Saturday evening past, our community of oral storytellers and musicians performed in the central court of the Henry Mercer Museum here in Doylestown. Giving Voice to Mercer’s Worldwas created with two purposes in mind: we wanted to build a performance from the exhibits in the museum—literally telling stories about the objects on display in the museum; and we wanted the performance to grow from the communal mind of the performers.
We started this experiment last November when twenty artists—musicians, poets, oral storytellers, a visual artist and one goldsmith—gathered for a day in the museum. The Mercer Museum is a unique institution. It was created by a man who was part of the arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth century. One of his missions in life was to preserve the tools of the “handmade world” that were disappearing from the industrial, machine made world of America at that time. The Mercer Museum gives a home to what Mercer called the “castaways” of our consumer culture.
My personal interest in this museum started fifteen to twenty years ago when I moved to Doylestown. At first, my only connection to the museum was as a performer being hired to tell stories. When my grandchildren were born I started to take them to the museum to play. The exhibits were quaint and old fashioned, and they allowed us room to imagine whatever we wanted. One activity we never missed was to lie on the floor of the central court and look up to the objects—tools—anchored everywhere overhead: a whaling boat, lumbermen’s saws, a fireman’s hand-pumper and countless other tools. We always imagined that someday those things were going to fall from the ceiling and it better not be a day when we had come to play in the museum.
When our twenty artists gathered for a day in the museum, I imagined it as another form of a “play day”. We did have an introduction from the museum staff, but then we broke into small groups to wander through the exhibits for a couple of hours. Out of these observations there grew a number of shared experiences–subjects to explore in a performance. First, our group identified with Mercer’s passion for the handmade world; second, we all had stories about tools in our lives and we talked about how tools have changed over the past one-hundred years since Mercer built the museum; third, we discussed the energy of the Mercer Museum–a cacophony of voices– generated by so many objects wanting to tell their stories. We agreed that this energy can feel overwhelming. We discussed how it could be harnessed to build a great performance. Fourth, the space in the central court is five stories high, and it provides a special opportunity for performing. How could we use this verticality in a performance?
The evening of May 16 was a success and we fulfilled most of our goals. We attracted about eighty-five people to see the performance. Every seat in the central court was filled and some people stood on the upper levels of the museum. Eight stories were shared by eight different performers, and each had a connection to some object in Mercer’s world. We were able to explore both the conflict between Mercer’s handmade world and the industrial world of 19th century America, and we were able to end with a personal connection of one family to the Mercer Museum. We explored the verticality of the museum with music coming from the distant, upper levels; and for one humorous story, a hook descended from the whale boat anchored thirty feet overhead to catch a four foot long fish! Throughout the performance the energy of the audience was focused and directed by stories that explored both the humor and the pathos shared by the castaways of Mercer’s world. And finally, I am most proud of the communal process that brought this performance to life. No one person directed the process. We wrote and rewrote the script. Stories and their order in the performance were discussed and changed multiple times in the process. One audience person commented to me after the show, “I liked the way you shaped the performance”. I smiled and said, “It took a bit of doing”.
This is the third performance our community has mounted in the Mercer Museum over the past three years. This last one was by far the most complicated to create. Over the next few weeks we will talk with the museum staff and among ourselves to see if there are new opportunities to explore. For myself, I am looking forward to returning to a couple of writing projects that might eventually have a spoken life. It is good to be seventy-three years old and still imagining new stories and ways to tell them.