ART CONSERVATIONIST TAKES TO THE STAGE

by Sue Moncure

Joyce Hill Stoner's interests encompass many fields of the arts. She not only is a professor of art conservation, but also has written plays and musicals, has performed in them and has been an historian. Recently, she combined her talents to create a dramatic presentation called The Bucket Brigade, a salute to American fire fighters at a conference celebrating the 75th anniversary of Colonial Williamsburg, and another program, The Legacy Speaks: Cousin Harry's Collection, a docu-musical to celebrate Winterthur Museum's 50th anniversary.

Stoner was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Williamsburg conference, where she spoke on "Adventures in Looking at Historic Paintings From the Fogg Museum to the Antiques Road Show." But, the events of Sept. 11 inspired her to create and perform an original tribute, based on historical fact, to fire fighters from Colonial times until the present.

On Sept. 11, Stoner was in London, an invited speaker at a British Museum conference on art conservation. "I was moved by the British response to the World Trade Center tragedy and was impressed by the courage of the fire fighters, police and others who responded to the emergency," she said, "This was my way of honoring them,"

In the dramatization, Stoner, in costume, portrays a fire fighter's widow from Colonial Philadelphia, whose husband was one of 12 fire fighters who perished in the Hamilton's Drawbridge fire. Her presentation is based on her research and historical fact.

"In my research, I learned that Colonial Philadelphia was an advanced city in terms of fire prevention and fire fighting, thanks in part to Benjamin Franklin. Houses were inspected for insurance and had to be in compliance, such as not having an oven too close to the house or trees that were fire hazards. Homes also were equipped with lightning rods, and each household had to have two fire buckets to put out fires and two linen sacks in which to transport treasured possessions. Whenever there was a fire, the household members threw their buckets in the street to be used by the fire brigade, and people with loud rattlers walked up the streets to warn of fires in place of today's sirens," she said.

"For my presentation, I showed slides and used letters and quotations from the Colonial past to the present time to illustrate the similarities between then and now–how timeless these tragedies are, how the suffering and concerns are alike. Then, as now, fire fighters had a special comradeship," she said.

"There was a lighter side to my presentation, too. I found a rollicking song about the bucket brigades and mentioned how it was known that when a tavern caught on fire, certain fire fighters responded with remarkable speed to save the barrels of beer and cider and threw flasks into their linen sacks."

The response from her audience of approximately 200 was positive for both her lecture and her presentation. A recent letter from the conference organizer noted that many considered her performance the highlight of the meeting, with one person writing that Stoner should be "regarded as a national treasure."

Stoner also presented The Bucket Brigade at a recent Winterthur seminar in November, and again the response was so favorable that plans are under way for public presentations as part of Winterthur's President's Day celebration on. Feb. 16, 17 and 18.

Stoner has written the book and lyrics of a "docu-musical (a musical based on historic fact)," entitled A Legacy Speaks, Cousin Harry's Collection, for Winterthur's 50th anniversary. She collaborated with James J. Weber, who wrote the music.

The musical's characters include a quartet of chairs, portrayed by actors, in different styles–William and Mary, Queen Anne, Federal and Empire–all collected by Winterthur's founder Henry Francis du Pont. The "chair" actors are in period costumes, with other actors portraying the duPonts and telling the history of the collection at Winterthur. Scott Mason, associate director of student centers, plays the role of "The Colonel," Henry Algernon du Pont, Henry Francis du Pont's father.

The musical begins with "On the Banks of the Brandywine," a history of the du Pont family and continues with Henry's courtship of his wife Ruth Wales du Pont in "Cows and Flowers." The show includes other musical numbers, such as a lively minuet of the chairs, called "Period Styles"; "Dances with Dealers"; and "Americana Mania," a Charleston number, remembering the 1920s, when antiquing became a national pastime and American decorative arts became a legitimate field.

A preview performance was held for the Society of Winterthur Fellows in September. An article in the December issue of Maine Antique Digest said "If the preview is any indication, it will be on demand for a national tour. Stoner...is a brilliant lyricist, a combination of Gilbert and Sullivan and the writers for Saturday Night Live."

Stoner said her ideas frequently come to her as she works on restoring paintings, and she keeps a pencil and paper handy to jot them down.

In the 1970s, she wrote an off-Broadway show, I'll Die If I Can't Live Forever, which was called "the best mini-musical in town" by The New York Times. More recently, she was commissioned to write docu-musicals on the Underground Railroad in Delaware and women's suffrage in the state, both performed at schools throughout Delaware with support from the Delaware Humanities Forum.

The Bucket Brigade will be presented in the Rotunda of Winterthur Museum at 1:30 p.m., Feb. 16, 17 and 18. The performance is open to those with an estate passport ticket and is free to children under 16.

A Legacy Speaks will be performed at 8 p.m., March 7, 9, 15, 16 and 21, and at 2 p.m., March 10, 17 and 24 in the Copeland Lecture Hall at Winterthur. Tickets for the evening performances are $18 for limited orchestra seating with all other seats $15. A combination dinner buffet and performance are offered every evening except March 7 for $50 for limited orchestra seating and $45 for other seats. Matinee performances are $15 for limited orchestra seating and all other seats $12. Brunch is available before the matinee performances. Reservations are required for the dinner buffet and brunch and recommended for all performances. For information or reservations call 888-4600 or (800) 448-3883.

Photo by KATHY FLICKINGER