Introducing The Last Night, a Connecticut Witch Trials Play – Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast
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We present an interview with writers and actors Debra Walsh and Virginia Wolf about their newly commissioned play The Last Night, which tells the compelling story of the witch panics and trials of 17th-century Connecticut Colony through the portrayal of accused women Mary Barnes and Rebecca Greensmith. We also speak with event host, Andy Verzosa, Executive Director of Farmington Connecticut’s Historic Landmark & Museum, The Stanley Whitman House. Performance is Saturday January 21, 2023, 7:00 PM.
Tickets for the Last Night staged reading and registration for the video premiere
Mary Barnes Society
Stanley Whitman House
Our theme song is “Epic Inspiration” by Jamendo
[00:00:00] Josh Hutchinson: Welcome to a free bonus episode of Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast. We'll speak with Virginia Wolf, Debra Walsh and Andy Verzosa about the upcoming play The Last Night. The Last Night was written by and stars Debra Walsh and Virginia Wolf. Debra portrays Rebecca Greensmith and Virginia portrays Mary Barnes, two women executed for witchcraft on January 25th, 1663, at the end of the Hartford Witch Panic. Andy Verzosa is executive director of Stanley-Whitman House a living [00:01:00] history center and museum of colonial life in Connecticut. A stage reading will be performed at Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut on Saturday, January 21st. 2023 at 7:00 PM. Doors open at six 30. Tickets can be purchased at s-wh.org/Mary-Barnes-Day. The link is in the show description. A free online video showing will be presented on Wednesday, January 25th at 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. Information and registration is also available at s-wh.org/Mary-Barnes-Day. And now here are Virginia Wolf, Debra Walsh, and Andy Verzosa. Virginia Wolf: I'm Virginia Wolf, and I have been working with the Stanley-Whitman House, who's hosting this event, for [00:02:00] years, and actually it was a Stanley-Whitman House that initially introduced me to the history of witchcraft here in Connecticut. I was born in Salem, Massachusetts, so I knew all about that. I had no idea till I came here. And long ago I portrayed Mary Barnes, who I'm portraying for this project, for the Stanley-Whitman House in a play, and that peaked my interest to start looking at all the other stories of the women, and men, but mostly women, who are accused of witchcraft and working with Andy and again Debra, who found her way a differentway, but we've been able to collaborate writing and now performing this short but incredibly compelling play. Debra Walsh: I'm Debra Walsh. So a few years ago I did an event called the West Hartford Hauntings through the Noah Webster House. It was going through a graveyard, and the main character was Ann Cole. And one night when we were leaving, Rebecca Greensmith's trial was mentioned in this tour. So my friend said, "these people are [00:03:00] real. They really existed." And so that I was, "wow, there's this whole history in my neighborhood and Connecticut history of people who were hanged and executed for witchcraft and were innocent." When that was over in October, I started to look, research, Rebecca Greensmith, and I got really inspired, and the first person I got in touch with was Ginny. I knew that she'd been doing this work for a while and had seen some of her work online, and I got a grant and did a reading. I wrote a play, we did a reading of The Hanging of Rebecca Greensmith, and I just wanted to keep going. So we met with Andy, and I said, "what about The Last Night? Cause they were in prison together. What did these two women talk about? What was that night like?" You don't know what you don't know until you [00:04:00] start figuring out what you need to know for this. I think the stories need to be told. I think, especially considering how women have usually ignored historically. And I know there were two men accused, but one of them, Rebecca just gave up, because she, we believe, Ginny and I believe, Rebecca didn't want her daughters at the mercy of him. So it's getting exciting now. Virginia Wolf: Many people don't know that Connecticut has a history of witchcraft, witch panics in the 17th century and, in fact, the first person to be hanged for witchcraft, I know you all know, was Alice Young. And Arthur Miller, God bless him, has made the Salem witchcraft panics the standard by which everything is considered, and people don't even realize that the history, and it's not necessarily a history to be proud of, but it is something that it happened. It was an outcome of the religious beliefs at the time, the patriarchal society of the time, and in [00:05:00] Connecticut, 1663, January 25th was the last, that was the last execution. Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith and Mary Barnes. And remembering that, and this is 30 years before the Salem Witch Trials ever happened, and how Rebecca and Nathaniel Greensmith were executed, along with Mary Barnes, on January 25th, 1663, 360 years ago. And acknowledging that date is so important so that people are aware that this did happen and that we have, there's a lot of really cool efforts going on in Connecticut in various pockets to reveal this part of history, but the culmination of these panics and the executions. It is a celebration they ended here 30 years before Salem had their famous panic. Debra Walsh: I think it's, um, significant from an educational point of view, like Covid and learning through Zoom. How do museums get people in to their buildings? [00:06:00] What are the stories we can tell that happened right outside the door of the museum? How do we appeal to younger people? And I think theater can do that by having the education or the story is done theatrically and thoughtfully. And it, I think it, for me, relates to any time someone is considered the Other. You know, when I think of the immigration crisis, and so maybe it will get us thinking about how do we treat the Other, what do we think about, oh, especially innocent people executed for for these crimes. A hanging, like where is our humanity? And those questions are very important to me as an educator, as a theater educator, and also to stretch out the bonds of theater. What else can theater artists be doing? And like I'm obsessed with Rebecca, you know, her courage and her [00:07:00] loving to make stout and her dancing. Virginia Wolf: It's been a really wonderful thing to be writing this, because there aren't a lot of records of what happened at the time. There are more records based on Rebecca Greensmith in her trial and what she said. There's really virtually nothing on Mary Barnes. So we work from primary sources to write this, to make as factual as we can but then weaving in informed conjecture, what could have happened, since we don't know what happened. And then the dramatic arc, which we've done the writing, but Andy and our director have really helped with that, so that the story is alive and it's vibrant, but it is based on history, and we are not saying anything false, but we are taking the facts and elaborating them to make them an interesting story. Debra Walsh: It's really a pleasure for me to be working with a former student of mine. He was my student when he was in high school, who his name is Brian [00:08:00] Swormstedt. He's a writer, filmmaker, a good director, and you need a director. You need this outside ear to help us, because like I got, when you're obsessed with someone, I want everyone to know every little detail that I know, and it's not important to this story. Plus, when you work with such a talented actress as Ginny Wolf, the give and take and going back and forth. I'm an actress. I love it. Virginia Wolf: Yes. We're, uh, having fun. And it's now that Brian and Andy have both added so much to the script, and I think I put this in an email to them, Debra and I working on this script and knowing these women, have tunnel vision and having an objective vision, which Andy and Brian both, there's too many words in it. It was like, you know what? You're absolutely right. We love every word we put here, but it, so many of 'em are unnecessary. And it's now we're at the point where it's locked in until we decide to make another change. But and we can really focus on our character development [00:09:00] and our relationships. Debra Walsh: I hounded Andy until he met with me. He came to see The Hanging of Rebecca and said, "maybe we should work together." And yeah, I just kept pounding him because I then learned of the Mary Barnes Society through the Whitman house. And another former student of mine, who's also working on this production said, " why doesn't Connecticut have the attraction like Salem does?" "Why," and I thought, "why can't the Whitman House be the place to go, to learn about the trials, the history, the Puritans?" So I just, I kept hounding him until we met. Virginia Wolf: I know that the the future of the Whitman house is for another story, but as far as the collaboration, so since Mary Barnes has lived in my soul for 15 years, Debra and I, and we've known each other, but we've never worked together, all of a sudden are writing a script together and have a Google document that we are [00:10:00] writing and editing and sharing ideas and it might not have worked, and it has worked beautifully. I really feel fortunate that I got to work with her, and the writing was the first step, and now the acting is the next step, the really fun step. So it's been a beautiful collaboration. Andy Verzosa: So it's been exciting. Museums are a place where people can gather and history can be interpreted and presented. And what's exciting about Ginny and Debra is that they are presenting their interpretation of Rebecca Greensmith and Mary Barnes and what their last night would be. So there's so many different ways that you can go about this, and through their informed conjecture, through really it's a a great opportunity to interpret what that might be through our eyes in a contemporary sense with what we know. And then really tackle it and work through it. So it's been a great opportunity for me, as the director of the museum, to invite two artists to work together. Commissioning a play is a new thing for Stanley-Whitman House. We do living history, but [00:11:00] we've not gone the artistic route and commissioned a play. And then to be able to work with two people who have really owned this internally as actors is really exciting. So they're playwrights, actors. They're doing this project. There's, like I said, a host of ways that you could approach this, and it's exciting to watch it unfold. It's still very much a cake in the oven. It has not been baked and set out on the counter to cool and to be finished off. Anxious to see what happens on the 21st, of course, because that's where the magic happens. You present the art to an audience, and hopefully it, you have a vessel, in that room, in the Whitman Tavern at Stanley-Whitman House. Something happens and switches on ,and people leave an experience, and it should be transformative. So I think museums are important for that to happen and to do these types of things. And I do a lot of differentthings where we try to make history come alive and engage people. [00:12:00] And again, I can't say how lucky I feel to work with Ginny and Debra to be able to do this. So exciting for me to know that there are all these different things that are running right now, cuz this is a, I think, a seminal time, in a way, for reckoning on many different levels for many different things. And I think that's important, and we come to these processes, and we go through them, and then we come together as community. And again, I think museums are a great place for that to happen. Virginia Wolf: I was first introduced to this 15 years ago, probably, at the Stanley-Whitman House, where Lisa Johnson, the director at the time, was working with the humanities association and Walt Woodward, the state historian, to compile at least a resource book where all of the different information is. The Wyllys papers are at the historic society. Different museums and libraries have pieces. There are books that have been written. From there, I knew where to go to try to get the information. Once we'd embarked on this, there was about [00:13:00] four months where my dining room table was just covered with all of the books, all of the things I, because I had written a one woman show about the entire witchcraft panic. So I had all the different resource for all the different stories and all of that. So it is available, but not so much for Mary Barnes. Mary Barnes, there really wasn't, we know she existed. We know she was hanged. There's not much about her trial. We don't know why she was accused. We don't know a lot about her, which is frustrating, freeing as well. Rebecca Greensmith, she's a huge personality back then, because we do have from those records that one of the magistrates called her a lewd and ignorant woman and aged, although we think she was about, what, 40? Debra Walsh: It was her former reverend who said that before she came to the colonies. Virginia Wolf: There are some verbatim records that were taken straight from the trials. And there's a lot of guesswork that goes on, and you have to be very careful as you're reading these books and you're speaking to people that what they're putting forward [00:14:00] as fact actually is fact. And I, for my own family, we have descendants from some of these people who were hanged, and there's family legend that actually is not at all what really happened, but this is what's come down through the years in their family. It was always a struggle to, and it still is to make sure this is not a history lesson based on fact, it's engaging, and it's exciting, but that it does not mislead anyone as to what really happened. Luckily, there were enough records for us to be able to write it, but then leeway for us to, with our informed conjecture, to really make the story compelling. Andy Verzosa: If I might, at Stanley Women House, we do a lot of living history, and so we're looking at a lot of different people in history and trying to tell their story in a engaging way. For example, we have a Connecticut Open House Day, or a Connecticut Historic Gardens Day, and we might portray people who've lived in the house and who they were and what they did. And we need to do this in a, [00:15:00] not in a wooden way, not in a boring, didactic way. So we really work hard at trying to bring those characters alive. And oftentimes, even when we've done our books, like we've looked at different people who are buried in our cemetery, and published a book this past year. And Memento Mori Cemetery, and what we've done is oftentimes there's not information about a person directly. We've had to look around that person, the relationships they've had, the places where they lived, the time that they were living, et cetera. Without getting too deep into that it's a word called prosopography. So we're looking all around so that we can get a sense of the whole, so that we can, can inform a lot about that person. So there, there's some conjecture there, right? But it's based on reasonableness and some facts. And so this is of what I think that Ginny and Debra have certainly done with the Witch panics and trials. There's been a lot of people who've written books. I've done [00:16:00] work. Recently, I've been on a tear reading John Demos, um, a Yale professor, and looking at what he's done, and he really looks at the family in colonial times. So sometimes, as well as the witchcraft panics In Colonial America. So there are a number of ways to do it. It's a whole field of study, so you could just, it's ongoing, right? And that's what I love about my job is that, we try to get people engaged at any level. Certainly Debra and Ginny are coming at it at a much deeper level and as actors and portray portraying these particular characters. History is important, but there's also that element of humanity that's important. So if think about the humanities and the studies of the humanities and the liberal arts, you're really coming at it very objectively, as much as you can. Debra Walsh: Thank you for that. I was able to spend time with Beth Caruso and another person who wrote about the history, Richard Ross, and I met someone once, this is an [00:17:00] anecdote. This couple that lives out in Texas had done a lot of, they went to every place where they think somebody might have been hanged around the country and where their bodies were dumped. And anyway, long story short, I heard from someone who said that Rebecca was hanged one mile north of where the Old State House is now. Her back was facing the mansions, and there were mansions, and I thought that was really interesting. So I'm driving, and I get a call from Beth Caruso, who wrote One of Windsor, and she she did the same thing. It's based on Alice Young and using informed conjecture, but she said, "oh my God, they just released this in this journal." A historian found a photographer, who found some ancient papers, and there was a gallow, and it was the exact same words of this woman, one mile directly north of where the Old State House [00:18:00] in Hartford is now, and their backs would've been to the mansions that were there. So I went there. It's now a playground at the Y on Albany Avenue. So that interested me and other people's takes, like people that I was able to meet and interview. So a lot of the historic, two of them, Richard and Beth said was interesting. It's interesting to see these people brought to life as human beings, like a body telling the story instead of this historical document. Virginia Wolf: It is important. So many stories, and I think I, I came into this as an actress really, and saying, when I learned about this, there are so many stories. These stories need to be told. And it's really satisfying to be doing it. And I find that I'll take my one woman show to, in which I portray five of the women hanged, and to museums and historical societies and schools where people don't have a clue that this ever happened. [00:19:00] And oh my gosh, what a wonderful feeling to to bring this knowledge out to, to bring out the awareness. It's terrific. Debra Walsh: I sat in the audience of Ginny's last show, and the people were just, " this really happened?" Some people who are direct descendants have one, a couple people who were in that audience as well and wanted more information, but just watching the audience taking this in, something that you're not aware of in your state, in your city, in your neighborhood. Andy Verzosa: I was familiar with the Salem Witch trials, of course, but not about what was happening in Connecticut. And when I started at Stanley-Whitman House, I was aware that there's some activity and that my predecessor, Lisa Johnson, had done a lot of work, but I really hadn't seen anything. I hadn't seen the play ,or we have a video of the play, and really didn't know until [00:20:00] I got a phone call, early on,, I'd probably been in the job like three months, from Bridgeport, and they were doing a dedication memorial for goodie nap and they said, geez, we know that your predecessor's no longer the director, but could you, as the director of Stanley-Whitman House, come down and offer some words? I obviously reached out to my predecessor, and we connected on that, and I did go down and offered words, not knowing a lot, but being thrown into it. And this is back in, I think 2018 and what I felt when I was there, because it was quite a quite a celebration and a an event, and there were descendants that were there. There were different dignitaries, and of course I met Beth Caruso there and others, and the people who organized it. And I just realized like how important it was, and that gave me a whole new perspective on what I might be able to do through the [00:21:00] museum. Fast forward to 2023, here we are. And I'm more comfortable in this role now working with Ginny and with Debra, of course. And I'm excited for the play to happen. I'm anxious. I can't wait for it to happen. And I feel like it's really good for the museum to be doing this kind of work going forward and to continue. We're really looking forward to people doing the online program. We can have hundreds of people on that, where we can only have 40 people at the museum for the live staged reading. Virginia Wolf: And we'll do a live talk back after each. So Debra and I will be at the museum after the movie, for lack of a better word, and then people will be able to come on, and we'll do a talk back as well, which will be very interesting. The stage reading will be at the Stanley-Whitman House on Saturday, January 21st. Starts at 7:00, doors open at 6:30, and you can access tickets on the Stanley-Whitman House website. It's limited, very limited seating. It's a small space for the reading, so if you are [00:22:00] interested in attending, and we'll have a live talk back afterwards or the reception. But we are very excited, this is gonna be totally new for me, that we are also filming it and I think the way it's working because of Bryan and Patrick being so well they know how to do this. The film, I think is gonna be different from the reading, but that will be presented on the anniversary of the hangings on Wednesday, the 25th of January via Zoom. People can sign on for the webinar register, and then I think it'll be up on a YouTube channel for the Stanley-Whitman house in perpetuity. Josh Hutchinson: Thank you for listening to Thou Shalt Not Suffer: The Witch Trial Podcast. Tickets for The Last Night can be purchased at S-WH.org/mary-barnes-day. The link is in the show description. Have a great today. And a beautiful tomorrow. [00:23:00] [00:24:00]