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The stardust of RIT’s ‘Spoon River Anthology’

Dec 16, 2020

Shiann Cook, left, a fourth-year School of Individualized Study student from Cleveland, and Bianca Ware, an actor and educator with NTID’s Sunshine 2.0, in a digitally assembled scene.
Credit Joseph Fox

“I can imagine what things sound like even though I am deaf,” Robert Panara wrote in his poem, “On His Deafness.”

I can imagine the strumming of a guitar, I can imagine the rustle of a star.

The words appear at the end of a new production of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” a century-old collection of poems re-envisioned by computer technology, and awarded new meaning by the raucous and confusing year of 2020. “That was put at the end there,” Dr. Luane Davis Haggerty says of Panara’s poem, “with the hope that people would see that the theme is that we are all stardust, we are all from the same, we are all the same. 

“I don't know, is that a TED Talk thing?” 

Stardust. It’s actually a Walt Whitman thing. 

All 2½ hours of the ambitious production by Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf is available on YouTube. Since being posted last month, it has had more than 2,000 views of its 70 short vignettes, a mashup of hearing and speaking actors in contemporary clothing paired with sign-language interpreters in 1900s-era costumes. Other century-spanning images are sprinkled throughout the show; in one scene, an interpreter drinks from a dainty porcelain tea cup as her speaking companion holds a chrome cocktail shaker.

“That was the 2020 perspective,” Haggerty says of the shaker. “The 1918 perspective, we don’t know exactly what was in her teacup, now do we? In the 2020 version, she was straight-out having a cocktail.” 

From that shaker comes a mix of history and present-day. With COVID-19 now roaring across the planet, there’s a new urgency to a play set in a graveyard with a bunch of dead people delivering their own epitaphs. In Spoon River, rarely does anyone simply die in their sleep. And there’s no denying that the dead bring a real sense of social distancing to the stage.

“We chose ‘Spoon River’ because of COVID, and then realizing these are all epitaphs,” Haggerty says. “All of these people, as you point out, have died different odd deaths, some of them from illness. 1915 to 1918, when Edgar Masters wrote the original, was the Spanish flu epidemic, so they are dealing with the same thing that we are now. Which is why I wanted a 2020 take on it. Even if they’re speaking in a language that’s a little more flowery than what we naturally use now.

"But to bring that home, that 100-years-apart feeling, I didn’t think all of the voices should be speaking from the past. I wanted some of the voices to be speaking from right now.”

This production came about as a blend of imagination and necessity. Haggerty, a principal lecturer at NTID’s Department for Performing Arts, was all set to make Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” the school’s fall production. But the coronavirus pandemic changed the plan; “In the Heights” is a musical that just wouldn’t come off with social distancing. 

Now what? 

Panara was a man ahead of his time. It was he who first suggested to Haggerty that “Spoon River Anthology” might be a good fit for NTID. But that was in 1998. And even though it still gets aired out to this day -- the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival presented it on Gibbs Street in 2014 -- the collection of free-form poems comes with not only stardust, but a century of dust.

The updating of “Spoon River Anthology” includes Haggerty adding the poem by NTID co-founder Panara, who passed away four years ago. And there are dances choreographed by RIT dance instructor Thomas Warfield. Original music by Susan Murphy, including a theme song. And most significantly, rather than positioning the interpreter off to one side, as we see at Gov. Andrew Cuomo's COVID-19 briefings, here the interpreter is often front and center. 

“There has to be a reason, it can’t just be access, from my point of view,” Haggerty says. “For it to be artistic, an artistic choice. Not just, ‘Oh good, look, the interpreter is in the picture.’ I want the interpreter to be acting too.

“Sharing a role for an actor is not always easy, because you have egos involved. But it actually ends up being a really great tool for cross-cultural communication, understanding, all that good stuff.”

In “Spoon River Anthology,” Haggerty saw an opportunity for social commentary. Something a little heavier than the brief flash of a cocktail shaker. So weaving their way through Masters’ monologues from beyond the grave are a half-dozen new poems and spoken-word pieces, written by the performers themselves, touching on issues of 2020. A gay man telling his story of contracting COVID-19. And Black Lives Matter. Haggerty wrote the segment in which a white woman defends the work of Black Lives Matter protesters; it’s called “The Karen Who Died Caring.” 

One of the fascinating aspects of this version of “Spoon River Anthology” is the technology that pulls it together. Haggerty had at first planned to present the play in front of a live audience. But as the coronavirus pandemic’s hold on the arts tightened, she decided the show would have to be assembled out of video clips. This really opened up the casting of the show. “Spoon River Anthology” includes not only RIT students, but also alumni from Hawaii to Broadway. There are more than 150 of them. They recorded their parts on phones, cameras and computers. So even though the 70 monologues each feature two people -- the actor and the signing interpreter -- in half of those scenes, the two weren’t even recording in the same room. 

“It was every piece of technology we could get our sweaty little hands on, it was crazy,” Haggerty says. “Digital magic.” 

Peter Haggerty and Patrick Graybill, before their graveyard set was added digitally.
Credit Provided

And going the craziest was Dan Roach, a freelance projection and digital magician who’s worked with the area colleges as well as Geva Theatre Center and Blackfriars Theatre. Roach’s job was to assemble the pieces into a whole. The technology for this is called green screening. The video is shot against a green backdrop -- some of the actors simply used green plastic tablecloths -- allowing computer software to drop in the separate elements, including a background. 

Those backgrounds? Keen Rochester observers will recognize Mt. Hope Cemetery, lilacs at Highland Park, old postcards depicting Rochester city scenes, even a local goat farm. Roach also took photos of many wood-encrusted rooms in Rochester homes and offices, to give the interior shots that 1918 feel. If an actor was sitting while doing a reading, Roach had to sneak a chair into the scene, lest the character be left floating uncomfortably in the air. 

The Spirit of Community Dancers, performing a dance interlude during “Spoon River Anthology.”
Credit Mike Guinto

So there you have “Spoon River Anthology,” set in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois. In RIT’s version, “Spoon River and Rochester are pretty much the same place,” Haggerty says. 

Like Panara, Masters may have been ahead of his time. The line “Sex is the curse of life, it ruins everything,” is not a 2020 creation, it’s in the original. But when Bugsy Calhoun, a Black actor from New York City, tells us that “systemic racism killed more of my people than COVID ever will,” that’s the 2020 perspective. The voices speaking from the “right now” that Haggerty wanted. 

“We keep saying we’re in unprecedented times, and it’s not true, people were going through the same thing a hundred years ago,” she says. 

“We are all so human. That I think is a tangible connection in this time of division and fear. That there’s something reassuring about the fact that this has happened before and we have made it all through together. And to have that last message just be, we are different. There is racism, we can say none of this stuff has been fixed yet. But we are all made of stardust, so we have the potential of all coming back together.” 

Stardust. There’s Whitman again. 

And back to Masters. “There are 244 of these prose poem epitaphs that he wrote in 1915, and became very popular,” Haggerty says. “Because, as you read through them, you start to see a tapestry of an entire community. You start to see how individual lives actually do affect other lives that shouldn’t even be in connection. And yet, everyone is connected. That’s how the community gets made.” 

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

This story was produced by WXXI's Inclusion Desk, focusing on disabilities and inclusion.