Drama club showcases feats of Wisconsin women who never became household names


For seventh-grader Susan Venderbloemen, the lessons in drama club aren’t limited to acting and stagecraft. They also include penicillin. The miracle drug was used by Elizabeth Stone, a farm wife who treated victims of timber accidents in Peshtigo in the 1800s. That was a good seven decades before Dr. Alexander Fleming “discovered” penicillin.

It’s one of the remarkable facts revealed in “Uncommon Lives: The Missing Half of Wisconsin History,” a humble pamphlet first published in 1976 whose stories are now reaching a new generation, including Susan and her theater friends.

No fancy covers or graphics here: “Uncommon Lives” documents, in simple photocopy style, the remarkable achievements of Wisconsin women such as Lutie Stearns, who established 150 free public libraries across Wisconsin. It tells the story of Electa Quinney, a Stockbridge-Munsee indigenous woman who opened a school for Native Americans and poor whites, considered Wisconsin’s first public school; and of Emma Brown, publisher of The Wisconsin Chief, a news publication focused on alcohol temperance, prison and factory conditions and women’s rights.

Written by Victoria Brown and commissioned by the Wisconsin Feminists Project Fund, Inc., “Uncommon Lives” was republished in 2004 by the Wisconsin Women’s Network.

“Uncommon Lives” has inspired dramatic presentations in the past, many of them in classrooms or school assemblies. This fall, Donna Peckett and Danielle Dresden, both producing artistic directors of Madison’s TAPIT/new works, began adapting the text for the drama club at Whitehorse Middle School, an after-school program sponsored by Madison School & Community Recreation.

The script — now called “Stranger Than Fiction” — is still evolving; playwright Dresden makes constant changes depending on the input from the students during rehearsals.

Turning history into high-energy theater is nothing new for Dresden and Peckett, whose recent slice-of-life productions include “Bullying: The Musical,” based on the stories of area students about real-life bullying incidents; “Take Care,” which came out of interviews with some 300 elder care providers; and “Mangia, Mangia!,” a joyful food-based story about Italians in Madison’s old Greenbush neighborhood.

UW-Whitewater professor Nikki Mandell is consulting on “Stranger Than Fiction,” which will be presented this spring in fourth-grade classrooms at Schenk Elementary in Madison and Stoner Prairie Elementary in Fitchburg. On May 10, the production will be featured at the Wisconsin Women’s Policy Institute, put on by the Wisconsin Women’s Network at the Madison Hilton Hotel.

For 13-year-old Kalianna Pivet, a seventh-grader at Whitehorse, “it’s really cool to be able to learn that women from Wisconsin have made such an impact on U.S. history.”

Women’s history “is something that you don’t always think about,” agreed eighth-grader Mary Rottier, 14. “I don’t very often look back and say, ‘Hey, a long time ago women didn’t have the right to vote.’ It’s something you don’t really think about until you do something like this.”

In “Stranger Than Fiction,” the lessons have been brought into the 21st century with references to female trailblazers such as former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

And there are those other lessons — the ones that might be missing from most social studies’ textbooks, said 12-year-old Susan Venderbloemen.

“I’m really wondering if it’s all the guys who did all the good stuff,” she said. “I’m wondering what might have been overlooked.”

Category: Reviews  |  Tags:

Comments are closed.