History and People: Making Characters
Yesterday, I pushed back my chair in the Historic Programs office with a heavy, exaggerated sigh. Supervisor glanced up. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“This monologue. I can’t make it good.”
Assistant Supervisor popped his head up too. “What are you having trouble with?”
“Making it good.”
As I then tried (partly successfully) to explain, it was more a struggle of art than pedagogy. Museum theatre, as we’ve discussed before, holds museum and theatre equally. I knew my historical information. I knew the concepts I want the visitors to learn. But I was struggling to make good theatre—to map history onto theatrical architecture and create some semblance of story arc and character development.
I think I got it in the end. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ll feel better once my partner-in-crime has taken a look.
But it was interesting, because the one thing that’s coming much more easily is voice. My character is a sixteen-year-old tavern-keeper’s daughter named Delilah. She lived in the inn with her mother and older brother (her father died when she was eleven). Then her mother died when she was sixteen. Then her brother died three years later. Then Delilah married some farmer’s son in a township quite far away, had five children, and died herself in 1908.
The way we chose these characters was thus: we looked for people who were a) connected to our buildings, and b) roughly the right age, at c) roughly the right time.
Delilah fit the bill, and I like taverns. And so we began getting acquainted.
It’s a different process than, say, writing a musical about Alexander Hamilton. There are no biographies of these people. There are biographical facts, which you can compile into a vague sketch, and then you take your best, most responsible guesses.
So Delilah was sixteen in 1872, not going to school. Her mother had been running the inn for a while. The 1871 census reveals they were taking in boarders, which suggests that the railway that was laid in 1856 really did take a bite out of the business they’d been getting from the stagecoach line.
Okay, so, what would the experience of a person in that situation be like? How would different types of personalities react to that situation? Maybe Delilah loved helping around the inn, and flitted about like a bright, spirited young belle. Maybe she was super moody, and bitter that she was no longer in school.
There’s no way to know.
So you take what you do know, and you blend it with art. I am most comfortable playing characters that are freaking Energizer Bunnies. So by virtue of the actor playing her, we see a version of Delilah that’s a little naïve, very earnest, and who wants so, so badly to be helpful. She’s a puppy on a sugar rush.
But the deeper you dig, the more details emerge to fill in the picture you’re creating. I’ve sorted out most of her family tree. Delilah lived surrounded by aunts and uncles (all from her mother’s side). She had about a million cousins, approximately half of whom are also named Delilah. And it’s a family that seems to shuffle relatives around as needed. Elderly Grandpa James is living at the inn in 1861. By 1871, a cousin mini-Delilah is staying there (oddly, mini-Delilah’s brothers are staying with yet another uncle across the street…I wonder why they split the kids up, but I also wonder if that’s where both my Delilah and mini-Delilah went after her mother dies).
Again, there’s no way of telling what it was really like. But you want to believe the best, don’t you? This pattern of taking relatives in suggests—to me, with my eternal optimism—that it was a fairly tight-knit family. The fact that all of Delilah and half of her million cousins are named after their grandmother suggests the same.
You take what you know of history, and you take what you know of people. Delilah marries some guy named Wesley, from a township really far away. It perplexed me, until I realized he had relatives who lived near Delilah. Among them: a girl named Celestia who was a year older.
So…a girl about your age, who lives nearby, and you marry her cousin (I’m not sure of the degree of cousin-hood, but it’s something). Of course, I’m going to project my own history onto it, and hope that Delilah and Celestia were friends—that of course, Delilah married her friend’s relation.
No way to know—maybe Celestia was incredibly bitter about it. But the census tells me that Celestia also wasn’t in school (seems about half the teenagers in Scarborough were). It tells me that she has two siblings who probably needed a lot of help—“unsound mind” is a terrible and vague term, but it’s all the census provides.
So two girls the same age, both not in school, both with fairly heavy family obligations.
From what I know of people…I imagine it was nice to have someone who understood. In my art—related to, but ultimately separate from the pure history—I make the choice that they were friends. And so another bit of shading, another bit of context.
I’ve been deeply involved in this girl’s history for about a year now. It’s very strange, because I do feel a connection and emotional investment, and I know her family tree about as well as my own…and I have no way of know what she was really like. More than anything, I’d love to see a photograph—I’d love to see her face—but I don’t even have that.
But that’s what museum theatre is all about, isn’t it? Translating those stark facts into something human, and forging connections out of smoke and dust.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Well, actually, I’m listening to the song “Non-Stop” from Hamilton, but it’s not online anywhere. With June looking like a crunch month, it’s been my motivation/training montage song:
How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you’re alive?
Of course, based on the way the musical ends, I probably shouldn’t identify with Hamilton too much… But as I said, no versions online. So here’s a general Hamilton montage.