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40 Years of Lantern Light Tours

Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue dressed up as her longtime character Miss L.E. Ackerman.

Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue dressed up as her longtime character Miss L.E. Ackerman.

If it’s the holiday season in Mystic, then it must be time for Lantern Light Tours.

For 40 years, Mystic Seaport Museum has invited visitors to step back in time to Greenmanville, Connecticut, on Christmas Eve 1876. Lead by an actor in period costume, the tour unwinds a heartwarming holiday tale as the group travels from point to point around the Museum grounds. Every year features a new story with the writing process beginning the previous spring.

Rebecca Bayreuther Donohue, a longtime Museum staff member and manager of the Period Costume Workshop for the last eight years, wrote this year’s script, A Christmas Sea-Chantey; in prose being A Story of 1876 Greenmanville. We sat down with her and posed several questions about this year’s show.

How long have you been involved in the Lantern Light Tours?     

This is an anniversary year for me, as well: It is my 20th production. This is the third full script I have written and the 11th script total upon which I have worked, as the scriptwriting was collaborative until 2006 with each scene written by a different staff member. I have also worked as a scene-player, a scene coach, a tour guide, a tour guide coach, an elf, a costumer, and now as the manager of the Period Costume Workshop.

How did you approach the story development process this year?

We all knew that this anniversary year needed something special for a story line, and several members of the production crew suggested an adaptation of the quintessential 19th-century Christmas story Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (full title: A Christmas Carol; in prose being A Ghost Story of Christmas). I was worried initially about how to keep such a familiar story from being predictable, but Ebenezer Scrooge’s tour of Christmases Past, Present, and Future turned out to be the perfect vehicle by which to revisit the last 40 years of this special production. We had invented our own version of Scrooge, Mr. Silas Blackburn, during our collaborative script days, so he was a shoe-in for inclusion. But who else? During lunches in the staff kitchen, coffee breaks in the lounge, and down-time between skills demonstrations, I asked what people remembered about past Lantern Lights – the story lines, characters, scenes. Staff members Mary K Bercaw Edwards and Mary Skalka were of incredible help remembering the first 20 years of Lantern Lights. We laughed about the scene where Bettye Noyes’s 1870s chignon had slipped off, and she held it in her lap and pretended it was a cat. We wept about dear people we will never see again, like gentle Chris Bell as Santa Claus and elegant tour guide Suzanne Reardon. We talked about Christmas all Summer! So, while I hope that newcomers will enjoy this year’s story enough to start making the Tours a family tradition, I wrote this script with those who are regular visitors to Greenmanville at Christmas very much in mind.

What is it about Dickens that keeps us coming back to him?

Mr. Bangs (Owen Hughes, left) and Miss Jumpenjack (Kelsey Melinosky) perform a scene in the cooperage during the 2014 Lantern Light Tour production.

Mr. Bangs (Owen Hughes, left) and Miss Jumpenjack (Kelsey Melinosky) perform a scene in the cooperage during the 2014 Lantern Light Tour production.

I think we keep coming back to this as the definitive Christmas story because it shows us not only that it’s up to us as individuals to make things better for us as a planet, but that it’s still possible to effect that change. Dickens constantly used his works to illuminate social injustice. Even after revisiting the personal misery of Scrooge’s Past and Present, Dickens has a Ghost warn him about a greater misery personified by the two urchins Want and Ignorance. But Dickens doesn’t abandon us to the misery: he gives us Christmastide as that special time when things really can change for the better. He gives us back the wonder we had in Christmas as children, the wonder of the original Christmas story, the magic of the season to shift the balance of the world towards the light using thousands of tiny, individual acts. He redeems Scrooge in order to give us the “Ghost of an Idea” about this possibility. No matter how dark the world or our own worlds are the rest of the year, the light still happens at Christmas. In A Christmas Sea-Chantey, the journey that the guide and tour group embarks on together redeems our Scrooge character, Mr. Silas Blackburn, and saves 1876 Greenmanville from a dark future. If it brings inspiration and light to even one tour-goer, that’s a beautiful foundation for the next 40 years of Lantern Light Tours at the Museum.

Do any of the characters stand out in your mind?

Mr. Silas Blackburn has been the official “Scrooge” character for about 15 years, appearing in numerous scripts in various phases of life: a crusty businessman, an unrelenting guardian, a lonely bachelor. The spinster Sprague sisters from Block Island, Miss Sarah and Miss Mercy, are particular favorites of mine as they were the stars of the first full script I ever wrote, 2007’s The Treasure of the Ann Hope. We meet Mr. Ashby and Miss Holly Winterberry in homage to recurring characters from the first 20 years of the Tours. Some years the script dances around the idea of Santa Claus, featuring instead a Wise Old Man or a Mr. Nicholas, but for this anniversary year we get to meet Santa face-to-face. However, the most special characters of this year’s script – in my mind – are veteran sailors Gabe and Pigeon. Like Mr. Blackburn, they were invented about 15 years ago when the scripts were written collaboratively and possessed the richness and depth of multiple perspectives and the vastly different experiences of their several authors. Originally, the character of Gabriel, with the voice of the angel, was written for staff chanteyman extraordinaire Don Sineti; and the character of Pigeon was written for his partner in crime, demonstration squad assistant foreman Jim Mortimer. It is only fitting, therefore, that it’s these old friends who remind us of just why Lantern Light Tours are so special. In their scene, they recall a number of Christmas adventures, all excerpted from the past 20 years of scripts, including the only script to be performed twice, staff chanteyman Craig Edwards’s The Ship Carpenter. But at the end of it all, it’s the fact that Gabe and Pigeon shared these adventures with each other, “right here in Greenmanville,” as Pigeon says, that makes them truly memorable.

Where do you get all of the costumes?

A Lantern Light Tour scene set in Schaefer's Spouter Tavern.

A Lantern Light Tour scene set in Schaefer’s Spouter Tavern.

The history of the production is not complete without considering the incredible work of the Period Costume Workshop staff over the past 40 years. What would Lantern Light Tours be without the amazing period clothing? I feel incredibly blessed to be reaping the benefits of literally decades of meticulous research, craftsmanship, and artistry. The first full-time Costume Manager I knew was Joanna Cadorette, who was hired, like me, in the summer of 1999. She transformed the look of Lantern Light Tours one layer at a time, starting with the old tour guide costumes, which for women consisted of a pair of plaid wool sleeves and a matching long, drawstring-waisted skirt beneath a voluminous cloak. She created complete ensembles with period-accurate lines, structural undergarments, and custom-built accessories. Her 2009 opus, the Costume Reference Guide for Mystic Seaport, still informs every project the Workshop undertakes. Joanna’s successors, skilled draftswoman Melodie Foster Lynn and now I, start work each August by taking measurements at the initial auditions. We design the look of each Lantern Light Tour, taking into account physical warmth for scenes that are played out-of-doors on board a ship or in hard-to-heat 19th-century buildings. Other factors are social structures that dictate silks and jewels for a captain’s wife or an apron and kerchief for a tavern worker; and of course specific script-related props or nuances like Santa Claus vs. “Mr. Nicholas.” In addition to weekly maintenance and laundry during the course of the run, the final cleanup keeps the Workshop busy until March – at which point the script for the next season is chosen and we start all over again.

None of this work would be possible without an incredibly skilled and dedicated crew of both paid and volunteer staff. Laura Edwards, a consummate quilter, rode the ferry from her home on Fisher’s Island at least once a week for about 15 years in order to volunteer at the Workshop. Nancy Strawderman, a former Museum teacher and incredible craftswoman concerning everything from paper quilling to dress construction, volunteers her time every Tuesday – and also whenever she’s needed, taking projects home or coming in to help dress the cast on a short-staffed night. The spirited Penny Havard, trained in graphic art and antique textile restoration, was our head seamstress for 10 years, and nearly every jaw-dropping piece we have, from basque to buckram hat, bears her touch. Beth Gunnell, our experienced and technically-gifted theatrical consultant, acted in her first Lantern Light Tour over 10 years ago and has worked for us ever since! There are our emeriti, those who now work other jobs but still share their amazing skills with us at Lantern Lights: Amanda Keenan from Advancement, Working Waterfront Supervisor Maria Petrillo, graphics artist and dresser Chelle Farrand. The mainstays of the Period Costume Workshop are Kathleen Roberts, formally trained in the Historical Costuming program at URI, and Alyssa Potter, who started five years ago as a Williams-Mystic student. They do the majority of the fittings, the alterations, the paperwork, the organizing, and the accessorizing. They help dress the cast every night and manage the maintenance through the rest of the week. But it’s their creativity and laughter, the sheer joy in their work that puts the “Christmas in their hearts” atmosphere into the Workshop and keeps me – keeps all of us! – going throughout our long, August-to-March Christmas season.

Editor’s Note: Why is the story set in Greenmanville? That is the name of the section of Mystic on which the Museum sits. The Greenman family owned and operated a shipyard, mills, and a variety of other businesses on the site prior to the founding of the Museum in 1929. It was a bustling little community.