Theater in the barn: Historic Northampton celebrates the restoration of its Shepherd Barn with three short plays drawn from city history

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 08-18-2023 1:58 PM

With the growth of the internet and social media, museums in the last few decades have looked for new ways to engage visitors: interactive exhibits, special events, activity workshops for children, even using apps to guide visitors through exhibits.

Historic Northampton is turning to another means to connect people with local history: theater.

Joining forces with a Florence playwright who heads a company that produces theater specifically geared for historic sites and cultural institutions, the museum is staging three short plays that each cover a notable story from Northampton’s past.

And two of the plays — all three are roughly 25 minutes long — are being staged in the museum’s recently restored Shepherd Barn, a 218-year-old structure that’s been recast as a space for special exhibits, community events and live performance.

The third play, weather permitting, will be staged on the museum grounds, with the audience moving to the new setting; it will take place in the barn in the event of rain.

“We’re thrilled to welcome people into the barn with these plays,” said Elizabeth Sharpe, a co-director of Historic Northampton. “It seems like a really fitting way to celebrate its opening.”

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The short dramas, collectively called “Pulling at the Roots,” are being staged from Aug. 24 through Sept. 3, and they examine stories from three centuries of Northampton history. The first, from the 1670s, tells the tale of Mary Bliss Parsons, who was imprisoned and faced a jury trial after neighbors accused her of witchcraft.

Another play looks at the relationship between the famous 18th century pastor Jonathan Edwards and Rose Binney, a woman he had enslaved, while the third drama examines a pivotal moment in the life of Lydia Maria Child, the writer and abolitionist, and her husband, David, who lived in Florence in the late 1830s/early 1840s.

“These are plays that are rooted in history but allow us to consider the in-between of what’s possible and probable,” said Sharpe. “It’s not a re-enactment, it’s not a documentary … its allows us to reach a different kind of audience.”

To do that, Historic Northampton has commissioned work from Plays in Place, a company that produces “site-specific” theatrical productions for museums and other organizations. It’s headed by Patrick Gabridge, a playwright and novelist who has a particular interest in history.

Gabridge moved with his family to Florence from the Boston area two years ago, which helped him develop connections to people in the Valley’s theater community — directors, actors, stage managers — who have since become involved with the Historic Northampton project.

“It’s been great to work with a whole new group of very talented people,” said Gabridge, who’s written a wide range of plays, including full-length ones, that have been staged around the U.S. and in numerous other countries. (One, “Blood on the Snow,” looks at the aftermath of the Boston Massacre in 1770.)

Gabridge and Sharpe crossed paths in 2019 at a meeting in Vermont of the New England Museum Association, where Gabridge presented a short, two-actor play, “Cato & Dolly,” about an imagined conversation between Cato, an enslaved man who worked for John Hancock, the prominent colonial Bostonian who became president of the Continental Congress, and Dolly, Hancock’s wife.

“It was very moving, simply done, and very evocative of the era,” said Sharpe. “I thought it was a great idea and something we could bring” to Historic Northampton.

Pitching stories

Last year, after Gabridge had moved to Florence, Sharpe got in touch with him and asked him about creating some theater for the museum. He met with Sharpe and Laurie Sanders, the museum’s second co-director, to discuss possible subjects.

“He said ‘Give me some ideas for stories,’ and we gave him 15 to 20 ideas,” said Sharpe. Those included, for instance, the incident concerning Catherine Linda, an enslaved woman from Georgia who was brought to town in the 1840s by her owner; local abolitionists tried to get a judge to free Linda while she was in Northampton.

Gabridge says he eventually settled on the three stories now being dramatized because they all seemed particularly emblematic of the city’s past.

“Stories work best when they’re rooted in place,” he said.

Through some of the people he met in the local theater group Play Incubation Collective (PIC), Gabridge got some names of potential playwrights and directors. After attending a staged reading in Greenfield of work by Talya Kingston, he offered her a commission to write a play on Mary Parsons.

“That’s music to a playwright’s ears,” said Kingston, who’s also a director, dramaturg and educator. “I also have an undergraduate degree in history, so to bring that together with theater was a dream come true.”

To research her play, called “Circling Suspicion,” Kingston relied on a number of sources, including those at Historic Northampton. But she says she also wanted to focus on the human side of the story, including the intense sorrow Mary Parsons’ main accuser, Sarah Bridgman, no doubt experienced from the death of several of her children. (Parsons, by contrast, had several healthy children and was better off financially.)

“The grief from losing a child and the fears of early motherhood are issues that are still very relevant today,” said Kingston, who’s a mother herself.

The play presents Bridgman, played by Linda Tardif, as a ghost who haunts Mary Parsons, played by Christine Stevens.

Trying to cover all the bases of that story in 25 minutes “has been a real challenge” Kingston added. But “Circling Suspicion” got a vote of approval, she notes, when the three actors involved did a staged reading of the drama last month at the Hotel Northampton, where descendants of the Parsons family had gathered for a reunion.

Sharpe says the museum hosted readings of the plays for board members and other staff to give feedback on historical accuracy, while also consulting with other history experts. “We think they all work really well,” she said.

Gabridge wrote “The Optimist’s Razor,” the drama about Lydia Maria Child and her husband, and Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed is the author of “Rose,” the story of Rose Binney and Jonathan Edwards; that play considers whether Binney may have demanded her freedom from the minister. (She was freed in the early 1750s, though the exact circumstances aren’t known.)

Brianna Sloane, who’s active in theater in the Valley on several levels, directs all three productions, which involve seven actors in total. Five other Valley theater pros handle stage management, sound, lighting and costume design.

Sharpe says she hopes the plays prove popular enough that Historic Northampton can do a second round sometime down the road: “The possibilities are really exciting.”

Visit historicnorthampton.org to reserves seats for the performances, which seat 45 people and are sliding-scale admission; first come, first served. Some early performances have sold out.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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