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BW English professor pens unique project, "Under the Sycamores"

Photo of Erie St. Cemetery Gate. Photo credit: Dave Robar

Across from Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland, there's a particular plot of land you may have walked or driven past before without a second glance. If you take the time, you can step through the stone arch entryway of Erie Street Cemetery, which holds the untold stories of many past Clevelanders. Luckily, with a project written by BW's own English professor Les Hunter, you can hear some of them!

Not your typical walking tour

The unique, site-specific, choose-your-own-adventure audio story "Under the Sycamores" uncovers the fascinating lives of Clevelanders buried in the historic Erie Street Cemetery. While still physically present in 2021, your imagination will be transported through time on a historical journey.

Photo of Radio on the Lake Theatre performersAvailable on-demand now through September 30, you're invited to choose your own path through Cleveland's oldest cemetery. Along the way, you'll meet early European settlers, a Native American chief, an early civil rights leader, a famous Beat poet and more. Depending on the stories you choose to listen to, it can take 30 to 90 minutes to walk through.

Presented as a special project for the 2021 BorderLight Festival, it was co-produced with Radio on the Lake Theatre and written by Les Hunter, professor and chair of BW's English and creative writing programs. He describes the unique nature of the project as "heavily researched, but slightly fictionalized … [I]t's not really a play, a screenplay or even a radio play, but it has elements of each of these."

Independent artists, innovative form

BorderLight Associate Producer and Communications Director Cathleen O'Malley notes, "While theatres have been shuttered during the pandemic, independent artists have continued to innovate, experimenting with form and deploying their craft to make meaning of this challenging time."

Photo of Erie St. Cemetery monuments. Photo credit: Dave RobarWhile there aren't any actors physically present at the cemetery, participants walk through this sacred area visiting specific places while listening to several recorded stories. With easy-to-use technology, you can use your phone to access the website and select the recording you want to hear. While headphones aren't necessary, they can make it easier to hear, especially with sounds from nearby E. 9th Street and Progressive Field.

Storytelling challenge accepted

Along with an interest in Cleveland's history, Hunter was drawn to the project because it was different from anything he had done before. He says, "I love new challenges, and this presented many, particularly regarding the ethics of people's lives in their burial ground - a place that usually has a fair bit of reverence. That reverence challenged me as a writer to find novel and interesting ways to explore potential flaws - especially when so much of the archive available about these people was hagiographic."

Image of Les Hunter

Determined to share their stories in a relatable way, Hunter says, "The information that I found on the lives of those interred in Erie Street was full of praise but didn't necessarily make for good storytelling. As audiences, we identify with people who have flaws or weaknesses like we do, which isn't always the most flattering to the subject … [W]e want to hear about people's foibles, misgivings, hurts, desires and things that they did that weren't as nice."

Interestingly, the cemetery has had 20,000 people interred there in its 200-year history. However, thousands of remains have been removed nine different times over the years, particularly as the cemetery has been threatened by development, and parts of the cemetery have been taken apart and used for other purposes.

Hunter says, "When I started, I thought, well, this is a project about death, but almost everything I ended up exploring was about life. I kind of conceived of death as just this binary, you know, the other side, but I think this project has made me realize it's much more complex than that. One of the quotes in the play is that there's so much life in death, but there's so much death in life that they're so interconnected. It's not a turning off the light or turning on the light."

Listen to an interview with Les Hunter and learn more about the project.

Learn more about "Under the Sycamores" and purchase tickets for only $6 from now until September 30.

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