The ever-relevant topic of immigration was on dramatic display from Oct. 11-15 when Eastern premiered “Thread City,” a unique performance that “told” stories of the immigrants who came to Willimantic to work in its historic thread mills.
The dialogue-free performance blended choreographed movement, visual projections and folky-electronic soundscapes to convey a heartfelt and historically representative tale of immigration to America.
In their 19th- and 20th-century heyday, Willimantic’s thread mills were among the largest producers of textiles in the world – manufacturing thread for clothing, the red stitching used on baseballs and the thread used to secure seat belts for General Motors. They were major employers in northeastern Connecticut, drawing workers from New England and beyond. Willimantic became a hotbed of immigration. According to U.S. Census data, 29 percent of Windham residents were foreign born in 1910, with people from 26 different nations living in town.
“Thread City” opens with a stage that represents many different countries and eras. Multiple scenes that happen simultaneously fade in and out of action as a spotlight moves about the stage. As the setting shifts to a turbulent transcontinental boat ride, the performance space eventually comes to represent Willimantic exclusively – including its homes and the hazardous work environment of the mills.
Due to the multicultural theme of “Thread City,” it was important to the creators to devise a play that would transcend language. Using “moment work” – a theatrical technique in which individual moments are dissected and explored – actors conveyed the stories of immigrants without the use of words.
Several years of research and preparation went into “Thread City,” which involved visiting historical sites, researching testimonies of past residents and interviewing current Willimantic residents. Theatre Professors Kristen Morgan and Alycia Bright-Holland, co-creators of the production, traveled to Quebec and Puerto Rico – the origins of two of the largest ethnic groups to migrate to Willimantic – and led a class trip Ellis Island in New York City.
“Wandering through the beautifully curated exhibits at the Ellis Island museum inspired our students to create all sorts of new ‘moments’ when we returned to campus,” wrote Morgan and Bright-Holland, who led moment-work workshops and co-taught two upper-level theatre courses to prepare for “Thread City.”
While “Thread City” would not fall under the genre of musical, rhythm and soundscapes play a star role in advancing the story. “This project drove me to immerse myself in the folk music of the major immigrant groups of Willimantic,” said composer Travis Houldcroft, media specialist at Eastern. “I strove to develop music that fit the show but was also exemplary of my own style.”
Houldcroft’s compositions, which he performed live, were played on banjo and guitar, as well as a laptop, which he used to loop sounds and manipulate effects. “This allowed me to integrate elements of string instrumentation as well as experimental electronic effects into the score. This aesthetics bleeds into the design of the soundscape.”
“We discussed the idea of a performance created specifically for Willimantic – not something simply ‘for’ the community, but something that would engage residents so that they might see themselves truly reflected and represented on stage.”
“Today more than ever, we need that physical and emotional connection to one another,” they concluded. “Theatre has the power to transform, to heal, to activate and ultimately to create social and political change.”