Nobody has to memorize lines in From Here: A Century of Voices From Ohio. "It's more of a reader's theater," explains Judy James, an organizer of the statewide production that stops this weekend at the Happy Days Visitor Center in Boston Heights.
But the project isn't theater in its putative sense: The actors, plucked from the towns in which the show is performed, are a mix of seasoned performers and first-timers. They read from scripts onstage, passing along an oral history of Ohio. "They're the stories of real people and how they perceive events in their lives," James says.
Cleveland playwright Eric Coble conceived the piece, which touches on such themes as family life, war, and intolerance. It's culled from interviews with approximately 800 Ohioans. Volunteers, libraries, and historical associations customize the production at each stop, adding local stories as the play makes its way around the state through the end of the year.
Some of the narratives are situational glances at ordinary people caught in history's extraordinary sway. Like the tale of Mary Craddock: After eating Sunday dinner and washing dishes on December 7, 1941, nine-year-old Craddock headed to downtown Akron with her sister and saw throngs of people discussing a place called Pearl Harbor. "We didn't have any idea what they were talking about," she says. "Main Street was just wall-to-wall people. It was utter chaos."
Other accounts bring forth unfortunate reminders of a past not distant enough. James recalls interviewing an African American man who lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. "He remembers a cross being burned in his front yard," she says.
From Here's creators say the stories of everyday people help to weave a true fabric of local history and connect Ohioans in a communal sense. To artistic director Maura Rogers, it's also a challenge to work with a new cast every two weeks. "Every new space and new environment gives me something new to draw from," she says.
The show's visits to 40 Ohio communities in 2003 are part of a larger oral history mission launched by the Wallpaper Project, which began collecting stories from Ohio residents six years ago. "The information you glean from an oral history is only as accurate as the person who remembers it," James says. "But the importance of oral history is that you're getting not just people's stories; you're getting their impressions.
"A lot of these older folks are dying, and their stories are going with them. It's very important to collect this information and make it available."