Talking about Talking Spirits

I stumbled across this presentation recently and wanted to share it. Quite a few years back, I was the writer/director of a living history cemetery tour called Talking Spirits. It was an annual event sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. I wrote and directed the first six years of the project, which in 1999 won an Award of Merit from the Wisconsin Historical Society and in 2003 won an award from the American Association of State and Local History. About five years into the project I was invited by the Wisconsin State Genealogical Society to speak to their organization and delivered this speech, which says as much about my theatrical and writing philosophy as it does about genealogy.

Good evening. Thank you for inviting me to speak to your group tonight. I’m an amateur genealogist myself and I have been looking forward to this for weeks. I’m here to talk about a special project called Talking Spirits. Some of you may already be familiar with it. Perhaps you’ve come to see it over the last several years. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it I would like to take a little time to talk about what the project is and then also talk some about how it developed, how it is put together, and its function.

While to me it is considerably more, Talking Spirits is, in its most elemental definition, an annual guided tour of Forest Hills Cemetery here in Madison, sponsored by the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum. Being genealogists I’m sure that there are many, many of you who have spent time wandering around cemeteries. As I mentioned, I’m an amateur genealogist myself and I have gone to a large number of cemeteries in search of the tombstones of ancestors. To those who don’t understand the need to do that kind of research or the appeal of old, historical burial places, people like you and I may seem just a little bit unsteady, a little off-balance. It doesn’t seem normal to most people to spend time in places like that. We live in a society that likes to think about death as little as possible. But if they only gave it a chance they would find that cemeteries are repositories not only of bones but of history and searches through them can reveal invaluable information for the historian, the genealogist, sociologists, and others. For those who have never taken a cemetery tour they are a little more formal than just walking around looking for relatives’ markers. On most cemetery tours a guide walks the participants through and talks a bit about the art and history of that cemetery and might also touch upon some of the people buried there.

Talking Spirits is different than most. It does more than most, and in a different way. On this cemetery tour the docents do a very thorough job of leading the walk. Before the tour they go through intensive training that covers topics both large and small. On the tour they talk about the cemetery history, some of the famous and infamous people buried there, the symbolism and the art of the tombstones, the social history, and that is all then combined with live portrayals of some of the more interesting persons buried there. The first Talking Spirits tour was just over four years ago in the fall of 1999 and we have done it five times now. Our tour combines the study of history with the entertainment and philosophy of theater, thus making it unique in programs of its kind.

Let me tell you how it started and developed into what it has become.

Several years ago, Bridgit Zielke, the Curator of Programs at the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum at the time, decided it would be a good idea for the museum to sponsor a cemetery tour in Madison. She had visited cemetery tours in other locations and had always learned a great deal from them and found them to be very interesting and enjoyable. The tours she had participated in had tour guides that led people through the cemeteries while they talked primarily about the tombstones and cemetery art. They would occasionally briefly discuss some of the individuals buried there, but the focus was on the art. They touched just a little bit on the history.

It occurred to Bridgit that such a tour might be more successful if it focused on both the art and history and if it not only mentioned the individuals buried there but showed them, actually brought them to life for the groups going through. She thought that the history was as important as the art and should be equally emphasized. Her feeling was that it would not only be educational, but much more fun and interesting to have actors portray some of the people by whose tombstones the tour groups passed. I believe the museum had successfully produced some other living history events, so it was a natural idea for them to pursue.

At about that time she and I first met. I was at the time directing a play called Bent at Madison’s Esquire Theater, for Mercury Players. The play was about the treatment of gays in German prison camps during the Holocaust and the producer and I had gone to the Veterans’ Museum for information about an upcoming exhibit on the Holocaust. It turned out that the exhibit was still a year away. We apparently had heard some very good pre-publicity. Disappointed that we would not be able to tie the play in with the exhibit we still chatted for a little bit with Bridgit. While she had a couple theater people there she thought she would ask if either of us happened to know anyone who was not only in theater but wrote plays. Not being very familiar with local theater I believe it was to her a shot in the dark, but Madison has a thriving playwrighting scene for its size. It may not be New York, but there are dozens of playwrights here. I have personally known five Madison playwrights who have had plays produced either on Broadway or in off-Broadway theaters. But that day Bridgit was just trying to see if there might be anyone who could help her with this kind of project. She explained the idea of creating a living history cemetery tour, where the audience would walk through the cemetery and get to see and hear actors portray the people buried there.

I was immediately excited. I was at the time just starting to think about pursuing a free-lance theatrical career a little harder than I had up to that point. I pulled out a batch of freshly printed business cards (that I had only printed the night before, I swear to God) and handed one to her. The card noted that I am a free-lance writer. I explained to her that I had acted in about 50 plays, that I had seven full-length and one one-act produced plays to my credit with another scheduled for later in the year, additional directing credits, and that I was a published poet and essayist. And just as important, and probably moreso, I was a fanatic about Wisconsin and its history. I told her that I couldn’t imagine how interesting it would be to combine two of my great loves, history and theater, in one project and that if she were serious to please give me a call to set up a meeting. I assured her that she couldn’t find anyone else with the same amount of passion and credentials to do the project she had in mind.

That was in the early part of 1999. Several months passed with no word and then one day I got a call from Bridgit asking if I could come to the museum to meet about the cemetery tour project. I believe she was comfortable with me from the beginning and I can say that I was comfortable with both her and the museum. We took a little time to negotiate, but came to a quick agreement that was satisfactory to everyone and set the dates for the first-ever Forest Hills Cemetery Tour. At the time it didn’t have a name. Bridgit came up with title, Talking Spirits. She stayed with the project for the next few years, with assistance from a wonderful staff of professionals. She now lives in eastern Wisconsin, but still came back this year to see the tour, which is now under the very capable hands of Katherine Leedle, who heads the museum’s program development and is also a researcher.

Forest Hills was chosen for the tour because it is Madison’s oldest cemetery. As the oldest cemetery it would cover the gamut of tombstone art in the upper Midwest. The cemetery was started during the period when cemeteries were built like parks and citizens would go to them for picnics and strolls, so the setting was beautiful as well. Finally, as the main cemetery in Wisconsin’s capital city, there were countless individuals to be found whose lives had impacted not only the state but the nation, and sometimes the world. Among the evergreens and twisting roads of Forest Hills lie several Wisconsin governors, Congressmen, scientists, soldiers, and other citizens whose lives could easily be used for living history portrayals.

I have to admit I initially thought that sponsorship by the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum would limit our choices of material somewhat, as there had to be some kind of tie-in with at least one of the wars that called soldiers away from Wisconsin soil. The reality, however, was that at least one war had crossed the lives of almost every citizen who had ever called Wisconsin home. Except for the few whose lives were cut short in their youth most citizens buried at Forest Hill lived through at least one war in their time. There is even at least one Revolutionary War soldier buried there, though the museum’s charter precludes us from doing anything with any of the wars that occurred before Wisconsin became a state in 1848. We knew that if those buried there were too young to be a part of the Civil War they were old enough for the Spanish-American War. If they were too young for that, then there was World War I, World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, not to mention the more recent campaigns in Iraq, Kosovo, Grenada, and others.

The project started with the Civil War, the earliest one we could cover. It was far enough distant that there was a built-in historical perspective and there were many personalities from which to choose. From the beginning I have had little or nothing to do with the choices of whom to portray. The museum decides which war era we are going to focus on and a committee meets to select appropriate characters. They do their best to balance everything as well as they possibly can. They have to be careful of logistics so that we don’t have two actors portraying different scenes within earshot of each other, while leaving room for the other aspects of the tour between characters. Aside from that they try to represent a cross-section of the population as much as they can.

 There are problems with accomplishing that goal, though. Historically women were not allowed to be enlisted soldiers until World War II and even now are not supposed to be in battle, though we know that they are dying with their brother soldiers in Iraq. Also, historical records about women were never kept in as much detail as they were for the men. Oftentimes, as genealogists can attest, it can be difficult to even prove that a woman existed, even when you know the name and birth date. As a result there are less women with written records available from the older wars. They were not as involved in the war as the men and the records were simply not as good. I believe the Veterans’ Museum has done an admirable job of inclusion with the limitations there are.

The same problem is encountered with African Americans as with women. Where they were a part of history it wasn’t recorded as faithfully as the history of the white ruling class, so it is difficult to find characters about whom there is enough information to do a portrayal. This year we had two African American characters, as part of our look at the World War II era. My biggest disappointment in the first five years of the event was during the first year when we had an impossible time finding an African American actor to portray one of the characters. The character was young and black and there are young, black actors in Madison. But every time we thought we had someone to play the part something happened to cause them to back out. This happened repeatedly all the way up to the dress rehearsal when our last and final choice backed out two days before the performance and could not be replaced at that late date. Fortunately, in that first year we also portrayed the Jeffersons, descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemming, two brothers who were portrayed in that first tour. It took an additional four years before we had another African American portrayal. We have yet to have a Japanese-American, or other Asian, Hispanic, Arab American, or any other person of color represented.

Once the characters to be portrayed are selected the research begins. I have to admit that I don’t have much to do with that either, though I love doing historical research. I have put together a 100-page booklet on my great-great-grandfather and his brother by doing research on my own. It’s something I love to do, but the museum wanted me to focus on the writing and directing from the beginning. This doesn’t mean that the museum does all of it, but they do handle most of it. One of the actors who has been in a number of the tours is also an employee at the State Historical Society and will often find additional information for me if I am stuck or need something further before I can decide a direction to go. I also do a fair amount of my own research when necessary. Every year I do at least some additional research on my own.

For the most part, though, the Museum has an intern whose job it is to do such work at what I’m guessing is a relatively inexpensive wage. As they proceed with that work I am presented with packets of material on the characters. In some cases, it is several large bundles for one person and in other cases it is a few scraps in a small manila envelope. For some people there is a seemingly limitless amount of material available and for others we have been lucky to have much more than an obituary. My job is to take whatever information I am given, along with any additional information that I dig up on my own or with my friend, Scott’s, help, and to sift through that and create a monologue that is believable and captures the essence of the person behind the words. In some cases we have portrayed two people at once—a father and son, husbands and wives, brothers—but the bulk of the pieces has been monologues.

I have to admit I start every year with a prayer. Now, I’m not a very religious person, at least in the traditional sense of the word, though I do have a very spiritual side. But I do believe that what talent I may have is a gift and I do believe that I am not alone when I am creating, so I offer up a prayer to God or the muses or just the general energy of the universe before I ever start writing. I ask for guidance and that I am true to the people about whom I have been entrusted to write. To me it is a sacred duty. I offer the same prayer when I write fictional theater, but the answer is far more important when you are portraying actual people who lived and breathed on this earth.

To achieve an honest portrayal I have to take the known facts and extrapolate from them what kind of person is being portrayed. Facts by themselves cannot create a fully fleshed out character. Only a statistician could look at a list of dates, numbers and other dry facts and find an interesting person there. It helps to have letters, speeches, notes, and other documents that include words that the real person spoke or wrote. This year, because we focused on the World War II era, we had old audio tapes of some of the persons being portrayed.

In some cases it is not possible to have many words from the actual persons, so as a writer you have to understand who the person is without that assistance and create words that you believe would be the kinds of things that person would speak. For example if a person were a railroad conductor and had a collection of model trains and belonged to numerous rail societies you might have them say at one point, “I love trains,” even though there is no historical evidence of them ever uttering those words. The likelihood is that the characters’ sons and daughters would recognize the line as something true to their father. There are certain things that can be assumed, certain presumptions that can be made about a person from surrounding historical data.

Sometimes there are documents that include the person’s own words, but not enough from which to create a full piece. In those cases I have to combine my words with their words to create a monologue that moves from point A to point B seamlessly, as if all the words belonged together and belonged to the character. To do this one must study the way the person spoke or wrote, the things that were important to them, what other people said about them, and more, in order to find what works. If successful the audience should not be able to tell where the historical person’s words leave off and the author’s begin.

In yet other cases there are almost too many words from the historical person and you have to sift through to find which ones have the most meaning and can be used. This year we had an extreme case in which I was able to create an entire monologue, for the first time ever, by only using words from the character’s real life. That was for Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky, a well-respected Madisonian who arrived here after leaving war-ridden Germany and stayed the rest of his life. That is the piece we decided to present to you tonight. Here now is Al Hart reading that monologue.

 “When I think of the Berlin I knew, the city to which I came in 1925 as a student and the city in which I served as a Rabbi of the Jewish community until 1939, a host of associations is conjured up in my mind: places which became part of the spiritual geography of my being, events which decisively determined the course of my life, and people whose presence became inextricably woven into the fabric of my existence.

“No one, not even the greatest pessimist or prophet of doom, could have predicted that in the middle of the first half of the 20th century, the lights would go out over Europe, and darkness would fall over an entire continent on a bright noonday. German Jews, with few exceptions, felt it impossible to believe that the dark clouds of Fascism had gathered on the horizon of their native land, the land in which they felt as thoroughly at home as American Jews do in America. I, too, believed that the Nazi nightmare would pass like a bad dream. It did not.

“By 1938 German Jews had already lived under Hitler for six years. A government-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses had already happened in 1933, with stormtroopers blocking the entrance to stores marked with the inscription “Jude.” These were the days when Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, said: “Treat the Jews like a rose, don’t harm them; just don’t water them.” Already there were the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which practically cancelled the civic emancipation of Jews, abolishing their citizenship and forbidding all cultural and social contact between Jews and non-Jews.

“It took the events of the first two November weeks of 1938 to convince even the most hopeful that all hope was lost. On Crystal Night, it all ended. Hitler told his henchman Goebbels to “let the Gestapo have a fling.” The Gestapo burned all the synagogues in Germany, about 500 of them. The burning of the Synagogues was just one more step in the gradual enactment of the plan for the “Final Solution.”

“I recall very vividly, at about 2:00 a.m. I was awakened by the ring of the telephone. I heard the voice of the custodian of my synagogue shouting: “Rabbi, our Temple is on fire.” When I arrived at the synagogue, I saw its inside an ocean of flames reaching up to the balcony and way into the high cupola. Firemen were pouring water on surrounding buildings to protect them from the fire and the heat. Police were standing idly by. Nazi stormtroopers were jeering and shouting anti-Jewish slogans. This 3,200-seat synagogue, dedicated in 1929, was the last Jewish House of Worship ever built on German soil.

“Standing in front of the burning Temple, which had been filled to capacity Shabbat after Shabbat and only a few weeks earlier, on Simchat Torah had resounded with the gaiety of children, it suddenly occurred to me that this Synagogue might not be the only one set on fire.

“Following the Crystal Night and the burning of the Synagogues, rumors circulated that now a mass arrest of Jewish men would take place. Members of the Gestapo came to my apartment and arrested me without any warrant, without giving any reason, simply because I was a Rabbi. I was arrested—they called it protective custody—and imprisoned in a concentration camp. The camp was near Berlin.There were some 14,000 prisoners in the camp. The majority were not Jews, but they were Christian—Germans. There were gypsies, there were Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were a few Catholic priests—a medley of all kinds. It was a concentration camp, not a gas chamber. Otherwise, I would not be here.

“You never can sleep. You are in little huts—muddy and snowy. Nothing to eat except some sort of lukewarm water soup and soft potato bread in the morning. They dressed you in pajamas. At 4:30 a.m. up. At 5:15 everybody on the big exercise field, standing at attention for an hour. Then they march you out and you have to work. We had to build munitions plants. Most of these guys were not even used to heavy labor. I was more used to it.

“Two people had to lift big stones. These young fellows with the gun—they kicked you and beat you for fun. If you dropped the stone, they beat you some more. This went on until 8 o’clock in the evening, with 10 minutes for lunch. Naturally the people died like flies.

“Twice I was called before the commander-in-chief there. You go to the office. You face the wall. He converses with you in sharp tones. The guy said to me that he would discharge me if I signed a number of statements. I didn’t know what the statements were. What I’m saying now sounds very heroic. I’m not a born hero. I said no. Why did I say no? I simply felt I had to say no because of the others. Had I accepted this offer, it would have definitely lowered the morale of the people.

“The guy kicked me out. Out I was. This went on. It got worse and worse during the winter. The cold—and I caught pneumonia. But the worst was my bleeding. My feet absolutely had no skin on. Then it happened a second time that I was called. I could be dismissed if I left the country immediately. I had no place to go. I had no relatives anywhere in the world. They all lived in Germany. So I thought to myself, “Boy, this is the last chance for breakfast.” I said yes. The guy gave me a lecture and said wherever you go, the hand of the Gestapo is strong enough to catch you and bring you back. And I believed it in those days. These were good olden days, you understand. This was 1939-40. The wholesale extermination and deportation started in ’42.

“Why did he attack Judaism? He once said, “The Jews are the ones who invented conscience.” I think that’s the only true thing he ever said. What Hitler did, if it was a shock to anyone, it was to me, for the simple reason that the German Jew was so thoroughly integrated into the life of Germany in every respect—culturally, socially, economically, politically, in every respect—that the German Jew naturally could not understand what actually was going on. My father was born in the same house where I was born. My grandfather was born in the same little house and my great-grandfather. For a long time I was absolutely full of hope. I was absolutely of the opinion that National Socialism in Germany would just be a passing phase. People used to say, “Well, give them another week,” “Give them another month,” “Give them another year.” And of course his reign was not established for a thousand years as he had hoped. It was short-lived indeed, but it was not short enough to actually preserve the lives of so many millions of people and indeed it was a shock.

 “It is unbelievable; it is incomprehensible. The human mind cannot comprehend, the human heart cannot feel, and human speech cannot express what is beyond the power of comprehension, feeling, and expression. We can agonize about the death of a single child. The death of one million children is an abstraction. Nothing in life becomes real until it becomes person

“Shall we forget and forgive? Forgetting is not a matter of will. Can I forgive? I wish I could. I believe in man’s capacity and moral responsibility to forgive. However, I can forgive only wrong done to me personally. I have no right to forgive what was done to others. But I can stretch out my hand and grasp the hand stretched out to me in reconciliation. I do believe in reconciliation in this as in other situations. Hatred should not be perpetuated. I do not want to have my children or future generations live by hatred. Hatred is no seed bed from which redemption grows.

“Truthfully, without getting melodramatic, I lived and worked for six years under Hitler. I was in a concentration camp, but I got out, fortunately. So the years in this country have been a very special bonus. I could have belonged to the six million just as well. I, too, could have been born one of the millions turned into ashes or made into soap. Because life was given to me for a second time, I have to make up for it. What the world needs is bridges, not walls.

“In God’s house are many mansions occupied by the most diverse people—all His children. It is a tragedy beyond words that we cannot live together in peace in the global village which is the earth. As long as the earth remains we shall always search for truth, yearn for justice and work for that better world in which man will live in harmony and peace with his brother man. To a Jew despairing is blasphemy. If we despaired, if we gave up hope, we would be guilty of collaborating with the enemy. Jews have never surrendered to hopelessness and permitted their lives to be poisoned by hatred. On the contrary, the alchemy of the Jewish spirit has always transmuted death into life, despair into hope. For this is the meaning of being Jewish—never to give up, never to yield to despair. It is our destiny to forever bear witness that man is not the enemy of man, but his friend and brother.

 “It has always been a source of comfort to me that, in spite of all experiences to the contrary, there is more goodness than evil in the world. That faith, hope, and love must never be allowed to die in the human heart—in spite of everything—is the legacy of the dead to the living. It is the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust.

Now that you have heard that speech I will tell you that the monologue you just heard is a lie. And I mean that in the best sense. The rabbi never gave that speech even though those were all his own words. However, I believe that monologue is true to the character even if it is not entirely true to history.

In order to understand what I mean by that, what we do with the tour, and what I as the author and director do in particular, it is necessary to examine the nature of theater in relation to a project like this. Let me start by saying this. In the academic world of history a fact is only accepted as fact as long as there is evidence to support it and no other evidence comes along to contradict it. I’m sure that makes sense. The same is true in science. A theory is generally accepted as true as long as there is nothing newer that disproves it. It is the same in all the various scientific areas of study. Art, on the other hand, deals with philosophy and emotion. Theater, especially, along with fiction, doesn’t even pretend to be fact. It only pretends. Theater is, by its very nature, illusion. It is a lie. It is an elaborate façade constructed to convince the audience that it is watching something real, and it generally creates this lie as part of a search for something far more real than simple fact, and that is philosophical or emotional truth. I mention this because I believe that to understand Talking Spirits one has to understand that it is as much theater as it is history, perhaps moreso. I was hired as a playwright, not as an historian, and I believe that was a choice that helped make this project work as well as it does.

This is not meant to say that Talking Spirits does a disservice to history, that it lies about facts. It does not. It never has and I can guarantee it never will. As I have mentioned it is carefully researched and painstakingly put together to be as true to history as it can possibly be. But it must be recognized that at its best, when it is its best, the event is theatrical in nature and is therefore not fully factual even when it strikes the essence of truth.

Let me break down some of the lies in the piece you just heard. The first one is so obvious that it may be missed by most everyone. The person you just heard is an actor, not Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky. It’s obvious, but the rabbi is deceased and we are portraying him as if he were still amongst the living. The actor portraying him is Gentile and not Jewish, American and not German, considerably younger than the age range we are suggesting, and has never survived a concentration camp, among other things. The art of acting is to make people believe that you are the person you are portraying. I believe that Al does this exceptionally well and that audiences buy into the premise that he is who he says he is. You go along for the ride as it were. One of the conventions of theater is that the audience gives up some doubt, that they suspend disbelief for the duration of the play and accept that what they are seeing is real. Without this convention theater cannot work.

The second major lie in the piece is that it seems that the rabbi has given a speech and you accept that they are his words. As I mentioned this is the only character in the history of Talking Spirits who had enough words in the research that I was able to use only his own words in creating the piece. But those words are culled from a variety of sources. In some cases part of a sentence might be a quote from a newspaper article and another part of the same sentence part of a speech that he gave in real life. The lie is in taking those words out of context and rearranging them to say something that combines the two. It is in editing the words to create a natural-sounding flow.

So as a writer and director I have lied to you. But have I been dishonest? I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is that I feel that I was true to the essence of the character, I was true to his spiritual core. The words are not edited and arranged to make the character say something he would not say. They are arranged to come closer to something that he would say if he were able to be here today. It is impossible for the portrayal to be completely honest and to be complete in its history. If we were to take every word that the rabbi had uttered and written and put them into a monologue in the order and the context in which they were spoken or written, you would have to give us days of your time to hear them all and they would still have to be uttered by someone other than the person who made them up. And it would no longer be theater. It would be a recitation, and likely a boring one at that.

Part of the act of writing a play, a significant part of the act of writing a play, is editing. A writer has to edit material in order to give it a rhythm and flow or the audience will be either lost or bored or both. The important thing is to be true to the source without having to strictly adhere to it.

You do not see biographies that try to include every fact ever known about the subject. The author has to distill the important moments into a cohesive form. They are not going to quote every letter the subject ever wrote. They are going to quote parts of letters that give the readers a better understanding. With our project I not only do not have the luxury of a book-length biography, I have to distill that person’s life into a five to ten minute piece that gets at the core of who they were and touches upon the important milestones of their existence. I can tell you that to condense all that information into a five-to-ten-minute piece is not an easy task. In fact, it can be incredibly difficult. What I must do is study all the available material and find the outstanding themes, the things that together can be woven into a cohesive through-line and make that character come alive and seem real without sounding like we’re trying to teach history and without using only sound bites. We also cannot change historical facts, though sometimes I must admit that we ignore them.

For example, I received some audio-taped interviews of one of the characters we portrayed this year. In listening to them I came across several homophobic references scattered throughout the interviews. My own political leanings would have had me include those lines to show how insipid that kind of bias can be and if I had been creating a fictional drama I may very well have done so. In other parts of the audio tapes the person talked about his politically left leanings in his youth. My own political leanings would have had me include those words to prove my own political point of view. But the important themes that had come through in all of the material I had studied had nothing to do with my own political leanings. The themes were about art and its meaning to the character. His homophobia, while it was irritating to me personally, was not a huge component of that person and did not warrant inclusion in the piece. His political leanings, while a larger part of who he was, also did not fit the themes that had come through. To force them into the piece would have been dishonest to the character and myself and would have rang hollow.

With that said I must admit that when a character’s theme does fit my political philosophies, such as William Evjue’s anti-war rhetoric in last year’s tour, I find it more of a joy to write the piece. I am able to connect better with the character. Either way, though, the author (as well as the actor) has to be morally neutral about any character. One of the biggest dangers in acting and writing is to impose one’s own moral, political, or social standards upon one’s characters. This is especially dangerous when writing about real persons. You simply cannot do it. One of the other characters this past year was to me somewhat blindly patriotic and jingoistic, but I realized I could not fault him for being who he was and I had to find why he was that way. Everyone has their justifications for who they are, whether you agree with them or not. I simply had to let that character be and let the audience judge for themselves what his life and his opinions might mean to them. I find that oftentimes characters who have a different point of view from me teach me in ways that I would never be taught otherwise. They teach me tolerance and understanding, so while they are more difficult to write, they are ultimately more rewarding to me as a person.

This past year I got evidence that I achieve this neutrality with my characters when two of the monologues were attacked by audience members from opposite ends of the political spectrum. One, the patriot I mentioned above, infuriated a political leftie when he recited the Pledge of Allegiance and asked the audience to recite it with him. Another was attacked by a religious conservative for promoting an alternative lifestyle, even though the character simply talked briefly about her special woman friend and never actually said anything remotely political. These two people made me realize that I was successfully letting the characters speak for themselves.

As a writer and artist I believe I do have a philosophical point of view that comes across in the tours, but never at the expense of the characters’ own truths. What usually happens is that I find the humanity in the characters, the universal things that cause us to recognize that something is true. It is this truth that has always been my primary goal as a writer. One year I had a woman tell me that she was shocked to discover that the tour was written by a man because the anguish of the Blue Star mother being portrayed was so real. Another year I had someone tell me that they were surprised I was not a veteran because the words that one of the soldier characters uttered were so true to his own experiences. Another year a son of one of the characters told the actor that he reminded the man of his own father, because the words were just the kinds of things his father would say. These things tell me that my prayers to the universe about being true to the characters have been answered over the years.

I believe that I have been blessed by this project. I believe that I have been blessed not so much with talent as a writer but with an understanding of the commonalities of our human existence, an understanding that comes from experience of the suffering that can come in life, an understanding and acceptance of the inevitability of death, and an understanding of the joy of life, the little things that make it special despite its difficulties. I believe that I am that mother, that soldier, and that father, as well as all the others, even though I have been none of those, because there are experiences and universal themes that we share as human beings, not as white men or black women, or soldiers or civilians, but as humans. It is these universal feelings and emotions that I look for when I look at the research that is handed over to me and that I try to keep in mind when I set my pen to paper.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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2 Responses to Talking about Talking Spirits

  1. Liz Mael says:

    Callen, you’ve shown me, once again, why I admire you so. This was a piece impossible to turn away from. Even though I’m running out of time, I want to be you when I grow up.

  2. Darlene Wolff Harbick says:

    Wow! An informative piece, in multiple ways. I learned a lot about this project, and about you. For instance, I did not know that you are a genealogist. Your speech to them was about a decade after my active involvement with the group, but I can bet it was very well received. Bringing our ancestors to life, so that the people we leave behind can get to know them, too, is what we all hope to do.

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