Playwright and actor Anne Galjour is known for her plays about the Cajun culture and characters she knew growing up in southeastern Louisiana. Now the California-based artist - who performs her one-woman show, Hurricane, this Friday at the Flynn Center - is turning her archivist's eye on New England.
Galjour is working on a new play, tentatively titled "New England Class Divide," which was commissioned by Dartmouth College in partnership with regional arts organizations, including the Flynn. She described her hopes for the project last fall in Seven Days, explaining, "This play is part of a three-year initiative that explores issues of class, locals versus newcomers. My hope is that hardworking, underserved members of your community will see themselves on stage."
Galjour has been in New England for the past couple of weeks, gathering material. She's scheduled interviews with dairy farming families and recent immigrants from Africa, and she's inviting residents to bring anecdotes and ideas to a series of "story circles." She held one last Saturday in the Flynn's Hoehl Studio; another is scheduled for Thursday, February 8, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Fourteen Vermont residents - including two reporters and two Flynn staffers - showed up Saturday afternoon to school the playwright and her assistant, Dartmouth student Lisel Murdock, about life in Vermont. Everyone there was Caucasian, and all but two were women, but during the two-hour share-athon, a variety of differences emerged.
Galjour's first questions were basic: How many grew up in Vermont? How many moved here? How many graduated from high school? How many had Master's degrees? But she soon switched to more open-ended inquiries about education and social divides. Did participants feel there were class differences in Vermont, she wondered?
Shirley Bean, 82, of Charlotte said there certainly used to be. She recalled a time when her small town was separated into two distinct sections - one occupied by third- and fourth-generation native Vermont farmers and the other by French-Canadian newcomers. Bean says she was lumped in with the latter group because she married a Catholic man.
"You had to strive to get from there to become someone who could do something for the town," she said.
Later, Galjour passed out index cards and invited everyone to write down a "hidden truth" about themselves, or share a time when they felt "some kind of tension." She urged, "Let's be honest."
Murdock collected the cards, then redistributed them randomly. Galjour invited participants to read them out loud. The results were surprisingly intimate. One person confessed to being prejudiced against minorities. Another admitted to suffering from depression. A third complained that she had trouble finding a job, despite advanced degrees, and could not afford to buy a house. After each, Galjour nodded her head and sighed empathetically. Murdock scribbled intently in her notebook.
Finally, Galjour asked the group to suggest characters that might represent the area. Responses ranged from a chain-smoking homeless man to Winooski resident Raymond Clavelle - father of former Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle - to renowned hot dog vendor Lois Bodoky. Galjour seemed grateful for the advice.
"This circle is terrific," she said. "I feel like this community is very special."
Find more information about Galjour's performances and story circles.