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Published: Thursday, 6/12/2003

20th century Ohio springs to life in oral history show

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PORT CLINTON - Using only sticks, blocks, and voices, 10 local actors will bring Ohio's past to life Saturday.

The play From Here: A Century of Voices from Ohio portrays the state's 20th century history as told by the Ohioans who lived it or learned it from relatives.

Port Clinton is one of more than three dozen communities hosting the traveling show, which was produced for the state's bicentennial by the Wallpaper Project, a history and theater program based in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Director Maura Rogers of Cleveland said the production is purposely spare to make it easy to set up and keep audiences focused on the historical retellings.

“There's no elaborate set designs,” she said. “It's very basic and abstract. Sticks are used as universal props. You'll see them used as farming tools. In the Kent State scene, they'll be used as rifles and as picket signs.”

Blocks, meanwhile, are used for the actors to stand, sit, and lean on.

In this production, the stories are the stars.

In the last six years, Wallpaper Project volunteers have collected oral histories from more than 800 Ohioans. Playwright Eric Coble of Cleveland took the 15,000 pages of transcripts and boiled them down into a script that takes about 90 minutes to perform.

“It's an oral history, so all the words are actual words spoken by the people of Ohio,” Ms. Rogers said.

At each stop, the play is tweaked to personalize it for the local audience.

“There's a universal script - I'd say it's the skeleton we take to each community, and to add muscles to it, we use specific stories from that community,” Ms. Rogers said. “By giving the community their own stories, it gives them a sense of ownership. They're watching their stories come to life on stage.”

Nancy Dunham, a board member of the Ottawa County Historical Society, said area volunteers collected valuable accounts from the late 19th century and early 20th century.

“A lot of people we talked to are in their 70s and 80s now, which would make them youngsters in the early part of the 20th century, the '20s and '30s,” she said. “But they remember their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who in many cases settled the area.”

Some of the interviews have been collected in an 80-page book, The People of Ottawa County: How We Got Here; What We Did.

Performances of the play began in March and are scheduled through December.

In Port Clinton, the play will be performed at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday in the Performing Arts Center. Admission is free.

Other northwest Ohio performances are scheduled for Wauseon (June 27-29), Hicksville (July 25-27), Bellevue (Oct. 10-12), and Toledo (Nov. 21-23). Spanish-language performances are scheduled July 4-6 and July 11-13 in Toledo.

Rachel Barber of Wapakoneta, the project's coordinator, said the statewide production grew out of an oral history effort in Auglaize County.

She helped produce a book for the county's sesquicentennial in 1998 that was turned into a play that November.

“It was such as phenomenal success,” she recalled. “It brought out 1,500 people, and many of the people who came out had not been involved in any other event.”

Ms. Barber said that success led to plans for the statewide production, which she said is the first of its kind in the United States. She hopes it will be a unifying effort.

“Here we are in the state's 200th anniversary, and there's a lot of events happening all over, but there's not a lot of events reminding us what we have in common as Ohioans,” she said.

“If you're in Athens and hear about the Auto-Lite strike in 1934, you can connect that to the efforts people made in Athens County to organize and have unions and have a better life for themselves.”



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