When I was a junior at Central High School in Charlotte NC I was cast as Mrs. Soames, the town busybody, in our school production of Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s play captured my imagination. I embraced the folksy image of Act III where the dead town-people now “live” in the cemetery on a hill outside of town.
I never forgot it.
2013 is the 75th anniversary of the first New York production of Thornton Wilder’s classic play and I am certain it has influenced scores of other people as it did me. Although my new show, Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home is not directly related to Our Town, Wilder’s idea of a community of the dead echoes in my approach to my new story.
My husband Jim Schoettler died in 2012. Jim was a physician and Flight Surgeon when he served in the US Air Force during the Vietnam Era. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery last August.
Jim and I were married for almost 57 years so it should be no surprise to anyone that I visit him often. I pull a small blue canvas folding stool next to his grave and sit amid a sea of regulation shaped white marble stones that form a grid across Section 35 – which is our neighborhood. I am comfortable there while I sit and think.
The seeds and inspiration for this show emerged from my hours washed by Arlington’s serene quiet as I contemplated Jim’s grave and gradually accepted that Section 35, #7424, Roosevelt Drive will also be my ‘Forever Home.’ Once past that hurdle I began to look around. The work of developing this story is part of my healing as well as being an uncommon look at this venerated place.
Standard advice for people who are planning a move into a new home is “get to know your neighborhood” before you move in. I started gathering the history, exploring the grounds, talking to people, and watching the everyday workings of this very busy sacred place. Many of the people I watch and talk to are the invisibles that are often over-looked in public places.
Arlington encompasses more than 600 acres and more than 150 years of history. It is rich in traditions. More than 300,000 are buried at Arlington and each one of those graves holds an individual story. Arlington is an active place – there are 25-30 burials a day there. Those include old WWII veterans tall the way to those who have served and fallen in Afghanistan.
Section 60 is where recent casualties from Afghanistan are buried. Here there is life as well as the dead. Families and children visit and leave touching sentimental souvenirs on the headstones. These objects speak of love and friendship and hint at stories. I talk with family members so that I can know something about them and about the loved one they are visiting.
And, I tell them about Jim. I find others who bring canvas chairs and pause to visit..
“My Forever Home” has become a growing collection of stories as I continue to meet family members, ask questions of workers and learn more about the ‘everyday” of Arlington. The flowing river of impressions, conversations and fact-finding allows me to shape an ever-changing story by adding a new look at past history or a first-hand touch with the everyday life of Arlington.
Yes, Arlington is hallowed ground and a national shrine to honor and to service and it is, like all cemeteries, a place for comfort and remembering.
My process for jelling this one-hour spoken word piece has been complex and challenging. I have work-shopped the piece with two nationally recognized “master” storytellers,Donald Davis and Elizabeth Ellis in workshops with other storytellers. In addition I set-up “try-outs” in three states with varied size groups.
Initially I was worried about telling a deeply personal story about a cemetery – which is a far cry for the usual Fringe story, but from the very first people have loved the story. They have generously shared opinions and feedback, which helped me to revise and continue the shaping.
I am very grateful to all who offered advice, encouragement and support.
The show is dedicated to my late husband, Dr. James A. Schoettler and to all who rest at Arlington National Cemetery. They are my home-folks.
Thursday, July 11 at 6:15 PM
Saturday, July 13 at 3:15 PM
Thursday, July 19 at 7:15 PM
Sunday, July 21 at 4:00
Friday, July 26 at 7:45 PM
PURCHASE TICKETS HERE.
Article in the Arlington Connection Paper.