By Fred Jensen:
In July a play by local playwrights, regarding a local project, in service of a local hope, and pertaining to the very place it shall be produced shall be performed outdoors at the waterfront in Buffalo.
The play is called “Clinton’s Ditch: The Story of the Building of the Erie Canal.” The playwrights are Anne Paris and Hugh Pratt, two ordained ministers with a strong record of social justice activities in Buffalo. Hugh and Anne are husband and wife and spent five years writing the play together. It chronicles the creation of the canal from the moment it was conceived in the mind of a jailed debtor, to its championing by DeWitt Clinton, to disruption by war in 1812, to the crippling, back-breaking digging by thousands of Irish immigrants and some escaped slaves, to the controversy over whether it should end in Buffalo or Black Rock, to its dramatic completion in 1825.
By creating a trade route to connect the Mid-West to New York City, and, from there, Europe, this local, massive, public-works project contributed to a massive surge in population in Buffalo, New York, and all along the canal. We see the canal through the eyes of its advocates and opponents, of engineers and low-wage diggers, of Native Americans and Irish Immigrants, through those who lived and those who died, of adults and children. So the play tells the story of the great hope that built the Erie Canal, and, at the same time, the production of the play itself represents the beginning of a hope that Buffalonians have doggedly clung to – the hope for a better developed waterfront.
The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation funded the play and is sponsoring it as just such a project. Thus, this play about the digging of the Erie Canal shall take place at the very site where the canal ends (or begins), at Canalside, close to the commercial strip bridge, near the naval park, at Lloyd and Prime. The play will be presented without charge.
Hugh Pratt, in addition to social justice issues, has had an interest in historical drama since seeing the play “The Lost Colony.” When his wife Anne Paris introduced him to Buffalo’s Shakespeare in the Park, he became intrigued by outdoor theatre. Then, some time ago, the two of them were co-ministers at a church in Gasport, right next to the Erie Canal. Why not have a play about the story of the digging of the canal right on the canal? Since this story involves the plight of Irish immigrants and escaped slaves, both of whom worked 16 hours a day at very low wages, the project coincided with Hugh and Anne’s interest in social justice.
“3000 of the diggers were immigrants from Ireland, poor laborers with high hopes,” Anne reflects, “but those hopes meant nothing when they got into the swamps and had to stand in water up to their knees 16 hours a day. Many, many, died of malaria and accidents.”
It wasn’t the workers alone who suffered. Clinton’s body, mind, and career were all affected, and his family was devastated by malaria as well. Immense pain preceded the prosperity the canal would yield on completion.
After working on the play for five years, Hugh and Anne needed funding and a director. They were fortunate to find Dan Shanahan, the 34-year-old founder of Torn Space (based on Fillmore). Shanahan’s ideas about the power of theater were very similar to theirs. His eight-year old company offers multi-media spectacles with contemporary stage-dramas as a focal point, often original. Torn Space uses video, sound, and sculpture in their plays, and likes to do site-specific dramas. That is, Dan likes to direct plays that are about events that actually occurred at the site where he produces the play. When asked why, Dan meanders close to the mystical;
“I look at it from a haunting perspective – theater might be described as a symbolic séance. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but if you think of it as a ritual to bring up past memories and ideas, you are in a good place to understand the function of theater.”
So it was quite serendipitous that two local playwrights had a play about the digging of the Erie Canal, and they found a director who wanted to do site-specific dramas.
“When I first met Dan at Canalside he made quite impression,” Anne relates, “It was like meeting this intense Parisian young man on a bicycle at dusk.” (Dan is actually a native Buffalonian).
“I want people to have a sense of what happened in this place; the relevancy of this particular space…that helps them understand the meaning of that space.” Dan says.
Neither Anne nor Dan see the July production of Clinton’s Ditch as being the curtain call, but rather a commencement. Dan sees the production as a “pilot project” for a whole new wave of site-specific dramas in Western New York. He is already making plans to do a play at a church in Black Rock. Should Clinton’s Ditch itself become an annual production, Dan hopes to add video and maps to the performance, “historical theater is part entertainment, part education and multimedia lecture…Clinton’s Ditch is a launching pad.” Anne thinks the play might be able to be a film using their current actors and musicians.
Even more exciting is the possibility for a unique experiment – a floating theater. Yes, that means this story about the digging of the canal might one day be performed not just near the canal, but literally on it. Ann shares her vision that Clinton’ Ditch drama will be performed on a stage-boat that will travel all along the canal, from Buffalo to New York, and the play will be performed at all the towns that wouldn’t even exist if the canal had not been dug. She and Hugh have designs for this future floating stage from Greenspace. The stage-crafted watercraft will be environmentally friendly.
When asked whether Clinton’s Ditch is “political,” Anne responds, “I want people to feel the struggle that happened here to make it happen, and yes, that is political.”
When asked the same question, Dan brings it to bear on the present, “The Erie Canal was a massive public works project. I wonder if we could still do such a massive public works project in the political environment today?”
The play will be performed at the Canal Side on July 8, 9, and 10th, and on July 22, 23, and 24 at 8
pm, for about 1 and a half hours. There is no admission. The director and playwrights would like to thank Erie Harbor Development Corporation and Common Council President David Fronczak for helping make the play possible.
Black and white images: Lukia Costello – Photography – The woman pictured alone is – Carmen Swans. She plays Winifred the narrator of the play. The young woman and man in the first shot are Danica Riddick and G. Anton Moore who each play a variety of characters.