By Sally Voris
A report on Roadside's multi-year, community-building residency in Patapsco, MD
The place I call home is Elkridge, Maryland, a two stoplight town where I grew up. Located in the central Patapsco Valley, it is one of several small towns built in the 1700's along the Patapsco River about 10 miles southwest of Baltimore. Up until one generation ago, Elkridge and its neighboring Valley towns were small, tightly-knit communities.
In the 1960's, the planned community of Columbia, Maryland began construction within five miles of the Valley, and it's completion brought 100,000 people to Howard County in less than 30 years. Attracted by jobs and good schools, the population of Elkridge exploded from 5,000 to 30,000, seemingly overnight.
The population boom brought financial prosperity, but it also diminished community cohesiveness. A community organization of which I am part, Friends of the Patapsco Valley and Heritage Greenway, Inc., wanted to find a way to bridge the cultural divide between old-time residents and newcomers -- to share with newcomers the town's history, culture, and sense of deeply-felt community. We had undertaken an oral history project, but wanted to find a way to make that history more publicly engaging.
Enter Roadside Theater. In June 2000, Friends of the Patapsco Valley and the Howard County Sesquicentennial Project brought Roadside members Ron Short and Kim Neal Cole to Elkridge to begin a residency with us. Our first event was a covered dish supper and performance by Ron and Kim, where we told the community about the story collecting that would take place in the months to come.
At the workshop the next day, Ron and Kim taught Roadside Theater's story circle process to the Heritage Greenway committee, the Sesquicentennial Project, and other invited community folks, because we planned to use the story circle process in up-coming story collecting efforts.
That day, a group of twelve of us, old-timers and newcomers, sat in a circle and shared stories that brought tears to our eyes. Our individual stories were different, but through them we recognized our shared humanity, our struggle to find meaning and purpose in our lives.
Several months later, in September, after much story gathering and telephone consultation with Roadside Theater, Ron and Kim returned to show us how to turn our stories into simple scripts. With community folks as cast, we staged and performed several stories collected from older people in the towns of Elkridge, Ellicott City, Catonsville, Daniels, and surrounding areas.
Some stories were wonderful memories; others, such as our previously untold stories of prejudice and segregation, were difficult. Audience members at the performance nodded and smiled and frowned as they listened to stories that reflected their shared experience.
In November, Ron and Kim visited again to help us turn our stories into a full-blown play with music. We titled it, It was a Completely Different World. By this time, we were beginning to develop a core group of local performers including a local storyteller, a musician, and an older woman who wanted to make sure there was an African American voice in the Sesquicentennial Project. We rehearsed our new play and performed it for a community audience at the Benjamin Banneker Cultural Heritage Center.
Encouraged by the warm audience response, we performed It Was a Completely Different World in June and July 2001 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County Library, where a photo exhibit of the Sesquicentennial Project was on display.
With Ron's help, we went on to script and mount a second play, Home for the Fourth, which we performed at the Howard County Fourth of July Celebration. Home was well received, and a new community theater, the Patapsco Players, was born. Now we have two scripts and a group of performers to play them. We are planning more story circles, school residencies, and workshops for librarians and storytelling groups. And, we want Roadside to come visit once a year to help us with our program.
This entire adventure has been a wonderful community-building process. It has given everyone a chance to participate by telling their own stories and listening to others; it has also given our community an opportunity to create art together -- by weaving together stories and songs that represent the soul of our communities. Through the Roadside residency, I found out that I have a talent for making these things happen.
I hope to continue this work. I think one of the greatest needs in our society today is the yearning to understand and to be understood. Theater can build bridges of understanding between rich and poor, black and white, old and young, long-time resident and new immigrant. Live theater can electrify and transform a community -- exposing unresolved hurts and celebrating the invisible threads that bind us one to another and to the place we call home.
Sally Voris is a poet, writer, and visual artist.
Ms. Voris is the founder, director, playwright,
and central storyteller for the Patapsco Players.
She lives in Elkridge, Maryland.
© 2002 Roadside Theater