Three Lessons on Historical Storytelling from Punchdrunk

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 Morea 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.

Sleep No More Act II, Scene II Macbeth. From an edition with an inscription that states “To Mary from Sidney. 17th June 1924.” | Credit Priya Chhaya

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.

Continue reading “Three Lessons on Historical Storytelling from Punchdrunk”

What Would You Save? Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

From the playbill…

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is set during a war that has lasted one hundred years and devastated the entire world. Yet, three women from opposite ends of the conflict still manage to find common threads of humanity through the majesty of a painting. The idea that a beautiful work of art could transcend what seem to be insurmountable boundaries seems like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines and leaves the mind swirling long after the show has ended.

Despite its long title, this play was meant for me.


In nine words, the title captures not only the imperatives of oral and intangible history of telling untold stories, but also with the final word — humanity— a dose of reality about what is at stake. I’ve written about my feelings about dystopian narratives, especially as they force us to take stock of the world while acknowledging its fragility.

Continue reading “What Would You Save? Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”

The Ordinary Extraordinary

A few weeks ago I attended a tweetup between the National Museum of American History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Using the hashtag #docsocial twenty social media users gathered to look at the role of documents and primary sources in the telling of history.

The objects central to the program were handbags–purses belonging to two women held at Terezin, a camp located in Czechoslovakia that was used as a “model/propoganda” camp.

The first belonged to a seamstress, Camilla Gottlieb, and is part of an exhibition at the National Museum of American History called “Camilla’s Purse”. The documents and objects within tell the story of her life at Terezin and later in the United States. The second purse, at the Holocaust Museum, belonged to Helene Reik, who died in the camp–her purse survived because a cousin saved it. Within the handbag was the expected and unexpected: a manicure set, scraps of receipts, and photographs Helene had used as paper, filling every available white space with words.

Continue reading “The Ordinary Extraordinary”

Diary. Letter. Novel. Movie. Hologram. History.

This essay contains spoilers for David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

There is a moment in the second half of Cloud Atlas when physicist Isaac Sachs posits a few theories on the nature of the past.

“Exposition: the workings of the actual past + the virtual past may be illustrated by an event well known to collective history, such as the sinking of the Titanic. The disaster as it actually occurred descends into obscurity as its eyewitnesses die off, documents perish + the wreck of the ship dissolves in its Atlantic grave. Yet a virtual sinking of the Titanic, created from reworked memories, papers, hearsay, fiction-in short, belief-grows ever “truer.” The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”

This is nothing revelatory to those of us who work in the public history field–memory is fickle, the objects we interpret can only tell a fraction of the story and for every oral history produced a recognition of perspective is taken into account. In graduate school we spent days talking about authenticity trying to determine what exactly is the nature of historical truth. Continue reading “Diary. Letter. Novel. Movie. Hologram. History.”

The Revolution in 1865

A common image of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s Assassin. From the Library of Congress collection.

For a long time I have devoted my energies, my time and money, to the accomplishment of a certain end. I have been disappointed. The moment has arrived when I must change my plans. Many will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me. Men who love their country better than gold and life.

–John W. Booth, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt

When we think of history it is linear. One event follows the next tripping forward, action precipitating reaction. And so when the line loops around it provides a sense of historical congruence, a symmetry of understanding that while obvious, feels like puzzle pieces dropping into place.

Continue reading “The Revolution in 1865”

Finding Preservation and Accessible History at the 2012 Webby Awards

Re-posted from

Everyone’s heard of the Grammys, the Oscars, and the Emmys. But last night was an awards show of a different kind. The 2012 Webby Awards, held at Manhattan’s historic Hammerstein Ballroom, celebrated people, companies, and organizations that have done something especially intriguing, impactful, and engaging online.

Continue reading “Finding Preservation and Accessible History at the 2012 Webby Awards”

Preservation and a Pressure Cooker (A Reflection on the Materiality of Preservation)

The materiality of preservation is very much rooted in these places and objects ability to tell a story – to evoke the intangible in such a way that makes it more certain, more reliable, more real.

For work this week I wrote a piece reflecting on the stuff of preservation. I also managed to loop in a paper I wrote during my undergraduate coursework about a pressure cooker. Trust me, it makes sense.

I’m working on a few ideas for end of the year posts. So stay tuned!


I also wanted also wanted to point out to any Baltimorians who might be reading my blog that there is an Unconference going on in Baltimore today. You can see what they’re talking about here and on Twitter #bmorehistoric.

The Power of the Cover

At first glance it is the color that forces me to stop. Something about the way they play together—within shapes, images, old photographs. The different hues mash together into an emotion….

…as I read the words. The Bluest Eye, Cat’s Cradle, A Dance with Dragons.

Together the design serves as a teaser for the text that lies between—a teaser for the good, the bad, and the horribly disappointing.

This post is about the power of the Cover, and how sometimes the cover is the difference between reading the summary flap or just walking by without a second glance.

When I was in college I worked at a Barnes and Noble where one of our jobs was to go through the shelves and do face outs to make the shelves look full. This also served as a way to highlight a specific title. Often times when I walked through I tended to be influenced by what had read, or heard about from others,  and those were the books that got that extra attention. But sometimes the cover that I highlighted was one that was beautiful, intriguing, and expressive.  Because our store was a hub of tourist activity (it was in the middle of Merchant’s Square in Colonial Williamsburg) we tended to get a lot more browsers in addition to our regular customers and so making sure that those shelves were especially attractive was important.

Another part of my job involved working at the information desk. On more than one occasion I would have conversation that went like this:

Customer: Hi I’m looking for a particular book.

Me: Sure, can you tell me the title?

Customer: No.

Me: How about the author?

Customer: Nope.


Customer: …but I do know that the book was redish orange, with a circle in the middle. And it was set in Scotland?

More seriously, this is where the power that lies within a cover came up. If it was a piece of popular fiction more often than not one of us would recognize it based on the cover description, and would be able to find the book for the customer.  It provides an element of identification, a marker for those looking to read it. In other cases if we could narrow down the genre just walking through the shelves sometimes produced results.

So let’s take a moment and look at the book cover as an object/a piece of material culture:

Observation: The cover serves a variety of purposes. As mentioned above it is an illustration of what exists with in the book. A symbolic summary of what we will learn, enjoy, and experience. It is also meant to be, perhaps first and foremost, a piece of information. What is this book called, who is its author. You know that when you pull the book off the shelf, the back cover will tell you either more about the title or provide titillating one sentence reviews of the book from similar authors, and newspapers. Thirdly, the cover is a marketing piece. It distinguishes this particular book from that particular book.  Sometimes the cover design distinguishes one publisher from another (my favorite? Vintage Classics).

According to this essay in the Guardian, illustrated book covers, particularly early dust jackets, did not come into vogue until the late 19th century. Until then the covers of books were served as protection or as a space for advertising what other books the publisher was producing rather than the specific title in hand. The article, as do many other sites around the web, also point out the importance of the book cover/dust jacket/book jacket in the mode of identification—something that I described in an earlier blog post “Prelude to the Power of the Cover.

Continued Analysis leads me to acknowledge that even over the years book covers change with time. If one were to trace the evolution of an older title one would find multiple versions of the book depending on who and when it was published. Even today it has become popular practice to publish new reprints of books in tandem with the movie adaptation, and despite liking said adaptation, these covers often invoke a sense of impurity. A sense that is especially frustrating when the movie adaptation is nothing like the words that you have grown to love.

Just for fun, open a new browser window and do a search under Google Images. Type in “Lord of the Rings Book Covers.” to see how many different versions pop up. The version I have (left below) is very different from the version my roommate (right below). I’m sure that somewhere out there are book cover collectors who can identify who the artist and the creator of each edition of their favorite book is by—and the availability of said edition determines worth. I know that when choosing a book to own and when presented with multiple cover options (all other things being equal)–I tend to lean towards the more aesthetically pleasing edition.

Interpreting covers is a larger conversation—and probably demands a lot more research that I have had time to give. However, each edition, each design, says something about the times in which we live (see above commentary on movie covers). And in an age of e-books the purpose of covers has changed—e-ink doesn’t allow for full color imaging, despite making the ability to read text easier on the eye. Additionally the art on the page is probably a reflection of imagination, but also cultural influences in that particular period of time.  More specifically I find myself thinking about how the widespread censorship in Nazi Germany dictated how books were designed and marketed–and what we can learn by looking at these different covers about the messages that the Nazi’s were propagating.

As a piece of every day life, a cover says a lot about what we as a country and as a society are reading. In an age of mass marketing, seeing the cover everywhere only stimulates the brain into wanting to know more, learn more, and experience it first hand.

The Guessing Game

I first started thinking about this blog post almost a year ago when CBS Sunday Morning put together this segment (watch it here). Narrated by Erin Moriarty the piece looks at book covers as an element of our visual landscape—that they are, in fact, pieces of art.  Art  provides a glimpse into how people are feeling about particular events in the outward world–and like the Mona Lisa, a Mark Rothko painting, or Monet’s Water Lilies covers are seared into our minds. So let’s play a little game:

Can you identify this book by its cover?

How about this one?

or this one?

This exercise made me think about the book cover as it moves into its next phase of existence, where (as both the Guardian and the Sunday Morning piece explain) the digital world is using the cover in entirely new ways that shift the function of the book into a new medium (after all you can’t see what someone is reading when they are on a Kindle or a Nook). In fact, when I start reading a book on my Kindle it starts on the first page, automatically bypassing the title/author acknowledgement/index.  In this way the cover is perhaps reduced to playing merely an informational role, without the vivid colors and design elements translating easily into e-ink.  I do acknowledge that on color e-readers you can see covers in much the same way as you see them off screen–but even then its a digitized form, without the texture of the physical copy.

Of course books aren’t completely gone from our physical landscape, and I very much doubt that they will ever be completely eradicated.  I also recognize that not everyone cares as much as I do about the face of a book–and look to word of mouth to find new titles. I do hope, however that we’ll still be able to see a book cover that is as with iconic as the covers for Catch-22, Jurassic Park, and The Great Gatsby.

Personal Inspiration

In preparing this post I thought it would be fun to look at some of my favorites. So here are a few book covers that I love:

Tana French’s book is startlingly creepy–the branches of the tree emblematic of the complexity of the mystery that lies within. This is my favorite cover of Little Dorrit partially because it juxtaposes the door of the Marshalsea with Amy’s form. The way her hand clutches her skirt indicates movement as she passes from her father’s walled prison into the chaos of London. I love this cover of Stardust primarily for its whimsy.

As I mentioned on this blog, a few weeks ago a dear friend passed away. Before she died we had talked about “the power of the cover” and she took the time to send a few of her favorites my way:

I also sent the request out over Twitter, and one of my followers pointed out these two covers. When I asked for an explanation @EttaHRichardson tweeted that the covers are attractive because of “the grandeur that the building maintains” for the first and “it’s the style, a bit Voo-doo & Cartoon but fresh and edgy” for the second.

I guess for me, the power of the cover is in its ability to inspire imagination. That the artwork, the layout, and the text all provides that initial jump into the unknown,  into a world that is filled with tales of heroic acts or dastardly deeds, a world filled with the enigmatic, the charismatic, the magical, and the ordinary, and a world filled with stories, and storytellers.  It is the power of the cover which starts us on this journey, one that begins  long before you even open the book in your hand.

Note: Just a note that for those of you that are in DC that you should visit the National Book Festival down on the National Mall. It will take place September 24-25, 2011.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Google Images,,

Prelude to The Power of the Cover: The Deathly Hallows

Eleven years ago July (ELEVEN years!). I’m on my way home from an internship, just a few weeks before I go to college. It is Pre-Twitter. Pre-Facebook. Pre-easy access to the internet.

Map of the blue line. We started off at Federal Triangle and continued straight on until Franconia Springfield.

I settled myself on a blue line train at Federal Triangle with a woman who is holding a pretty hefty book in her hand. It’s a green cover with a cartooney looking boy with horn rimmed glasses.

She ends up sitting across the train from me, but still within my line of vision, and as we travel I find myself without anything to occupy myself, choosing to look out the window instead….and people watch. We approach Crystal City. Stop. At this point I notice the woman looking up with the classic oh I missed my station expression on her face. She half stands, then sits back down, pulling out the book to read again.

She reads on, and we travel past Braddock Road, King Street, and Van Dorn Street easily 30 minutes past what must have been her original stop to the end of the line. She closes the book, finger firmly marking her place, exits out of my train and then renters the one waiting on the other side of the tracks to take her back to her destination.

As I move up the escalator I can see that she is lost to the outside world again, engrossed in whatever is written between the hard green covers.

It was the Summer of 2000, and the book was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

I want to say that I was drawn to the series because of the cover because even then you could see it in bookstores, coffee shops, and on the Metro. But I wasn’t. I was drawn to the texts ability to draw in the mind, and clearly the imagination.

But it was the cover that told me what to read.

Now, eleven years (ELEVEN!) later I spent the weekend watching the final chapter of the Harry Potter saga on the big screen. Nothing is more exhilarating than Midnight Madness for a movie of a book that changed how you look at fantasy and storytelling. Feeling slightly otherworldly, you find yourself playing Harry Potter twenty questions for two hours as a stream of kids roll by dressed up as the Hogwarts Express in a conga line. In my head I was thinking that this must be how those moviegoers felt when they sat for the first Star Wars movie in 1977—the feeling of wonder and surprise that a story of dragons, and quests, heroes and heroines opens your hearts and makes your imagination travel to new heights.

But while the on screen spectacle was arresting, it was another reminder of just how strong of an impression a book can make. I testify that this series made me smile and at times, cry. There were tears when Deathly Hallows book first came out, and again as the revelation that we had all misjudged a certain potions master played out across the screen. While this series grew up with its primary audience, I can say that it saw me through my twenties–through college, grad school, job uncertainty—essentially the start of my adulthood. And so while I was never in the same age range as the trio of friends, I recognize the impact the story had on my love of storytelling and writing.

My Harry Potter Books, along with a few other of my favorite titles. PS: If you haven't read Little Dorrit I highly recommend it.

As for my physical copies of the books? I really did end up choosing them based on their covers. Even though I was curious after that initial metro ride, it wasn’t until a trip to India that I started collecting my personal copies. Each book has its own story: 1, 2, 3 & 4 I got in Mumbai during a family vacation (though at the time 1-3 were in paperback, my mom got me the hardcovers after someone donated them to her library). Book 5 (Order of the Phoenix) I bought in the States, until a fortuitous trip to visit a friend revealed that this was the only book where she had the British version, so we made a switch. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince made it to my shelves after a midnight purchase in 2005, another midnight trek to a bookstore in the London suburb of North Harrow.

For Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I was in New York City, moving my sister into her first apartment. I stood in line, by myself, at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, until someone told us (well past midnight) that there was another store a half a block away with no line and plenty of copies. I’ve never read a book faster in my life. (Once again playing switcheroo helped me complete my matching set as a friend visiting abroad made an exchange when she returned to the states.)

After seeing the movie this weekend, I wanted to write a piece in farewell. However, I realized I’m not quite ready to say goodbye, and probably never will be. Many articles this week have listed favorite parts, characters, objects—and have posited clever praises on Rowling’s femininity (or lack there of). Instead I thought I would leave you with a passage in the book that made me think—one that speaks to the power of imagination, but also of knowing your own self—and trusting what is in your own heart.

Cupcakes from Midnight Madness. Three for each of the Hogwarts Houses. Recipe for Cake and Buttercream from Real Simple Magazine (Click to view).

From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (pp579)

“Tell me one last thing,’ said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

The Sorting Hat Says Goodbye

When we first met he was very young
As, of course, were we
But as we grew, he found his place
To fight Voldemort and be Free

In our minds the wonder sparked
And imagination soared
Whimsical and fantastical
We were never bored

And then the end in published form
Came to say goodbye
But we all knew we’d still have
On the movies to rely

Soon there will be no more Harry Potter
To look forward to in time
No Hallows, Horcruxes, or Hogwarts
And I’ll have nothing left to rhyme

So join me on the 15 of July
As the stroke of midnight chimes
And we’ll say fare-the-well to the wizarding world
With a flick of our wands, our hearts and our minds

—P. Chhaya 6/21/2011

Note: More on The Power of the Cover will follow next week.

Seeing What’s Real

There is a counter at the bottom of this page that I hope will explain my month long absence from the blog.  I’m participating in the 2010 National Novel Writing Month–which pretty much requires that I write 50,000 words in 30 days. We’re reaching the last week, and I’m about 6100 words behind so this weekend requires me to put on my game face and write as fast and as much as I can.

If you want to check out some my other writing this month I did post twice on the blog.

The second blog post is about my recent trip to the National Archives to view the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which was on display for four days following the opening of the second part of an exhibition entitled Discovering the Civil War. In “The Power of the Document” I wanted to describe how seeing the physical object was just as important as reading the text:

So why is seeing the original document so important to me? Its history is well known, including its role in the larger narrative of the United States beyond the Civil War era. Many have undertaken analysis on Abraham Lincoln’s reasoning and timing in presenting the proclamation, and we can see the text written out after a quick Google search. We know that on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that all slaves within rebelling states would be “thenceforward, and forever free.”

It makes it real. In a modern world where much of the conversation lives in the virtual realm, the tactile, the physical existence of an object in space strengthens its meaning and connection to the actual events that you read and learn about in history courses around the world. The value of seeing Abraham Lincoln’s signature—teeny and cramped–and reading the words scrawled across sheets of paper gives history texture and life.

For this post I wanted to talk about historical reality and the present. I’ll admit, part of this was due to the recent publication of President George W. Bush’s memoir, and how much of the discussion about the events during and around his eight years in office have, within two years, turned into a trip down nostalgia lane. What I mean is talking about events from two yeas ago as part of a very distant, closed past, without (and admittedly I only watched fragments of two interviews) discussing the future. What I’m asking does not have anything to do with politics, or choosing a side, though I will admit that I am moderate who leans to the left.  What I want to know is the following: at what point do we, as Americans, look at recent events and instead of acknowledging these events as part of a still moving present, put it in the bucket of history–it happened, case closed, book shut.

As a historians, we know that of course, naturally, nothing lives in a vacuum. Everything has consequences–sometimes consequences that cannot be seen until a longer period of time has passed (or as Marc Bloch, and the other historians from his school of thought believed, after the longue duree [long term]). However, we also recognize the role of the individual in shaping those events and realities.

When we made the field trip down to see the Emancipation Proclamation these questions popped up again–that the power of the document was partially in knowing its effect beyond Abraham Lincoln’s initial issuance. That despite what it said, its proclamation had far more, long reaching consequences–some of which reverberated into the twentieth century and the civil rights movement.

So, in seeing what’s real–we are only able to interpret, at any given moment, a fragment of the bigger picture, a picture that is always changing and growing.  But like those before us, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility to look at that fragment from a unique position in time, and place.  Right here, right now, today–but with the forethought that recognizes that those interpretations will shift and change as we shift and change.