(Webmaster Note: The following is from the South Bend Tribune, 9/19/04)
Multimedia play revives memories of firm, bygone past
By Howard Dukes
Tribune Staff Writer
SOUTH BEND -- If you've lived in South Bend for long and are over the age of 50, chances are you know somebody who lost their job when the Studebaker Corp. went out of business.
The impact of the collapse of big industry on families is one thing that attracted Michael Coffee of Niles to the play "Avanti: A Postindustrial Ghost Story," which premieres at the former Deluxe Sheet Metal factory, south of Stanley Coveleski Stadium in downtown South Bend, on Friday.
"My father worked for National Steel," Coffee said. "He was an executive for National Steel, and he was there (during) the buyout by U.S. Steel, and he lost his pension."
Coffee, who has roles as a Studebaker executive as well as an employee of the company, added that three generations of his family members of worked for National Steel.
The play is a large-scale multimedia production that depicts the 1963 closing of Studebaker, foreshadowing similar plant closings that followed throughout the country.
Playwright Jessica Chalmers said she named the play after the stylishly futuristic car that was the company's last-ditch effort at financial solvency. Chalmers is an assistant professor in the department of film, television and theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
"Forty years later, Studebaker's closing still affects the city of South Bend," said director Marianne Weems, a member of The Builders Association, a New York-based performing arts company, co-producing the production with the university. "The feeling you get when you drive through the town like this about the struggle it took to overcome a big closing like that really interests me."
In the play, a demolition team that is preparing to implode one of the former Studebaker buildings encounters the ghost of a former Studebaker secretary.
The ghost serves as defender of employee records that were supposed to be destroyed at the time of the plant's closing, and is guarding the memories of the people who worked there.
The play switches between the past and present with video that projects old photos of the factory during its heyday and interviews with former employees made in the years after Studebaker closed.
The audience also meets characters such as Sherwood Egbert, one of Studebaker's last presidents who pinned the company's salvation on the Avanti.
The encounter between the ghost and the demolition team symbolizes the struggle between past and present that is resolved by the factory's demolition, Weems said.
Ultimately, the play is more about the past than the present, said Robin Slutsky, executive producer.
"It's not about the buildings, and it's not about the economy," Slutsky said. "It's about our perceived memories of a time and place."
To that end, Weems hopes the audience gets a sense of the respect everyone involved with the production has for Studebaker's legacy.
"I hope people feel the past is somewhat honored," Weems said. "There are these testimonials and a kind of acknowledgment of the glory days of Studebaker.
"At the same time, for me, there is a big question about what's going to happen to those kind of jobs, and it's not that we answer the question but that we raise it in an evocative and kind of ghostly way."
The fact that the performance venue will be an old factory only adds to the ghostly feel of the play. As do the video projectors which show old photographs and interviews with former employees.
"It's somewhere between film and theater," Weems said.
Transforming the space into a theater presented several challenges. The production staff had to figure out the best way to get the audience into and out of the space, Slutsky said. And a roof leak had to be repaired.
Still, doing a play about postindustrial change on the floor of an empty factory has some advantages.
"We are trying to create an environment that tries to evoke a past that has gone by," Weems said.
"Part of putting it in a factory is to remind people of that and to evoke those memories as visceral as possible."
Tribune staff writer Howard Dukes: email@example.com
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