February 26, 2009

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Serious stories
Rebecca Rule brings Berlin’s true tales to Concord

By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Known as the Moose of Humor, Rebecca Rule’s recordings of tales include Better than a Poke in the Eye and Perley Gets a Dumpsticker Plus Other Humor Classics. Rule tells New Hampshire stories around the state, often supported by the New Hampshire Humanities Council. She’s written books and has written a column about New Hampshire writers and books since 1992 that runs in the Concord Monitor, Nashua Telegraph and Portsmouth Herald. The Northwood writer even has a blog now, www.livefreeandeatpie.com.

But the storyteller whose specialty is local humor ended up on a project collecting the stories of loggers, mill workers and families affected by paper mill closures.

“It’s a bit of diversion, yeah. There’s not a lot that’s funny about what’s going on in the North Country ... except, people are funny. People can find the humor in almost anything. What doesn’t kill you makes you laugh eventually,” Rule said.

She spent “40 days and 40 nights” in 2007 recording stories of the memories, experiences and lives of about 40 people in Berlin, Milan and Gorham. She also attended events where people told their stories at senior centers, the Northern Forest Heritage Park and elsewhere. The outcome includes a four-character play called Crosscut.

Theatre North produced a staged reading of Crosscut in November 2007. But a play is hard to bring around the state, so Rule has adapted it into one-person piece.

She has been working with the oral histories in other ways. As she interviewed, she wrote profiles that were published in the Berlin Daily Sun. She’s writing an essay for a collection on the North Country. She and photographer Eric Kaminsky want to create a book about the last days of the mills. A Massachusetts teacher heard about the project and adapted Crosscut for kids. It was performed or read in four or five schools, Rule said.

Rule said she still gets calls asking her to come up and interview people.

This wasn’t Rule’s idea. Frumie Selchen, executive director of the Arts Alliance of Northern New Hampshire, was heading an Androscoggin Valley Community Partners committee. The group included local industry, United Way and others who wanted to do something unique to help Berlin. “They came up with the idea of preserving stories as way of healing,” Rule said. They asked Rule, and found funding to commission her.

“I think I’ve been preparing my whole career to do this work and I just didn’t know it,” Rule said.

Presenting a play created from the stories to the community was a way of giving back, she said. She thought compiling them would be easier than it was. Her estimate of a month to write the play stretched to six.

“I wanted to use as much of the actual language that I possibly could ... I wanted to let them tell the story. I didn’t want to tell the story.”

She didn’t use much historical reference, unless the subjects brought it up. Themes emerged such as religion, the work and work ethic, and “connection to community. Berlin has very strong center, a very strong heart,” Rule said.

“It’s as diverse a community as you’re going to get in New Hampshire,” Rule said. French, Norwegian, Greek, Swedish, Italian, Irish — mostly European immigrants came for the work and stayed. “It’s an amazing town,” Rule said.

Rule worked with Portsmouth director Don Tirabassi to adapt Crosscut. “Don says to call it a spoken word documentary,” Rule said. He told her to think about whether she would act out the characters or tell the stories as herself.

“I’m not Meryl Streep,” Rule said. This version is mainly Rule talking about what’s happening in Berlin, accompanied by projections of photos she took of those she interviewed, and images from the Beyond Brown Paper Project at Plymouth State University. The mills had in-house photographers so there are thousands of photographs, Rule said. She’s also using photos Kominsky took of the demolition and last days of the mills. “I think those are really important. I think that’s what makes it a documentary,” Rule said of the visuals.

Rule presents the one-person adaptation at Concord City Auditorium’s Page to Stage on Sunday, March 1, at 3 p.m., at 2 Prince St. in Concord. It closes the inaugural season of free monthly events meant to allow playwrights to gather feedback on work. With any kind of performance, you don’t know how it will work until you put it in front of people, Rule said.

Page to Stage is co-hosted by the Friends of The Concord City Auditorium and the Community Players of Concord, supported by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. Visit www.concordcityauditorium.org or call 225-2164.


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