Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Theatre history’ Category

If you follow this blog –and you should– then you know that Amherst has a lot of collections from missionary families.  Because I work with these collections a lot, especially in arranging and describing new ones, I’ve settled into a comfortable theory about how the work of missionaries changed over the decades and generations.  I notice a first generation of “strict missionaries” whose goal is first and foremost to spread the gospel.  Their children, often born and raised abroad, speak two or three languages, and they know their parents’ work and where it succeeded and where it failed.  They’re still usually missionaries working for the American Board, but their work often branches into teaching at primary and middle-school levels, or working in a medical clinic.  A third generation is even more removed from the original mission work and its members become professors or doctors. Fourth and fifth generations might see some diplomats, government professionals, and journalists.  The shift feels linear.  But I always knew this way of thinking was a broad generalization, and too comfortable.  I knew there would be someone to rock the boat, to mess with my theory — to zig where so many seemed to zag.

Mary Averett Seelye, ca. 1965

Mary-Averett Seelye, ca. 1965

The Williams-Chambers-Seelye-Franck Family Papers (the “Franck Papers,” to be succinct but less accurate) contain an unexpected and substantial section of papers from Kate and Laurens Seelye’s daughter Mary-Averett Seelye, a professional dancer whose particular interest was what she termed “poetry in dance.”  Seelye was careful to explain that she didn’t dance to poetry, she danced poetry – she danced a poem.  It wasn’t an easy concept for some audiences to understand – reviews and articles show repeated explanation.

Seelye seems to have had an eye to her archives fairly early on: her papers make it possible to follow her career from start to finish, and include over 65 years of documentation illustrating the determination and hard work she put into that career.  It contains correspondence, photographs, publicity materials, reviews, interviews, an audio recording of a performance, and one film.

Mary-Averett Seelye was born in New Jersey but her family moved to Beirut (then in Syria) when she was only a few months old.  For one of the many résumés in the collection, Seelye made notes describing her childhood in a way that captures the years that formed her character and provided inspiration for her work:

Mary-Averett Seelye grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, where father taught; mother was active in voluntary women’s organizations.  Grandparents occupied a top floor apartment.  Turkish, French, Arabic filled the air.  She attended an American school, summered under olive trees overlooking the Mediterranean; mosquito netting; jackal howls.  Community-all-ages-baseball every Saturday afternoon provided public measure of the youngsters’ developing prowess to catch a fly and hit a homer.  Parents loved to dance.  Father taught daughters.  Daughters taught brother.  Easter holidays took the family to Palmyra, Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus.  Part of an ethnic minority–yes–but a privileged one in which occupations were to learn and discover, educate, provide medical, spiritual, and economic help and “live in international brotherhood.”*

The Chambers-Seelye clan in Adana, Turkey, about 1922. Back row: Laurens H. Seelye (AC 1911); Kate Chambers Seelye; Dorothea Chambers holding her niece Dorothea Seelye; William Nesbitt Chambers. Seated: Cornelia Williams Chambers and her granddaughter Mary-Averett Seelye.

The Chambers-Seelye clan in Adana, Turkey, about 1922. Back row: Laurens H. Seelye (AC 1911); Kate Chambers Seelye; Dorothea Chambers holding her niece Dorothea Seelye; William Nesbitt Chambers. Seated: Cornelia Williams Chambers and her granddaughter Mary-Averett Seelye.

A stop along a Seelye family excursion, 1931.

A stop along a Seelye family excursion, 1931.

Seelye’s notes go on to record the family’s furlough in the United States that became permanent for Mary-Averett.  New England replaced the Middle East as home.  Seelye attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied drama.  In the winter of 1940, she formed the “Trio Theatre” with Carolyn Gerber and Molly Howe, two fellow graduates from Bennington.  The group performed”pieces incorporating movement and words,” including their version of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.”  Seelye then went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her M.A., which she received in 1944.

wcsf-mas-chapel-hill-ca1943-001

Mary-Averett Seelye (at left), ca. 1943, with an unspecified member of the Trio Theatre at the Forest Theatre, located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

wcsf-mas-chapel-hill-ca1943-002

Seelye at right. Forest Theatre, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In 1949 she formed the Theatre Lobby with Mary Goldwater and worked as its production director for nine years.  The Theatre Lobby was a “pocket theatre” located in an old carriage house in the mews behind St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The cast performed classic and modern works and was interracial at a time when other Washington theatres weren’t.  Seelye’s last work as director for the theater was Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in 1959.  The collection contains a note from Beckett to Seelye congratulating her on her work.  (Click on images for gallery.)

By the 1960s Seelye’s interest had turned increasingly to solo performances, specifically the concept of poetry-in-dance.  It was work that had grown out of her studies in drama and dance at Bennington College and that she had performed early on, then intermittently during the Theatre Lobby years, and then again — under the title of “Poetry-in-Dance”– beginning in 1957.  She would perform “Poetry-in-Dance” regularly through the 1960s and 70s.   Georgetown University’s Donn B. Murphy wrote a short memoir about Seelye in which he described the work that gathered momentum in this period:

Although American choreographers worked with words as early as Martha Graham’s American Document in 1938, Ms. Seelye was virtually alone in the continuity of her work in this mode, and in the individuality of her performances, presented over a period of more than thirty years.  She was noted for choosing exceptionally challenging literature and joining it with a movement idiom which is more often abstract than illustrative…

Extremely tall and thin, Ms. Seelye’s striking physical presence onstage was enhanced by minimal sculptural forms, carefully imagined costumes, and arresting lighting effects.  Though her works sometimes used music composed by Stephen Bates and Jutta Eigen, they were more characteristically performed to the sound of her voice alone.  She moved around, on top of, and through the sculptural pieces…

Investigating several cultures through personally devised visions in motion, Seelye was an actress-choreographer-dancer linked both with the earliest performers of antiquity, and the latest creators of avant-garde.”*

(Click for gallery.)

In 1972 she formed Kinesis, a logical extension of Poetry-in-Dance. She continued to dance into her late 70s. (Click for gallery.)

Of course, Seelye never forgot her youth in the Middle East.  Her way of remaining connected to the family’s roots there included a trip in the 1980s to perform in Beirut and Istanbul.  She also used Turkish and Arabic poetry in her repertoire in the United States.

Mary-Averett Seelye, posed among ruins, around 1984.

Mary-Averett Seelye, posed among ruins, around 1984.

Seelye’s papers indicate that she had some concern that her particular brand of dance might die with her if she didn’t take care to document her work.  Toward the end of her career she began to work with videographer Vin Grabill to film some of her performances. The result was a three-DVD collection of Seelye’s work, as well as a smaller film, “Poetry Moves,” featuring Seelye’s work with poet Josephine Jacobsen.  Seelye and Jacobsen collaborated for many years, and some of their correspondence is in the collection.  Clips of Seelye’s later performances may be seen at Vin Grabill’s Vimeo site, here.

***************************************************************

Franck Papers, Box 14, Folder 1: Resumes and other biographical documents.

Read Full Post »

[Note: since this will be my last post on The Consecrated Eminence, I feel no need to apologize for opening with such a horrible pun.]

The Howard B. Hamilton Japanese Theater Papers will be an extraordinary resource for the study of both Japanese culture and theater performance. It documents the frankly amazing avocational activity of an American medical researcher in post-World War II Japan who, over the course of 30 years, went on to become one of the leading performers on the noh stage – quite unusual for any non-Japanese.

hh

Howard B. Hamilton, MD (1918-2007)

Hamilton’s papers, consisting chiefly of photographic images, programs, albums, film, video, and printed matter, were acquired as a gift five years ago and are now being arranged, described and prepared for research use. Work on the collection has been challenging and time-consuming, since none of us here professes any expert knowledge in Japanese noh theater. (Archival processing always has an educational element.)

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Need an idea for Halloween? See the photograph below from a costume party in Turkey, ca. 1920-21, except for the French soldiers, who are real and probably on duty (which doesn’t rule out their garb for your party purposes). The other men are in “Pierrot” costume, perhaps inspired on this occasion by the popularity of “Yama Yama Man,” a strange song and dance routine not to be missed for your daily dose of weirdness from another place and time.

The photograph is from an album formerly belonging to Dorothea Nesbitt Chambers (Blaisdell), daughter of missionaries William N. and Cornelia P.W. Chambers.  Dorothea, a Bryn Mawr graduate, was a hardworking but fun-loving woman who grew up in Turkey and worked there for the YWCA before her marriage in 1926.  She is probably the photographer here.

Friends of Dot Chambers in Turkey (probably Adana).  Photograph from the Williams-Chambers-Seelye-Blaisdell Papers.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

We’re going to devote this post to taking a peek at the rich visual materials in the Amherst College Dramatic Activities Collection. This is but a very small taste of the large collection of photographs, playbills, costume sketches, set designs, props and recordings of Amherst College theatrical productions to be found in the Dramatic Activities Collection.

H. M. S. Pinafore, produced in June of 1879 by the Glee Club in College Hall.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

This is part of an ongoing series of entries being written about the Samuel French archives at Amherst College

peekaboo

M. Abbott Van Nostrand served as the head of theatrical publishing company Samuel French, Inc. for an incredible thirty-eight years, from 1952 until his retirement in 1990. Early on, he realized that French’s history and output could be immensely valuable to scholars, performers, and theatrical enthusiasts.

Van Nostrand approached Amherst College (his alma mater) in 1964, offering a gift of Samuel French records and publications to the Amherst College Library. Over the next fifty years, the library accepted more than four hundred and fifty linear feet of unprocessed archival material including thousands of plays and publications, photographs, costume design illustrations, acting editions, musical scores, theatrical ephemera, and documentation of the Samuel French’s business transactions dating back to the mid 1800’s. (Take a moment to watch Mr. Van Nostrand talk about his experiences working at Samuel French in these oral history videos from 1994!) (more…)

Read Full Post »

The Archives & Special Collections is delighted to announce that we are one of just 22 institutions to receive a “Hidden Collections” grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. CLIR launched the “Hidden Collections” program in 2008, supported by funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with this purpose in mind:

This program seeks to address this problem by awarding grants for supporting innovative, efficient description of large volumes of material of high value to scholars.

Amherst was awarded funding to hire a full-time archivist for two years to process the massive collection of manuscripts and published materials that document the business activities of Samuel French, Inc. The job description and application details will be announced in February; the start date for the project is June 2014.

French11

Examples of theatrical typescripts in the collection.

(more…)

Read Full Post »