This past Friday my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing an original play called AMELIA. The work is the creation of actor/writer Alex Webb, who co-stars in the two-person production with his wife, the actress Shirleyann Kaladjian. One can currently see the play in a very special place: the powder magazine within Fort Jay on Governors Island. The fort has a long, distinguished history–Confederate soldiers were held here during the Civil War–and provides a unique theater experience. I advise you to attend while you can; the play will complete its Governors Island run this coming Sunday, June 17th. Admission is free, but ticketed due to space limitations.
I first met Alex on the ferry boat to the island and he graciously agreed to sit down and answer a few questions.
What inspired you to write Amelia? Had you had an interest in the Civil War, or history in general, before undertaking this project?
I was researching a play (as an actor) THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL and was reading journals of prisoners of Andersonville Prison and came across the entry “Rumor has it – a woman has come in here after her man.” I was haunted by that journal entry for years. Who would she have been? What kind of courage would it take – to voluntarily walk into the Civil War equivalent of a Concentration Camp. I always thought I would try and tell a fictional version of that intriguing mystery. AMELIA is the result.
Describe the play and the role of women as soldiers in the War of the Rebellion.
AMELIA is an epic Civil War tale of one woman’s search for her husband across the battlefields of America. The major turning point in the play comes when Amelia must don the union blue, disguising herself as a man, in order to continue her search south for her husband. The story culminates at the gates of the notorious Andersonville prison camp. We now know that somewhere between 400 and 500 women fought, disguising themselves as men, in the Civil War and fired muskets, took bullets and won medals. Some did it for the signing bounty, some for their husbands, some for the cause and some because the freedom they experienced as men was intoxicating and they continued disguising themselves long after the war was over.
Explain how the project developed.
We had a very successful world premiere of AMELIA in Washington DC at The Washington Stage Guild in January of 2012. We wanted to bring the show to NYC and at first were wrestling with the typical questions – what would be a good theatre, who might be interested in producing, etc and then I stopped for a moment and tried to think of not what was possible but what would be ideal for the show. At that point I realized that my true wish would be to perform it in a historically significant place and offer it to the public for free. It was at that point that I remembered the Governors Island history and connection to the Civil War (my great, great, great grandfather was a confederate prisoner in the battery not far from Governors Island at the end of the war and escaped to Manhattan for the day at one point only to be disappointed and break back into prison so he could get a square meal!) and a six-month long negotiation with the National Park Service followed. Thank you to Ranger Collin Bell and Superintendent Patti Reilly of the National Park Service for really taking a big leap of faith with the play and agreeing to let us be in Fort Jay for so long. It has been a true honor and great responsibility to perform on that powerful and historic ground. I have said more than once that I feel there are ghosts watching.
As for offering it for free – I wanted to attract an audience that normally might not be drawn to a story from the past and specifically from the Civil War. I have found – that much like people who will not watch a black and white movie – just on the principle that it is somehow not as good as a new color film. There is a group of people who associate the history of the Civil War with stern generals in great beards and a whole lot of “dusty” history. Of course, AMELIA is all about telling another side of the war. Telling the history of the “lost.” I am passionate about telling history from the perspective of the little person. Most history is written by the powerful and is written to glorify and sometimes twist the events in their favor. I think the greatest courage was shown by the little people the ones who lost everything to protect their respective homelands. Most of the southerners that died fighting for the confederacy were – as many know – not even slave owners. The history is so much more complex than the few brief moments spent on it in high school.
The play has been getting much positive press from the theater community. Has what might be the Civil War community reached out to you as well? If so, what are they saying? I have had some contact with the Civil War community but in large part because it is fictional, perhaps, there has not been as great a turnout as might be expected from them. I’ve had great reactions from the Civil War community members who have come through and a couple of good tips, including the fact that we needed to fix our kepi! I really work hard on the details but somehow that one got by us until recently.
The play had its world-wide premier in Washington DC this past January. This makes sense given the centrality of the nation’s capitol during the Civil War. Now it is being produced here in New York City, at Fort Jay in the harbor. It surprises many people to know that Confederate prisoners were held this far north. Describe the setting at Fort Jay and its impact on the theater experience.
Well it has been a privilege and truly amazing. There are two air vents/ skylights in the Powder Magazine and, depending on the time of day, sometimes an amazing natural light cue will fall upon a scene in the play. To be on a site with such historical significance has really made us examine the story we are telling. It demands we step up our game, reminds us what was at stake for these people, these were real lives in the balance.
Where and how can the public see Amelia? (including in the future if it is being staged after its run at Governors Island)
Well with one week left, they can go to the website www.ameliatheplay.com and sign up for free tickets for one of our four performances left. Thursday – Sunday at 3pm. After our run in the Powder Magazine we will see … We have had a number of inquiries for productions around the country – we’ll see what happens. The audience and critical response has been incredible. I am also on the fifth draft of a novel version of this story. I think this story still has quite a bit of life in it and a lot more people out there to share it with.
(image/Fort Jay powder magazine entrance; Historic American Buildings Survey, LOC)