist, in a way, is the most powerful figure in the play, and historians are the most powerful figures in terms of interpreting history. So he’s a figure who’s clearly got some personality issues, but who has a lot of power and has a moral imperative to do right by the kind of power that he has.
How much of the play did you take from actual letters and documents, and how much did you create on your own?
It’s hard to say after working on it for so long. I think maybe half of the material I used was from various sources. We had letters and documents from the historical figures. We used material mentioned in one of Lydia Maria Child’s books, such as “Puss Puss in the Corner”, a game that she encourages children to play in The Girl’s Own Book. We used letters from high school students and members of the community collected by Hannah Verlin in Cache’s Riverfest in 2013. I really have to mention Hannah because her art project, at this festival in 2013 really inspired us to bring all these elements together to create the show. It also demonstrates how a vibrant arts community can continue to make new projects happen. So, some of the material was from sources intermingled with what I wrote. Hopefully it is seamless. The letters were so helpful to get the tone of the characters. For example, I tried not to use contractions for any of the historical figures, whereas the younger characters use much more colloquial speech.
What are you doing similarly or differently in 2016 from the 2014 production?
We’re using the same space, we’re using some of the same costumes, we’ve got our props all set. I have to say, I felt scared every night during the 2014 production by using that painting by Francis Alexander; it was probably not the best idea to use the original. But we did manage to get a reproduction for this version. We will also re-cast the present-day characters.
Would you consider extending this play to other, maybe bigger cities or venues?
I’ve been thinking a lot about it as a local play, for whether it would really speak to any other communities. It might be so local that it wouldn’t even speak to a Boston audience. There’s a lot of shared inside Medford jokes, in the play. We had a really nice compliment at the end of the 2014 production where someone said that it could be a model for doing a local history drama, which was really nice. I guess it would be good to have some outside audiences come in, but for now we’re really writing this for Medford. We’ve got great support from the Medford Arts Council, and we’ll see what happens.
If you could write your own letter to the future, what would be the tone, or take home message?
I’m going to answer by saying that you’ll notice in the play that the historic figures are much more hopeful than the young people who just have questions and a lot of anxiety, and I think that’s even a line in the play. If I wrote a letter to the future, I don’t know if I’d write it to the abstract future, but rather to my nieces. I think I would direct it not to a big broad audience, but to five people that I have hope for, that I have wishes for.
Do you see this concept or theme developing into another kind of media, such as a short film or novel, for instance?
Maybe a film. That’s not really my area of expertise, but maybe. Probably not a novel, not for me, anyways. I think what I do see with the play is perhaps having it grow, maybe expanding. For example, at the end of the 2014 production, we had the audience write letters, which we are going to try and incorporate into the 2016 production, and we’ll see what happens from there. I’d like to write about it as an example of how to really invigorate local history, and how to engage the community. This Historical Society is a wonderful space but it’s stagnant, so this is about bringing these historical figures to life, literally, and having them performed, and about making history alive.
Is there an intended metaphor or analogy in having historical figures peer into the present in awe and wonder, and then grow anxious about what has/hasn’t changed?
I think they start to have the anxiety that the young students have, so I don’t know if they’re feeding off of the anxiety of the young students, or they see how complicated our future seems to be. Or how in many instances things haven’t changed – as with the comment on human trafficking. Lydia can’t understand that people are still enslaved in many parts of the world in 2016. So, as Marshall McLuhan said, the twentieth century was the “Age of anxiety”, and in a way, the ghosts can see what an anxious world we live in. So, I don’t know if it’s a metaphor so much as a statement about the loss of hope for the future.