Green-Wood Cemetery Becomes Stage and Classroom
July 8, 2011
Green-Wood Cemetery – one of the country's most beautiful final resting spots – is taking on new life as a second campus of Brooklyn College.
Nearly a decade ago, the college helped the cemetery map the areas where the first battle of the Revolutionary War occurred on its grounds and write the descriptive plaques for visitors. More recently, the cemetery has become a well-used classroom for the college's community-based learning initiatives, with faculty teaching students about research methods as well as local history.
Another use of the cemetery came this June with the staging of "The Spoon River Project," by Tom Andolora, instructor at Brooklyn College's Preparatory Center for the Performing Arts. Edgar Lee Master's masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, has engaged Andolora for a decade as he wove the poems together with a handful of evocative 19th-century songs and hymns. First staged in his hometown of Jamestown, N.Y. , Andolora brought it to the attention of Green-Wood for a limited run this June, and the cemetery thought it was a perfect match. National and local critics did, too, hailing the play for its artistry and setting.
"Masters' truths about the human condition are eternal," noted Backstage critic Erik Haagensen. "‘The Spoon River Project' delivers them with love, care and rich enveloping atmosphere."
As an article in the New York Times noted, Green-Wood is a big part of the play's success.
After a short trolley ride from the main gate, the audience arrives at a natural proscenium stage: a gentle rise framed by immense trees, and set with a grouping of three scalloped-edged tombstones to the left and three weathered marble headstones topped with mourning urns to the right. Backstage is a pitched red-roof stone structure that could be a village house or a church, but certainly not a mausoleum. The actors emerge over the hill just as the sky dims. They carry lanterns but seem to know their way around the graves while not giving much notice to the audience before them. Then one steps forward to mourns his children's failures, and another laments her young lover killing her husband. The local madam imparts a little marital advice. The soldier on the battlefield longs for his mother.
The daylight dims into darkness as these residents of Spoon River continue to talk about their life before they died.
"The cemetery became a major character in the play," Andolora remarked. "The audience leaves having been exposed to great American literature and seeing it in a very real theatrical setting."
The play will next be seen in Jamestown. With any hope, the inhabitants of Spoon River will find their way back to Green-Wood.