When a group of actors and actresses from Baltimore School for the Arts performed a set of short plays about the War of 1812 for the middle school students at St. Paul's School for Girls on Oct. 9, the event was also a showcase for one of the play's authors — St. Paul's School for Girls theater teacher Natalie Pilcher.
"I think everyone involved in this process, as adults, thought the War of 1812 is so little understood — the impetus behind the war, what and where and how it went on, the fact that it's called the War of 1812 when it really went on for three years — and of course this is the 200th anniversary," Pilcher said. "Baltimore's piece of this, we thought, was really crucial. This seemed sort of a natural fit."
The three one-act plays were shown at SPSG after spring and summer performances in front of thousands at Fort McHenry during the bicentennial celebration. The school performance was meant to help teach the students there an important history lessons.
Pilcher, a Parkville resident, said writing her piece of the production presented a "really unique" challenge for a playwright. Each of the short scenes were written with specific guidelines dictated by the Baltimore School for the Arts performed.
"The production students handed off some background material to each of the playwrights, and we had a really big broad skeleton: your play is about four actors," she said. "Two of them are black, two of them are white. Three are women, one is a man … we'd like to talk about a family member being at war."
Using those parameters, Pilcher crafted a scene — "Off to War: The Long Arm of the War Reaches Home" — in which a mother and daughter reunite at a local store after the daughter's trip south to Richmond to visit her grandmother. The grandmother has sent up many cases of preserved fruit and vegetables to ease the family's financial hardship after the patriarch, a young farmer, has gone north with the militia.
The mother, played by Alexandra Morrel, reads her daughter, played by Gillian Waldo, a series of letters from her husband.
"When dad is first writing, it's kind of a lark," Pilcher explained. "Then, the first battle, and the screams of the dying and the sounds of these unbelievably huge cannon balls hitting the walls of the fort. Suddenly, it takes on a different tone, and now his daughter's worried."
In the final letter — from the farmer's commanding officer — they discover the father had a musket ball go through his hand, and is in danger of losing the hand.
Ultimately, the family realizes the patriarchs' livelihood may be threatened. Their enslaved workers come to the same conclusion, and begin to plot their escape in the face of the uncertainty.
Though Pilcher wrote the play, she said much of the heavy lifting for her scene and two others created by other playwrights was done by the Baltimore School for the Arts technical students, who began researching news clips, journals, diaries and letters from the Maryland Historical Trust.
One of the other scenes, "The Morning after the Night Before," depicts a white aristocratic couple and its servant, struggling to understand the gravity of what's happening the morning after a riot near the local newspaper building. Another scene, "A Nest of Pirates," shows the plight of sea merchants who are dragged into the war.
Pilcher said she and the four-person cast had to endure countless rewrites to ensure the accuracy of the final product,
Students at SPSG are no strangers to her work; for years, Pilcher's performances about immigration were written into the school's curriculum — the first half of the year focusing on Africa and the second half dedicated to European immigration. Both portions were then woven into a production at the end of the year.
More recently, her work at the school has focused more on producing plays with a student-eye view of school and the problems of pre-teens. She also writes scenes for her seventh- and eighth-grade actors during their open workshops.
Her philosophy is to give students an idea they can embrace, and then let them run with it.
"You find what kids love to do and you honor that, and you don't make it something where you're standing lecturing," she said. "You get them up, and they do it."