Living

Hearing Voices

Thursday, August 7, 2014

By ERIC STANWAY

Correspondent

WILTON – Back in 1848, three sisters living in Hydesville, New York, set the world on its ear when they claimed to be in direct contact with spirits of the deceased. The Fox sisters, Leah, Margaret and Kate, used “rappings” to communicate with the dead. The oldest sister, Leah, managed to parlay this activity into a career, and the group enjoyed significant success over the years.

In 1888, however, Margaret confessed that the whole thing was a hoax, effectively destroying their career. Although she attempted to recant the confession the next year, the damage was done; the reputation of the sisters was ruined, and they ended up dying in poverty over the next five years.

Beginning Saturday, Aug. 9, Andy’s Summer Playhouse will be presenting a musical version of these events, written and directed by longtime Andy alumnus and director D.J Potter. The show is entitled “Phantasmagorica – or – Voices from the Ether,” and features 22 young actors from across the Monadnock region, accompanied by a live band of local musicians. The show continues throughout the weekend.

Potter pointed out that he was using the historical events to comment on the issues of women’s rights, as well as emancipation, and made some remarkable modifications to the material in order to address these wider social issues.

“This was really the first instance of women getting their voices heard in public,” he said. “Unfortunately, they had to do this by channeling the spirits of men. The sisters realized they could communicate with the ghosts in their attic, and people started coming in from all over the country to their home in upstate New York.”

As time went on, however, the séances took on a life of their own, and the sisters began communicate with larger and larger audiences, often addressing social issues that would not be heard otherwise.

“They took the whole show on the road, and started talking about the women’s suffrage movement,” Potter said. “This was the first opportunity the girls had to speak their mind, under the guise of communicating with ghosts.”

Potter said that other girls began taking cues from the Fox sisters, and using spiritualism as a way to address wide social issues.

“Typically, this was a case of young women, between the ages of eight and 20, addressing huge halls full of men, who were asking them questions,” he said. “They were heavily involved in the rights of women, the rights of Native Americans, and, of course, the freeing of the slaves.”

Potter said that he wrote the score in collaboration with local musician Patrick Boutwell. Boutwell is a musician and recording artist who is just releasing his latest album “Model Rocket,” with his band The Brother Kite. The contemporary score includes songs such as “Open Your Heart,” “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” and, “I Hate the Sound of My Voice when I Talk to Ghosts.”

“We wrote about ten songs for this production,” Potter said. “The music is in the style of early Rock and Roll.”

At first, it might seem odd to incorporate this kind of music into a story that is essentially set in Victorian times, but Potter was adamant in his decision to do so.

“I was sort of looking at the larger issues that this situation covers,” he said. “Every hundred years or so, America wakes up to the fact that we’re not treating each other equally. This was the situation in the 1860s, and was revisited in the 1960s. That was where I go the idea of exploring another avenue where women were getting their voices heard.”

The design team of Amanda Leslie, Heather Stockwell, Arienne Stearns and Mark Haley, with help from the teenagers in Andy’s apprentice program have created an unique environment and visual setting just right for this story.

“I think that this is a very important piece,” Potter said. “It’s fun in some places, but poignant in others. We’re trying to get across the idea that it’s about time that America wakes up to the fact that it needs to try to treat women equally.”

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