In this Three Stages post, Hortense Gerardo discusses her experience as Artist-in-Residence of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, writing and premiering the play The Medfield Anthology despite exceptional challenges.
I saw the grounds of the former Medfield State Hospital (MSH) for the first time on Monday, March 4, 2019. It was dusk, and I was brought there by my colleague, Daniel Koff, a Regional Planner with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), to prepare for a meeting that evening with the Advisory Group of the Cultural Alliance of Medfield (CAM). I was recently appointed Artist-In-Residence at MAPC and was learning concepts that were still new to me, like “creative placemaking” and “socially-engaged art” and was daunted by the task of having to create original work that would fit those parameters. The moment I set foot on the grounds of MSH, however, those concerns fell away. I knew immediately that I wanted to write a play that would capture the voices and the stories of what happened at that ethereal place.
At the meeting, I realized the first challenge of the project: the property, formerly known as the Medfield Insane Asylum, had a stigmatized past associated with its history as a former psychiatric state hospital. Although my job was to work with CAM to devise a community-engaged event at MSH grounds, it became clear I was to avoid references to certain aspects of the hospital’s history of mental health care. As a playwright, I was aware that it was precisely these aspects of MSH that made for compelling dramatic writing, but as a representative of a state agency commissioned by the town of Medfield to find innovative ways to repurpose the space, I had to abide by certain constraints that impacted the way I usually approach my work as an artist. I decided to approach the disconnect between artistic impulse and administrative duty by utilizing an anthropologically informed problem-solving approach of Observe/Orient, Decide and Act in the development of what would become my feature-length, site-informed dramatic play, The Medfield Anthology.
Archives/Historical Records: Thanks to Daniel Koff, who eventually became the Project Manager for the project, I was privy to a master’s thesis entitled Hardily Working: Stories Of Labor In A State Mental Hospital by Kellan McNally. The thesis provided me an historical account of MSH and a conceptual framework for envisioning the timeframe of the play I had in mind.
After several months of archival research and meetings with informed persons connected to future plans about the property, I realized I needed to hear stories from people who were connected to MSH on a more visceral level. It was around that time I asked CAM’s Chair, Jean Mineo, about locations where I would have access to talk with residents of the town of Medfield in a relaxed, informal environment, one that would be conducive to people wanting to sit and simply talk. She immediately cited Bill Pope’s live music gatherings at his beautiful art gallery, Zullo.
Bill Pope generously offered to set up a table and some chairs for me to sit near the entrance of the gallery for three nights in the summer of 2019 in what would be called the Let’s Talk series, so that people on their way to the free wine and cheese and jazz music had the opportunity to stop at the table and talk about a decommissioned former insane asylum. Understandably, people were reluctant to talk to me at first. I decided to tell people who stopped by the table that they did not have to talk about the hospital. They only had to talk about the place. The first person who took me at my word began to talk about memories of playing little league baseball games at the property way back in the ’60’s. Another resident told me about the movies that used to be screened at the Chapel at MSH, and how town residents could go there to watch movies on a Friday night. Another told me about the ice cream and sandwiches that residents could buy at the canteen. Still another told me about the yearly “Evacuation Day” drills and summer carnivals held at the property. Slowly, a picture began to emerge of a place where not only residents of the hospital lived, but where residents of all ages of the town of Medfield formed vivid memories which they were now willing to share with me in an overwhelming deluge of nostalgia.
In the course of three nights of Let’s Talk interviews, I met a social worker who kindly introduced me to several former residents of Medfield State Hospital, who shared their stories with me on the condition that they remained anonymous. These brave and generous interviewees provided yet another facet of the history of MSH, one that could not be readily obtained through the historical archives, most of which had to be destroyed for privacy reasons.
By mid-September of 2019 I had amassed enough stories to write a book. The problem was no longer how to obtain enough information, but how to edit it down to create a compelling narrative in the form of a play. It was not an easy task to decide which stories would end up in the final draft of the play, but I learned to create characters that could represent the viewpoints of several people that I had the honor to interview. The play in its current form is comprised of nine vignettes, lasting between five to 12 minutes long, creating a 75-minute piece. A work-in progress performance on various locations at MSH was presented on October 12, 2019 to favorable reviews, despite an oncoming storm that threatened to cancel the event. A fully-prepared performance was scheduled for May 2, with the professional actors from the Gazebo Players of Medfield off-book, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a cancellation of the performance due to socially-distancing measures that were imposed. The performance was then scheduled for September 12, and then several weeks into the pandemic it was canceled as scheduling a large-group gathering was ill-advised.
At that point, my residency was about to end, and for a moment, I believed the production would be scrapped entirely. But then, one of my short plays was produced and performed online by a company in New York, and I realized a similar approach could be taken for The Medfield Anthology. With permission from the agency, the cast decided on three dates when we would hold “live” performances of the play on the video platform, Zoom™.
Once the decision was made to hold the performances on Zoom™, the next challenge was to teach everyone in the cast and crew how to film their scenes, and to mitigate any online glitches during the 75-minute production. Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, the director of Boston Dance Theater recognized the awkward time delays inherent in the medium and re-choreographed a scene of four nurses in a way that would accommodate the fact that the dancers were in separate rooms as they performed their piece.
The actors rehearsed among themselves over the course of several Zoom™ meetings and sent me their recorded scenes. It was astounding to see how quickly the actors adapted to this change in the way their performances would be seen. When all of the scenes were assembled, I recognized the need to create an audience interactive part of the program that might reflect the original intent of a live performance in a theater. In the penultimate scene of the play, as performed in real life, the audience members were invited to dance with the actors, but this would not be possible over Zoom™. With advice from the Dramaturgs’ Network I developed a form of interaction in which audience members were asked to show their participation to the live music being sung in Scene 8 by typing the word, “clap” into the chat box. It was a thrill to see the chat box scrolling with the audience members’ participation, clapping along to Wayfaring Stranger sung by actor Sarah Weinberger during the performance.
It had always been a secret dream to have my first, fully-produced, full-length play be a sold-out production, and my dream came true on June 4, 5 and 11, when reservations for the event were “sold” out each night. The governor of Massachusetts approved of the Town and CAM entering a 99-year lease of the Chapel and Infirmary at MSH. CAM has announced plans to raise funds in order to convert these buildings into a performing arts center. I am grateful to the dedicated cast and crew, MAPC, CAM, and residents of the town of Medfield for the opportunity to reflect their stories in The Medfield Anthology and to ensure that the Medfield State Hospital and its stories live on for future generations.
Hortense Gerardo is a writer, filmmaker, and anthropologist. Her feature-length documentary film Small Steps on Climate Change (created as part of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council Artist Residency), premiered June 30, 2020. Her durational multimedia work I, Palimpsest will be produced as part of Nuit Blanche 2020 Toronto, Canada October 3, 2020. Her work The Sauna Plays will be produced at Salt, Oslo, Norway November 12, 2020 (see a promo video), made possible by a grant from The Falmouth Cultural Council, a local agency which is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. Find the artist on Twitter.
Images: promotional image (designed by Taylor McVay) for THE MEDFIELD ANTHOLOGY; Medfield State Hospital; Hortense Gerardo holds LET’S TALK interviews at Zullo Gallery in Medfield, MA; Nurses’ dance scene from THE MEDFIELD ANTHOLOGY; ZOOM™ performance of THE MEDFIELD ANTHOLOGY featuring the Gazebo Players and Boston Dance Theater.