Seeing and Hearing America
Location: Decker Theater
CHESTERTOWN, MD—The Washington College Concert Series and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience present the Mid-Atlantic premiere of First Person: Seeing America. This moving multi-media performance combines live music by Ensemble Galilei, professional actors performing excerpts from well-known texts, and projected photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to evoke events that have shaped American identity. The production comes to Decker Theatre in the College’s Gibson Center for the Arts on Thursday, Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for the general public, and $15 for Washington College employees, non-Washington College students, and seniors. (Washington College students are admitted free with valid IDs.)
First Person: Seeing America was first developed through a collaboration of the early music group Ensemble Galilei, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, veteran actress Lily Knight and radio journalist Neal Conan, then host of the NPR show Talk of the Nation. It has since been reworked by Los Angeles-based director Casey Stangl, with actor Rob Nagel taking Conan’s place beside Knight as a narrator.
In a unique and exclusive arrangement with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the show features large-screen projections of images taken by some of the nation’s finest photographers—iconic images that depict events such as the Civil War, Westward Expansion, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It adds the poetry and prose of some of America’s greatest writers, and then pairs it with evocative music, mostly traditional tunes performed on a variety of instruments, from fiddles and whistles to harp and viola da gamba.
“This show is about the extraordinary capacity of the American people to survive despite adversity,” says one of its producers, composer and musician Carolyn Surrick. She adds that First Person: Seeing America has been transforming since it first premiered in 2010, and it began a new set of revisions in the hands of director Stangl beginning in April of this year. Washington College will serve as an incubator for three days of rehearsals and workshops leading up to the premiere performance of this newest incarnation.
Surrick, who founded Ensemble Galilei and plays the viola da gamba, describes the creative process for the First Person projects as “absurdly democratic. Everyone reads every text under consideration, and each of us has to be passionately committed to a piece for it to be included,” she explains. “Then, the actors start reading aloud, and we start playing different music to see what works best with the image and the text. When the hair on the back of our necks stands on end, then we know we have it. Sometimes it’s something totally surprising and counter-intuitive.”
The First Person: Seeing America show follows two prior multi-media productions that were based on images from the Hubble Space Telescope (A Universe of Dreams) and photography from the National Geographic Image Collection (First Person: Stories from the Edge of the World). First Person: Seeing America is the most ambitious production in the series.
The Seeing America show features images by 21 American masters of photography including Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, Arthur Rothstein, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston. Actors Knight and Nagel will perform text taken from poets Ted Kooser, Claudia Emerson, Lucille Clifton, Jim Harrison, Robert Frost and Stanley Kunitz and from authors Studs Turkel, James Agee and Frederick Douglas.
The five musicians of Ensemble Galilei will play folk tunes indigenous to Appalachia or brought over by immigrants from Scotland, Ireland and Sweden, along with classical and new compositions. In addition, the program will include two original compositions by Surrick: “Dream of the Wanderer” and “The Dust Bowl.”
Michael Buckley, programming director at the CV. Starr Center, says Ensemble Galilei’s First Person productions “create something massive and magical, a true extravaganza of light, color and sound.” He will interview Surrick on his weekly “Sunday Brunch” radio show on WRNR (103.1 FM), on Sunday morning, Oct. 13, at 9 a.m., offering a preview of the Washington College performance.
Prior to the Oct. 17 performance, the artists will be on campus to participate in six workshops with students and faculty in a variety of classroom and studio settings. For more information, call the Washington College Concert Series at 410-778-7839 or visit the Premier Artists Series page of the Washington College website, www.washcoll.edu.
About the Cast:
Lily Knight appears on stage in Los Angeles and New York, and her film credits include Changeling, Around the Bend, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and AI. She also has appeared in more than 50 television shows, including Big Love, Saving Grace, The Mentalist, Boston Legal, and Weeds.
Rob Nagel has acted in dozens of regional theaters across the country. His numerous screen credits include the films Life As We Know It, The Soloist, and Fun with Dick and Jane, and the television shows NCIS, Harry’s Law, Mad Men, and Eli Stone.
Ensemble Galilei has been hailed for its unique blend of Irish, Scottish, early and original music, performed both on stage and on 11 CDs. A critic for the Washington Post wrote that the group plays “with energy, splendid ensemble, good humor and imagination,” and MTV praised it for combining classical and folk instrumentation “with meticulous precision and the freedom of improvisation,” and creating a “seamless blend of the old world and modern influences.” Ensemble Galilei’s unique approach to eighteenth century Irish airs, jigs and reels, Welsh songs and Breton dance tunes earned a WAMMIE award from the Washington Area Music Association.