- An Aesthetic of Neighborliness:Possibilities for Integrating Community-Based Practices into Documentary Theatre
Two core values of the story revolution are that people must take part in shaping how their stories are shared, and that the overarching aims should always be to illuminate, learn and heal.—Arlene Goldbard, Speech to the Ukiah Players, November 2004
Those ghosts and those memories . . .they were the sacrificed generation to create the Greatest Park in the World. It is a great story.And I've just been happy to be a part of it.—Jack, Bare Mountains
In the late 1700s, a group of Dutch settlers in southern New York moved high into the Ramapo Mountains to maintain their traditional way of life during the American Revolution. These small towns, only 40 miles from Manhattan, maintained their self-sufficient, mountaineering ways for over 200 years.
During the 1890s, New York City developers began to quarry the shoreline and cliff face of the Hudson River. Several prominent New Yorkers were distressed by the desecration of the landscape, 1 and joined with the states of New York and New Jersey to buy the land, stop the development, and create a public park. 2 By the 1920s, affluent progressives such as John D. Rockefeller, Averil Harriman, and J. P. Morgan got involved in the effort. Together with the states of New York and New Jersey, they helped form the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) and donated thousands of acres in the hopes of preserving the natural environment and encouraging the lower classes of New York to experience "the great outdoors." Since then, the PIPC has purchased or otherwise acquired over one hundred thousand acres of land that comprise nineteen state parks and historic sites, including Bear Mountain State Park, Harriman State Park, Stony Point Battlefield, Rockland Lake State Park, and Sterling Forest.
Despite the best efforts of these progressives to fight for the interests of the poor, the small communities in the Ramapo Mountains became casualties of their enterprise. 3 Throughout the mid-twentieth century, these mountain towns were demolished, flooded, or otherwise overtaken by the PIPC. As late as the 1960s, the mountain folk were forced to dismantle their own houses after the state acquired their land through one of the first and most prolonged uses of eminent domain in the United States. 4 Today, the original inhabitants of these "vanished hamlets" feel strongly that the story of these communities and their demise has been ignored, misrepresented, and hushed up. [End Page 153]
In 2005, Matthew Shook, a cultural-site steward for the PIPC, invited me to collaborate with him on a series of interviews with original inhabitants and their descendents to supplement the existing museum papers about the vanished hamlets. Previous papers, written during the 1980s and 1990s, provide valuable information about the geographical layout of the towns and genealogies of the families in the area, but fail to capture the humor, kindness, and resiliency of the people. When Shook approached me about the project, he said that he hoped my background in theatre and story-structure would help make the oral narratives more accessible and enjoyable to a wider public. I suggested to him that creating and presenting a documentary play would be an ideal way to share with a local audience both the historical facts and emotional impact of the stories.
That summer, Shook and I co-designed a project in which we created a play based on interviews with members of the Ramapo Mountain Folk community. 5 During the developmental process, the project became a kind of balancing act as we worked to create an interview-based documentary play that could both speak to an outside audience and make the community feel heard, honored, and fairly represented. In this essay, I will describe how we created the documentary play Bare Mountains while striving for a balance of responsible representation and dramatic structure. I will also examine the binary that emerged as we worked between perceptions of "community-based theatre" and "documentary theatre based on a community." In an effort to locate my work between these two genres of performance, I will suggest a new model for creating community...