I've fallen madly in love with three women from the 19th century.
The first time I met them, I was doing research for the Loudoun Museum. The Museum's 25th Anniversary was approaching, and I'd volunteered to create a living history program for the celebration. Several actors in period costume were going to read from diaries and letters as they represented real individuals from the page's of Loudoun's Civil War history, and I needed to find those real individuals. So I was deep into the Civil War files at Leesburg's Thomas Balch Library when I ran across a short story by a fellow named Ed Love entitled, "The Beautiful and Anxious Maidens." It was a rip-roaring, fresh, adventure story, and I was hooked from the very first paragraph.
Usually the idea of a book forms in my mind when I read this sort of thing. This one formed a play.
And in the file sitting right behind Ed's story, there were several copies and one original of the newspaper the beautiful and anxious maidens wrote for Union soldiers: The Waterford News. I read every copy, laughing and crying as I went; the editors, Sarah, Lizzie and Lida, were what Ann of Green Gables would call "kindred spirits" to me: Mark Twain-ish humor, honest and brave, never-give-up hearts, and great hopes of having their lives mean something when all was said and done.
So I sat down and wrote a play. And this may sound strange, but I felt as though they stood behind me all the while - with a hand or two on my shoulder. Gives me chills to even type the words.
When the play was done, I was pleased.
Then I wasn't.
The horrible thought had occurred that Ed Love might still be alive and hold copyright to his story. I dutifully traced the copyright to his agent in New York who let me know Ed had passed away - but they retained the copyright to the story. So I paid $500.00 for permission to write a play... I'd already written.
But I had a play.
I began to talk to my friend, Dolly Stevens, Director of The Growing Stage Theatre Company in Loudoun, wondering whether she'd consider a production. She read it and liked it. Sigh of relief. We began to think about doing something with it in 1996.
In spring of '96, we approached The Waterford Foundation in hopes of performing the play at the Old School in Waterford. The Foundation was amenable, but their historian, Bronwen Souders, had concerns about the play's historic accuracy.
But I'd paid money ( lots of money) to have the right to build the play on Ed Love's piece, so that was a bit of a problem.
Bronwen sat down with me and explained why it might be important to find out the whole truth.
For starters, Sarah Steer didn't marry a Confederate right after the war. She opened a school for freedmen's children, taught there for forty years, finally retired and then married... a Quaker.
Bronwen told me that was but one example of the historical inaccuracies. Sarah Steer is a greatly revered historic figure in Loudoun, and her relatives still live in the area. After knowing the truth, I couldn't make her marry a Confederate in front of God and everyone.
So I agreed to change the play to make it more accurate, and, as time went on, something wonderful happened. Turns out, their real story was more dramatic than anything Ed had come up with (this revelation also freed me from worries about future copyright infringement, too).
But there was more good news to come. During one of Bronwen's and my research sessions, she asked for the name of the agency controlling Mr. Love's copyright; she hoped to connect with relatives of the Love family.
This one connection - to the Blanche C. Gregory Agency in New York City - led to a treasure trove of historic resources for Bronwen and the Waterford Foundation. It made it possible for her to contact the Michigan University where Mr. Love's papers are kept, and in those documents were found the names of relatives still existing and some original historic materials relevant to the Dutton and Steer families. Other avenues of information were pursued by contacting relatives of the Duttons and Steers. Bronwen would have eventually contacted these people, but clearly the play created an impetus for pursuit.
And her contacts kept bringing in more information, so my play kept getting more faithful to the real story. - an amazing experience.
Dolly and I had decided on a fall production. By August, a final version had been read and approved by Bronwen Souders and [the late] John Divine, but in mid-August, Bronwen informed me there was important new information coming from a relative of the girls, and she hoped it would not be too late for me to incorporate the information into the play.
I mentioned this to Dolly, and, in her best Director Voice, she told me, "Meredith, at some point, you have got to stop writing this blankety-blank play."
Well, I'd met all the criteria of the Foundation to date, and I could have stopped there, but then I really coudn't:
1) I wanted my play to be as historically accurate as possible, not only for the sake of the people who actually lived and died in Waterford (James Cameron, how can you sleep at night?), but I knew relatives of the actual girls were coming to the play. How could I provide anything less than the best possible representation of their family history?
2) The information Bronwen was collecting was incredibly inspiring. The story could only get better with its use.
3) The facts came in at a perfect time, because I was frantically re-constructing the script in order to make the whole thing shorter.
So, the play was re-written once again and Dolly pronounced the result "Fantastic." With an aim to balance real history and pure entertainment, it seemed my final product succeeded.
So, here's the plot in a nutshell:
The play opens in 1908 as an old Sarah Steer prepares to have her picture taken. She is chatting about the first time she had a picture taken. It was during the War, and she was with her best friends, Lida and Lizzie Dutton. The photographer, busy with his tripod, is showing only polite interest until she says, "Oh, we fought the Confederacy in our own way." He pauses. "Excuse me? Did you say fight the Confederacy." "Oh, my yes," she says, "Lida had a God-given talent for it." He asks her to tell him more, and she does.
As if her memory of the events is coming clearer, the lights rise on the stage to see Lida Dutton, surrounded by friends, on the eve of her 18th birthday.
A very witty, vivacious young lady, she announces her two birthday wishes: one, "to do life justice," and, two, to have a fine-looking fellow come riding into town and sweep her off her feet. During the course of the play, she and her sister, Lizzie and their friend Sarah Steer and a fictitious friend named Maggie Loden, hide a wounded Union soldier from marauding Confederate troops, cross the river to talk to the Union Provost-Marshal, plan a newspaper to show Waterford's loyalty to the Union and to boost the morale of soldiers, become highly successful publishers, take in two wounded Confederate soldiers and hide them from the Union troops as they recover, and assist with the underground railroad.
They certainly do life justice. As for the handsome fellow, Maggie Loden is destined to fall in love with a Confederate Lieutenant while Lida Dutton finally meets her match in one Lieut. Hutchinson. She tells the audience after meeting him, "He's just the best wish I ever made." Well, the two Lieutenants finally "meet" each other in the last act, and the Confederate nearly destroys Lida's chance at happiness. But the women's strong call toward a peace is finally heard. The most important line in the play is at this point delivered by Maggie Loden when she tells Lieut. Milbrowe he's asking her to hate what he hates, while she's asking him to love what she loves.
The play ends as the lights come back up in the photographer's studio. Sarah Steer is still sitting in the portrait chair, but the photographer is also sitting... and positively riveted as she finishes telling him what happened to the girls after the war. He's completely forgotten why she's there. She has to remind him of the portrait. He rises to do his duty, and as he readies to take the picture, he freezes. A circle of light appears on the stairwell of the Dutton home, and you see the three Waterford girls standing proudly for the picture that Sarah had been recalling. The End.
So, the play was ready to be produced in fall of '96.
Unfortunately, things weren't ready at Waterford's Old School. After quite a bit of re-organizing, we had to admit we were going to have to go elsewhere. And so The Growing Stage produced "The Waterford Girls: ALL FOR THE UNION in Confederate Virginia!" at the Blue Ridge Middle School in Purcellville, Virginia in March of 1997.
We had the most incredible cast I could hope for: mostly veteran actors from the various regional theatre companies. Elizabeth Nichols, now a Med student, was Lida Dutton: I mean, she WAS Lida Dutton. Liz and I had worked several times together in my living history programs, and, while it's true Dolly would let me have nothing to do with casting, I did try to tilt the scales on Liz's behalf. Not that she needed it, but three years ago, when the play was still in its first draft, I handed a copy of the script to Liz and said, "Here. Read this. This play is going to be produced one day, and you're Lida Dutton in the flesh."
She went home. Read it. Next time she saw me, she said, "You're right. I'm Lida Dutton. Please tell me when you're gonna' do this play?"
When the time came, Dolly happened to agree with me and gave her the part. Patti Snodgrass's theatre review in the Loudoun Times-Mirror put it best, "As Lida Dutton, Liz Nichols RULES the stage."
Opening night, Liz gave me a goody bag (chocolate bar, cookies and a soda) and a note to thank me for the opportunity to do this part. She let me know parts like these were few and far between for young women. Don't we know it. All the young ladies expressed similar sentiments. A friend said, "You've really given a gift to young women in this play." Lord, I hope so. But there's plenty here for men, too (although I did have one fellow tell me there wasn't quite enough blood. Y'know, for some guys, there will just never be enough blood, but I'm proud to say I've watched many a grown man wipe away a tear as he watched the scene of the young, wounded Confederate soldier).
Anyway, the play received excellent reviews in both The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Blue Ridge Leader. In fact, Gale Waldron, who was a reporter with The Blue Ridge Leader at the time, attended a dress rehearsal the weekend before the show's opening and called me the next day to say, "I know all the details of the play haven't been completely finalized, but this is too good to wait. This story has to get out there; people have got to come and see this play. So, I'm sorry, but I'm putting in my review right now!" I've had the great good fortune to work as the "Good Neighbor" columnist for Gale when she was Editor of The Loudoun Magazine, and I'll never forget how she helped jump start my work as a writer and playwright.
So that's the tale of the first production.
In 2000, the play was produced at Waterford's Old School (finally), but that there's a whoooooole other story... I've been told the re-titled "Waterford News: Message from the Underground" raised $15,000 for the The Waterford Foundation's Capital Campaign.
Soon after, I was contacted by The Newseum (then in Arlington, Virginia) and asked to create a 40 minute, narrated living history presentation of the girls' history in conjunction with the "War Stories" exhbit. "Waterford's War" was performed for the public in the summer of 2001, and the Newseum asked if I could produce the program again in the fall. Unfortunately, I had another program in the works.
Then, in the fall of 2003, the full Civil War play was produced in yet another Loudoun Quaker village: Lincoln - this time for The Lincoln Preservation Foundation. LPF members Carol Dukes and Andrea Gaines approached me with the idea, because they wanted to raise seed money for the restoration of Lincoln's the African-American Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. Built by former slaves and member of the Quaker Goose Creek Meeting in Lincoln, Grace and I turn out to be old friends. When I first began to write stories in Loudoun, I used to roam through the graveyard and step inside the sanctuary of that beautiful old stone building just to seek a little inspiration (you can't step in there now - you'll wind up in the basement). "Austin Brooks," the hero of my first novel, Theodosia, was a name taken from a grave in the Grace Methodist Church cemetery.
LPF gave me an opportunity to direct the show myself, and I jumped at the chance. Thanks to The Lincoln Preservation Foundation and the Goose Creek Meeting, "ALL FOR THE UNION in Confederate Virginia!" was a perfect success.
Yes. New name. I've kept re-naming the show, because I tend to do extensive renovations on the script before each production. Wouldn't want people to come expecting exactly what they saw before. Also, I decided against the first show's name, because guy actors tended to shy away from auditions for "The Waterford Girls" and this show is almost as much about soldiers' lives as it the girls'. The second name, "Waterford News: Message from the Underground" was created by committee, which is of course how God wound up with the camel. My third and (promise) final title is "ALL FOR THE UNION in Confederate Virginia!" Based on the banner line "All for the Union!" with stood under the girls' names, "Editors Sarah, Lizzie and Lida" in The Waterford News newspapers, it makes the most sense to me. After killing off six boring characters, shortening lines, and adding dynamic blocking which does away with the need for set changes, the script is now as tight as a new recruit's bedroll.
With an absolutely superb cast, the 2003 show became an ovation-grabbing sell out and in a charming but limited-seat venue, we raised$10,000 toward the LPF restoration of Grace Church.
After nine years of careful pruning, the play does exactly what I've always wanted it to do: shine a bright, steady light on three amazing local heroes of Loudoun County, Virginia and their unique role in Virginia Civil War history.
Author's Note: since the 2003 production, the story has been turned into an independent film project called WATERFORD'S WAR. For more information, visit www.waterfordswar.com.