Piti Theatre to perform ‘Olde Coleraine’ at SYRUP Fest

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    Jonathan Mirin rehearses a scene with children in Mirin's upcoming musical, "Olde Colraine: A Musical Hilltown History" at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

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    Godelière Richard and her son Ezekiel Mirin, 6, rehearse a scene in the upcoming musical "Olde Colraine: A Musical Hilltown History" written by her husband Jonathan Mirin. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

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    Godelière Richard rehearses a scene in Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls with children in Jonathan Mirin's upcoming musical, "Olde Colraine: A Musical Hilltown History.” Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

Published: 3/17/2016 9:04:07 AM

Jonathan Mirin wanted to create a different way of looking at history; one that would leave local audiences feeling more connected to the place they live.

So he decided to take viewers back to the late 1800s, making a one-room schoolhouse, the Griswoldville Mill, the Coleraine-Shelburne Falls Trolley and the opening celebration of Shelburne Falls’ Memorial Hall come to life through the eyes of a group of children as they navigate the transition from the age of agriculture to the Industrial Revolution.

Mirin’s new play, “Olde Coleraine: A Musical Hilltown History,” will premiere Sunday, March 20, at Piti Theatre Company’s seventh annual SYRUP Fest: One Sweet Performing Arts Festival.

“I knew I loved the hilltowns and I knew it was beautiful and had a lot of great people … diving into the history gives you a different appreciation for where we’re at now and the choices we’re making,” Mirin said. “Audiences will get a glimpse of what life was like for children back then, but of course it’s made into theater. We’re not trying to give a lecture or really teach history, but it’s sort of inspired by history.”

Mirin, who founded Piti Theatre with his wife Godeliève Richard in 2004, said the idea for the play came about two years ago when he was asked by a third-grade teacher in Colrain to develop a play about local history that her students could learn and perform.

“We ended up liking it so much, that we thought it would be fun to remake it for a bigger audience,” he said.

The company was awarded a Mass Humanities grant, which required collaboration with a scholar, and began working with Hampshire College professor of history Susan Tracy in 2014 to research the area further. Mirin said Tracy’s expertise has been extremely helpful in developing the play, as it’s given him a whole new perspective.

The play takes place between 1869 and 1898.

“It’s just a point of view that I could never have,” he said. “Susan was able to give a big picture view of what this really meant. This was a transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy, where farm kids would become mill kids. They might work on the farm for half the day and then go work at the mill.”

Tracy, who specializes in 19th Century American history, said she ended up learning a lot throughout the process, including how invaluable local historians are.

“It’s very difficult for me, actually,” she said. “It’s sort of like jumping into cold water, in a way, and trying to figure out how to swim out of it.”

She said periods of history are often characterized by generalizations, but local history is always a variation on that, and the places that are studied are places that have the most data available.

“In Massachusetts, it’s almost always Boston or Worcester or Lowell, and in the Valley it’s almost always Greenfield or Northampton or Springfield or Holyoke, and nobody really looks at the hilltowns, except for local historians,” she said.

Tracy said those people became the experts, until she was able to locate the documents she needed to understand what was happening in that specific area at the time, which she wasn’t sure was going to happen at first. However, a town history of Colrain and a booklet about Griswold Manufacturing gave her “a way in,” and what she called the “breakthrough document” ended up being a master’s thesis written in 1990.

The author, she said, wrote about gender and ethnicity in Colrain, and in the middle of her thesis was a chart taken from the 1870 census that showed a list of boys and girls that worked in the Griswold Mills. Tracy said that chart included their names, ages and jobs.

“That was the key document,” she said.

Mirin said he decided to see the play through the eyes of a group of children, because that’s what worked best with the third-grade Colrain students.

“I’m not a big fan of making kids play adults,” he said. “It just made more sense and it seemed like more fun to think about groups of children. We could’ve imagined it in another way, but if it’s a good experience for the actors, then it’s a good experience for the audience.”

He added there are also adults in the 20-person cast, as well as dancers from Ballet Renversé, a local organization.

Mirin said he decided to incorporate a site-specific idea into the play, which will be performed in Memorial Hall by making the final scene the 1898 opening celebration of the hall.

“This year, what we researched was the dedication of the Memorial Hall itself,” Tracy said. “I said to (Mirin), ‘What we’re looking for is a document, probably in a newspaper, probably in the Greenfield Recorder, that will tell us about the dedication.’”

A man in Shelburne directed Tracy to the Jan. 15, 1898 edition of the Gazette and Courier, a predecessor to The Recorder.

“Everything we needed was right there,” she said. “In both of these projects, one key document sort of opened it up for us, gave us the critical evidence we needed to proceed, and in both cases, local historians and local community people were vital in that.”

“As a result of these projects, I have tremendous respect for the local historians and the people who are very dedicated to these historical societies,” she added.

The play will also feature a handful of songs by Northampton singer-songwriter Carrie Ferguson.

“Basically I send her lyrics inspired by the research we’re doing, and she turns them into songs and performs with us,” Mirin said, adding Ferguson will play the guitar, ukulele and washboard during the show.

One of those songs, Tracy said, is about bobbin boys, who would collect full bobbins of thread in the mills and replace them with empty ones.

“Jonathan took that process and made it a song in his play,” she said. “He sort of takes the history and takes the basic facts and imagines certain ways that he can work it into a play that the children can do.”

Other parts of the play, Mirin said, are still relevant today.

He described one scene in which a school committee member tells a teacher to remove the books she’s been teaching, because they’re not on her prescribed list and he wants her to focus more on science.

“These kinds of conflicts are still happening,” he said. “It just kind of puts things in perspective that are part of a continuum.”

“Olde Coleraine: A Musical Hilltown History” will premiere at the SYRUP Fest Sunday at 2 p.m. at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls. Tickets are $12 general admission, $5 for children 12 and under. For more information, visit www.ptco.org/syrup

You can reach Aviva Luttrell at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 268
On Twitter follow: @AvivaLuttrell


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