One recent afternoon at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Jacob Bigelow, the blind founder and second president of the cemetery, who has been buried here for almost 140 years, came back to life. Using his hands, he attempted to feel the craftsmanship and rediscover the design of a massive sculpture of a sphinx that he could no longer see, though he commissioned it as a memorial for the Union dead and to celebrate the end of slavery following the Civil War. While searching, he shared his stories of the area and this work of art with a group of bystanders in a way that seems all too real and alive.
No, zombies aren’t afoot at Mount Auburn, a historic site in Cambridge, Mass. This was a rehearsal for an invited audience of Man of Vision, a play by award-winning area playwright Patrick Gabridge, who’s in the midst of a two-year run as the cemetery’s third artist-in-residence. In his capacity there, he writes and produces staged readings, playwriting workshops, and performances in and around Mount Auburn’s picturesque and historic cemetery, home to some of America’s most renowned artists and writers, including Winslow Homer, Henry Longfellow, and Robert Creeley. Gabridge’s mandate is to bring theatre to the graveyard in a way that avoids the cliches about ghosts and ghouls, and instead focuses on the beauty of the space’s environment and the significance of its history.
“The hardest thing was figuring out, out of all the stories of people who are buried there and all the nature and bird-watching and plants and trees, what do you write about?” said Gabridge. “That was the hardest part.”
To meet this challenge, next year Gabridge will separate these two aspects of the cemetery by writing two series of plays, both directed by Courtney O’Connor: the America Plays and the Nature Plays. The America Plays, which will debut next September, comprise five one-acts set in different places around cemetery, with each tied to a specific site by whatever is drawing it there. The Nature Plays, set to begin next June, will focus on the flora and fauna of the 175-acre landscape, incorporating them into their 15-minute plots. The lineup for the latter series includes Hot Love in the Moonlight, a short play about the mating habits of spotted salamanders, and Cerulean Blue, which centers on the birds and birders of the cemetery.
Audiences for these plays will move through the landscape following a narrator, usually a prominent historical figure connected to or buried in the cemetery, like Jacob Bigelow. Although Gabridge, who’s something of a site-specific theatre specialist, says he normally tries to avoid relying on a narrator, he decided to use them as guides for the audience through the cemetery’s vast gardens.
“The thing that I really love about doing site-specific work is that it breaks down the formal barrier that often exists in a traditional theatre space between performers and audience,” said Gabridge. “It’s much more relaxed. There’s something about being outside and in a nontraditional space that helps change that audience-performer relationship, which is at the key of what we do. So when people have more intimacy, I think they experience the play a little deeper and a little more personally.”
Gabridge is Mount Auburn’s third artist-in-residence, and the first playwright. Previous artists included documentary filmmaker Roberto Mighty and composer Mary Bichner, who brought symphonic concerts to the space. Both attracted new and diverse audiences to the space. Now, with the addition of a playwright, the cemetery, which already welcomes about 250,000 visitors from around the world each year, expects to attract a new audience: theatregoers.
“For this group we’re hoping to appeal to regional audiences who go to museums and historic sites to encounter new ways of thinking about people—both living and dead—and about the world,” said Jenny Gilbert, Mount Auburn’s director of institutional advancement. “Additionally, we’re trying to engage a theatregoing audience that probably wouldn’t normally go to a cemetery to see a performance— the types of people who go to attend live theatre because they’re interested in learning something new.”
Theatre, she said, also has the potential to “bring those buried here to life.” And Gabridge’s America Plays, she added, “also bring up big issues, like the loss of the Civil War or the role of women in the 19th century. Some are topics that we are struggling with today as a country, so it’s unbelievable how he manages to weave them into the stories of the folks who are buried here.”
Gabridge began working on site-specific plays when he co-founded the Chameleon Stage theatre company in 1993, which performed Theatre in the Wild, a series of plays in the open-air mountain meadows of Colorado. These outdoor performances earned him an Arts Innovation Award from the Colorado Federation for the Arts. He’s also the founder of New Play Alliance, a theatre arts service organization with the goal of engaging specific audiences, and to “get away from the notion that plays should be marketed blanketly to a general audience,” as Gabridge puts it. The Alliance’s mission is to increase the number of new plays done in New England, and the audience for them.
Paralleling his work for Mount Auburn, in 2018 Gabridge launched Plays in Place, which works in partnership with museums and cultural institutions to produce site-specific plays and performances. The organization helps institutions tell their story in their space and is working in partnership with the cemetery to create the plays as one of its inaugural projects. “Instead of needing to find a playwright and figuring out how to produce a play, they can come to my company and we can set up the whole production, tell you how much it’s going to cost, you find the money, and we put it in your space,” said Gabridge. “So we’re not a touring company; we’re creating something that’s a specific work of art for their space.”
Gabridge will be working on staged readings and workshops through the coming year, culminating in an Equity run of the Nature Plays, June 1-9. The America plays will run Sept. 14-22 on Saturdays and Sundays, with two shows a day. The program will also run performances for student groups on Thursdays. For more information or tickets, go to www.mountauburn.org.