In 2017, Tyringham community members performed Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” under the direction of Ann Gallo, UBU Theater founder and director. It was a hit. Kerry Clark Sullivan, who grew up in Tyringham, but no longer lives there, said she was “blown away” by seeing it. Right away, people were talking about doing another play.
But which one?
One day, Gallo saw a stack of cassette tapes while at a meeting in the former schoolhouse. She asked what they were. She started to transcribe them and was amazed that of the 60 oral history recordings, only six were of women. The next play was inspired by that discovery. But, this time, in addition to producing and directing the play, she would write it, too.
So, she interviewed 32 women, and together with Rachel Urquhart, also of Tyringham, wrote a play using those conversations. Clark Sullivan is now running lines with her husband every night: She has become part of a new tradition. She said she is hearing for the first time the sorrows and joys of women in town, sometimes around events that may have been generally known — like a big fire — but were dealt with privately.
We interviewed Ann Gallo to ask her about the process.
Q: Ann, what is community-based theater?
A: It’s not community theater. I would define it as curating a community and engaging the community in a very slow trust-building process. The project I did, “Our Town,” back in 2017, took about a year for folks to kind of come around and trust me, because you’re vulnerable if you’re going onstage or you’re doing something for the first time. When it works, and people become engaged, it’s an incredible thing, and I’m already seeing it with this project.
Q: You had experience with community-based theater?
A: After my kids started leaving the house and going off to school, I got a master’s in theater education. So, that gave me the tools and the courage to do it.
After “Our Town,” everyone was psyched. We did a play; let’s do another one. There’s this little town in Italy, Monticchiello; every August they write their own play, and they’ve been doing this since the 1960s. One of their first plays was about World War II, and I showed that film at the church. I said, “Someday, we’re going to do something just like this.”
Q: So, you interviewed these women. You have 32 interviews. You have interview transcriptions; a lot of pages of talk. What did you do next?
A: Then Rachel Urquhart and I read through everything. We had two copies of all the transcripts, and we would circle if it was a line, if it was a character description, if it was a full-fledged story. Then, we would read them to each other, because you have to hear them out loud.
We started making piles. This entire living room: this was the farming pile, this was the character pile, this was the funny-line pile. That was the mother pile. That was the father pile. That was the farming pile. That was the death pile. That was the community pile.
Q: You circled parts of the transcripts, cut those pieces out, and put them in piles?
A: Yes. We spent hours in there every day for probably a month just piecing it together.
I had just gone to London, the British Library, to do a workshop on how to take text to script. In the middle of it, the guy goes, “All right, I’m going to hand out these transcripts, and you have a half-an-hour to write a scene based on this stuff.” This was handwritten, no laptops. Then, we all read each other’s scenes.
So that was just a fish-or-cut-bait moment. I said [to Rachel], “Okay, stop. We have to stop making piles. We now have to start writing. You and I are going to go in that kitchen and we’re going to sit down. Here’s a piece for you, and here’s a piece for me, and we have a half-an-hour, and we’re just going to start writing a scene.” Both of those scenes are still in the play.
Q: At then some point, you knew it was a script. It was a thing.
A: It was a thing, and it ended up being the categories, mothers and relationships with mothers and fathers, and marriage, and going to school. We refer to them as those categories still, the scenes.
Q: Can you talk about the setting?
A: The third act of “Our Town” took place in the field behind the Union Church. There is this corner with a beautiful perfectly round tree ,where you can see the schoolhouse. You can see the hills. You can see a farm up here, and then you can see the Cobble. The center of town is that Cobble right there [pointing to her window].
I’ve made a thrust stage, thanks to Corinna May (Shakespeare & Company). She recommended it for non-actors, who are not used to throwing their voices. Typically, if you have a thrust, the audience is around three sides. There’s a beautiful split-rail fence. It’s just iconic of the town and the agricultural history here.
There are some scenes, there are some monologues, 20 characters, so there’s a lot of actors crisscrossing.
Q: You mentioned many people had favorite places. What was a favorite place?
A: There was Baldy, which is no longer Baldy, and I went to the dump Wednesday with my stage manager, Francis Bandy, to talk with Tom and Hoppy to go ask them: “Where’s Baldy?” It was a hill full of blueberry bushes, and everyone picked blueberries up there. Everybody remembers, but no one can find it anymore, because it’s completely overgrown with trees, so no one knows where Baldy is anymore, because it’s not bald. Finally, Hoppy goes, “When you’re standing on your stage, it’s kind of just in this general area over here.”
Q: How do the men feel about being left out of your play?
A: Well, there are three male actors who play multiple roles. Some of them are not so nice parts. Some of them are nice parts.
These guys, totally get it. Kim [Bradley], the other day, we did the end of a scene, and he was weeping, too. He’s a cancer survivor, and it’s about one of the women’s husbands. She was married 20 years, and then he died of cancer. It’s a monologue that we’ve created a scene for.
They had two Belgian horses and a big hay wagon, and they went down Main Road, all the way to Ashintully with her husband in a lawn chair, because he was so ill. On the back of this wooden wagon, pulled by these two huge horses, and then his brother was dying of cancer, but not quite at that stage that her husband was. She just describes how the brother was able to take them up to the end of the road, but she had to bring them back, because he was so tired. It was such a picture. I hope it works.
Q: Do you try to make pictures?
A: They’re tableau. It’s movement. You don’t freeze. A lot of these are just images, especially when you’re outdoors. You have this environment. You don’t have to worry about lights. You don’t have to worry about stages. It’s just so pure. It doesn’t get simpler. Other than rain.
By Judith Monachina, The Berkshire Eagle, Feb 24, 2021
Julie McCarthy, photographer
Charles Pratt is pastor of the Victory Temple Church of God in Christ, in Pittsfield, and an evangelist, with invitations to speak from coast to coast. To meet him, you might think he was born to do it, and it may be true, even if it was not always clear to him.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” The quote is attributed to philosopher Martin Buber. And if the traveler is Reverend Pratt, he might mention the magnificent mysteries of life. He might say that he worked with great scientists, even Nobel laureates, and he could have followed that path. He would talk to you in a baritone voice, with a ready laugh. He certainly would say he did not expect to be where he is today, in a city he had not heard of, as head of a church, with his wife, Evelyn Pratt, as co-pastor. But that is what happened: He came to Pittsfield in 1980, for a week, and stayed.
Charles Pratt’s father was a Tuskegee Airman, the first black aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. As Charles was growing up, his father worked in weather stations. At Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus, Ohio, now Rickenbacker International Airport, “He would take me up to the tower to watch the planes take off and land.”
The family usually chose to live off base. Of the Azores, an archipelago 870 miles off the coast of Portugal, he recalls the beaches and bull fights. “They tell me I cheered for the bull.” “They” might be his five sisters.
In Idaho, he fished with his father on the famous Snake River. Life on base in Champaign, Ill., involved a lot of saluting.
When he was 14 years old, and his mother was the church secretary in Columbus, he started “making little speeches,” at Christmas and Easter.
Soon, he met Evelyn Judy Gammon. They both worked at the Lazarus Department Store’s Colonial Tea Room. One day, on the bus after work, she recognized the young man who worked at the restaurant. He was getting off the bus at her church. “Someone else who has got church on his mind after working all day,” Evelyn thought, “is interesting to me.”
Charles Pratt might say the mysteries of traveling through life often come from the people we meet. Later in high school, he worked in a veterinarian’s office. Then, when he went to Ohio State University on an academic scholarship, that veterinarian’s son was working on his Ph.D. there, and he found a job for Charles in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Charles was fascinated by the intelligence of the animals he cared for, especially rhesus monkeys. He looked through an electron microscope and marveled at the structures of life.
After graduation, he worked at Battelle Memorial Institute, a science and technology company that developed everything from an alloy used in Elgin watches, to photovoltaic cells.
There, Charles assisted scientists on cancer chemotherapy toxicity studies and in the artificial heart program.
Evelyn and Charles married. Still working, he travelled to give talks on weekends, and not the little talks like when he was 14. He had become a guest evangelist.
“An evangelist is expected to come in with a more powerful speech than the average person. They’re looking for a five-star performance. They want you to sing, and they want you to preach,” he said.
Evelyn worked as pianist/organist closer to home, and sometimes went to meet him. They had four children. The nonstop work began to wear.
Then, Charles was offered a promotion at Battelle. He came home with the news, and the couple conferred. “We agreed this [ministry] was what he needed to do,” Evelyn says. He resigned and traveled as guest evangelist: to places like Detroit, Northern Canada and Jamaica.
Evelyn contributed to his ministry with her piano and organ. The entire family performed music.
A call from Pittsfield
“While speaking in Toronto, I met people from New Haven [Conn.]. They said, ‘You’ve got to come to our church.’” In New Haven, he got a call from a preacher in Columbus: “’My brother is in Springfield; that’s close. They want you to go there for three days.’”
In Springfield, the bishop asked Charles to lead the Pittsfield church. He thought, “I don’t know where it is, and I am not taking over a church. Anyway, I did come for a week.”
As Evelyn tells it, he called and asked if she wanted to move to Pittsfield. “I said, ‘Where is that?’ He said it was near Albany.”
“So, I told my little girls, and my Chuckie, 4 1/2, took them out to lunch. And I said, ‘Sure, we’ll go. Something new, something different.’ And I guess the rest is history.”
The Victory Church of God in Christ, Charles explains, is a predominantly African American church affiliated with the Church of God in Christ, which has congregations in 112 countries.
“I think the role of the church is multifaceted,” he says. “We teach and we preach Christianity, our doctrine and so forth. But then I believe the church should be socially involved, help the helpless at any cost and measure that we can. I think if a child is in need, they don’t have clothes, they don’t have shoes, we ought to provide that. We ought to reach out to people in any way that we can to make life more comfortable. We have to come out of the building and go into the community.”
In the community, he also serves on the board of the Berkshire Athenaeum, where Executive Director Alex Reczkowski refers to him as “a ballast, very calm.”
The pandemic has been stressful, and the church has followed CDC protocols about masks and distancing. But there also is “a blessing in disguise.” Some Sunday services now — a small group in the building, masked and socially distant — have 1,000 participants viewing online.
Black Lives Matter
“Racism is a snake we can almost ignore,” he says, “until it starts to hiss and rattle. I have talked about it in sermons, but it is not the main topic.” Young people, he says, “have no idea” what those in his generation have been through. “Now, Americans have been shaken out of our lethargy.”
As recently as 2012, he experienced old Jim Crow attitudes in Louisiana. On a morning walk, he went into a restaurant. “I got wild stares. The owner came out and said, ‘You can come back here and eat with me.’” In the back, which was his house, the owner explained that he too was from Ohio, but local clientele would not go for having a black man eat in the restaurant. When Charles returned to his colleague’s house, his host, another pastor, said, “We can’t eat there!”
Everywhere, as a younger man, including on back roads from Westfield to the Berkshires, he was stopped and asked for his license and registration, apparently for driving a car that did not fit a stereotype.
But he sees good signs. “My daughter, Terry, was elected class president at Taconic. Then her husband, Maurice, an attorney now, he was class president after Terry, at an overwhelmingly white school. I don’t see that as prejudice.”
When Barack Obama was elected president, “I was just elated. I never thought I’d see a black president in my lifetime.” Obama invited the surviving Tuskegee airmen to his inauguration. His own career in public service, he said, “was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee airmen blazed.” When those aviators flew over Europe and North Africa, they had no idea whose journeys those flights might inspire.
Judith Monachina is director of Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College. This interview was conducted as a part of the NAACP Oral History Project in collaboration with the Oral History Center. A podcast of this interview will be posted on the Eagle and OHC sites, and the entire interview is online with the University of Massachusetts Libraries Special Collections. This article is part of a series about people and their work.