As historians we are told to interrogate our sources, trained to see connections, and build a historical argument based on primary, secondary, archeological, and physical documentation. As distant observers of past events, we look for detail and nuance—and for new ways to glean what lives within the silences.
In a lot of ways, this is not far from being an audience member at a Punchdrunk theatrical experience.
Nearly a decade ago as part of a piece on breaking the fourth wall, I described a play called Sleep No More—a co-production between Emursive and Punchdrunk. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth the companies adapted three warehouses in New York City to create a massive theatrical experience. As the story unwound the audience meandered through five floors of sets in a fictional McKittrick hotel, stumbling upon scenes and story elements that included more than just the actors performing before us.
Since that production, I have been fascinated with the storytelling methodology of immersive theater, and in June of 2021, as part of Punchdrunk’s online educational offerings, I took a course on Introduction to Design. I hoped that the course would give me some insight into how immersive theatre layers on different elements of sound, visual spectacle, movement, and narrative cues to build a story that demands the active use of observation by their audience.
On August 14, I am marking not only 15 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but also 15 years as a public historian. In the intervening years, a lot has changed—teams, expectations, job roles, and the organization itself—and I find myself reflecting on how those changes have changed me.
Consider the words at the start of this piece: Thankful. Grateful. Two words that I have been hearing a lot about, at a time when the intersecting and overlapping nature of work has shifted due to a virus that fundamentally altered how we see our lives. For many, this past year revealed that organizations and companies do not owe their employees anything. Whatever loyalty and commitment we have, it may not be reciprocated—an attitude I commiserate with—particularly in light of the series of layoffs within the museum and history field due to the pandemic.
Five years ago, I wrote about how important it was for me to be working in a field that I love—that if most of my life was spent at an office, I would rather work with passion, than with indifference.
This is, in part, a story about my own fight to see.
My own blindness.
Just under eighteen years ago, as a junior in college, I struggled to keep my eyes open in class. It is a vivid memory, with the realization that something wasn’t right during a small seminar on Early America with Dr. James Horn. We were in Blair Hall at the College of William and Mary—one of my favorite places in the world—where I often sat perpendicular to the glorious golden sunlight streaming past the projector screen into my eyeline. At the time I thought it was due to a lack of sleep, but after few weeks of going to bed early, and covering my eyes in windowless rooms, I realized I had actually developed an intense sensitivity to light.
Doctor after doctor thought I had a corneal ulcer, or an aggressive form of a common eye virus, but one weekend, as a friend and I drove from Virginia to State College, Pennsylvania, that ulcer turned into a very visible, very painful, white ring around my cornea.
Have you ever tried to watch Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in a movie theatre while having stabbing eye pain? I have. And by the end of the weekend, I felt as if I was staring into a white fog. I felt unmoored and terrified. An experience I never want to replicate again.
Over the course of ten months, from March to December 2020, I walked almost 152 miles listening to podcasts, audio dramas, and 15 books about a female detective named Maisie Dobbs. This series, about a former nurse turned psychologist and investigator who solves crime, is set against the backdrop of post-War (and eventually the start of World War II) England. Through her cases, we learn about repercussions from World War I, the 1918 flu epidemic, social unrest, anti-refugee sentiment, and as Dobbs becomes more involved with British Secret Service, the growing threat of the Nazi regime.
As I walked at sunrise, sunset, lunchtime breaks, and post work wind-downs I couldn’t help feel, as time slowly slipped by, the looming disaster to come. I knew it wasn’t only of the fictional (yet historical) world created by Jacqueline Winspear, but also the constant hum of chaos that was 2020.
There are no real positive things to say about this past year. In a lot of ways our fault lines and the cracks in our civic society have been laid bare for all to see. There was so much death and pain, that I often struggled to find a silver lining.
When I started this piece many months ago I intended to write about the ways in which technology and multi-disciplinary storytelling has changed the way we engage with our senses. The plan was to look at two, equally compelling, modes of storytelling about a single event in history, and tease apart the ways in which each were constructed to build meaning and connection.
For the past eight months we have talked a lot about self-care, a state of being where we look inward to center ourselves, to focus on our own mental health in order to make it to the next day, and the next, and the next. We read romance novels, and binge re-watched all of New Girl. We learned to bake bread, and more recently began the easy process of mocking holiday movies on Cable TV. We gave ourselves leeway to not be productive, to deal with our emotions, our fear, and the uncertainty.
And amidst all that self-care we’ve realized—well most of us at least—that we need to be more aware of what is happening beyond ourselves. That in a lot of ways what America is, and what we will become, depends on that single choice. To care more.
We have all been changed by this year, and we cannot go forward without acknowledging that a single election, for good or ill, will not fix what is broken. While we wait with baited breadth for the results that will begin to roll in on November 3, the real challenge, no matter the result, comes after: the next day, and the next, and the next.
Twenty-Twenty has been a year of forgotten dreams and lost intentions. A year of stasis, and moments of deep grief in wells of unexpected sadness.
This weekend we lost an incredible leader. While I won’t hold her up as a paragon of perfection, Ruth Bader Ginsberg stood at the vanguard of fights to provide women in this country more agency and autonomy then they had ever had before. However, it is so hard to talk about the importance of her work, without acknowledging how her life was, for many, a tenuous thread holding a web of wavering hopes together.
If there is one thing I’ve tried to cling to in this hellscape of year, it is that glass-half-full perception that I define my life by. And as frustrated as I have become with the world, and my personal circumstances, I am searching, constantly, for beacons to offset the fear.
Every January I take a moment to consider the year we left behind with the hopes of taking any lessons and thoughts forward into a clear-eyed vision for how I want to live.
But 2019 was a year of contradiction.
On one hand, I built a track focusing on Celebrating Women’s History at my annual conference, something that included a session that ended up on CSPAN, not to mention a keynote at the glorious Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado (see below). I bought a home. I capped off an almost twenty-three year love of a little space opera by attending Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. I spent time with my amazing, wonderful, caring family with nieces and a nephew that I watch grow with awe.
But it was also a difficult year. Not just because of the state of affairs beyond our control (you know, the world), but also because I was forced to address the balance between realities and my glass-half-full perspective on my daily life. I had to confront my own understanding of what makes me happy and to push myself in a way that was, and continues to be, hard.
Sometimes I feel like my brain is filled with puzzle pieces. Separate and distinct elements that fit together into something bigger, something essential, some larger than life truth that only I can pull together
This latest puzzle has been a tough one to crack. Like any good puzzler I have been looking for the connections. The similar pieces—those with flat edges, or colors that appear to mesh in just the right way.
The elements of the puzzle are widespread. They include the near destruction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and the damage to swaths of intangible heritage with the Universal Music Group fire, where the masters of a whole range of popular (and lesser known) music were engulfed in a flame. There is an even clearer picture when you toss in elements from Yesterday and the The Band’s Visit into the fray.
And perhaps all of these are funnels into my reaction to the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which collectively summarizes the idea of loss and cultural heritage in a single remarkable package. Continue reading “On Cultural Heritage & Loss”→
Where I am at home, only the sparsest stars Arrive at twilight, and then after some effort. And they are wan, dulled by much travelling. The smaller and more timid never arrive at all But stay, sitting far out, in their own dust. They are orphans. I cannot see them. They are lost. But tonight they have discovered this river with no trouble, They are scrubbed and self-assured as the great planets.
There was a fire. The warmth a contrast with the cool Montana air. As the sun dipped beyond the mountains and dusk passed its way into the deep inky blackness of night, we glanced up to see a sight not often visible from my home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. From my perch on my balcony, I can often only spot one or two sparks of starlight; whereas, on this night, a vast dream of glitter, obscured a little by forest fire smoke from the west, lay above us.