What’s a bunch of stories add up to? History.” So says the delightfully plainspoken housekeeper in Piecework: When We Were French (2009), a one-woman play written and performed by Vermonter Abby Paige. Scholars would be hard-pressed to disagree with the elderly gossip, who dishes with the audience as she tidies up St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Burlington after the funeral of a fellow aged Vermonter of French Canadian descent. But how are the housekeeper’s stories preserved and passed on? How do they become part of what we call history? “The old ways die with the old people,” she warns.
Oral histories record first-person experiences, but tapes and transcripts often languish in dusty archives. Piecework shows how a playwright can bring these tales to life. Poetic and powerful, it stitches together colorful narratives of Vermonters with French Canadian roots. Paige plays nearly a dozen characters, both women and men, representing a wide range of ages, occupations and perspectives. She engages the audience effectively because she writes and acts with insight and humor.
Paige performed Piecework at Lost Nation Theater’s Winterfest last weekend, and takes the show to Marlboro, Middlebury and Burlington in early March. The one-act play was commissioned for, and debuted at, last summer’s Lake Champlain Quadricentennial celebration. For the South Burlington native, however, it was a desire to make sense of her own heritage that motivated her to undertake the project.
Paige’s family came to Vermont from Québec a few generations ago. In the past few years, as she began to spend more time north of the border, “I started to understand just how much ‘French Canadian’ does not describe what we are,” she says. “That feeling intensified two years ago when I moved to Montréal full time.” In part, she says, Piecework seeks to decode the “vague but strong ancestral attachment” of Vermonters to Québec.
As theater, Piecework succeeds because the characters feel remarkably authentic. At least one of them is guaranteed to remind you of a Vermont neighbor you know by name. Paige listened to oral histories from the Vermont Folklife Center and conducted her own interviews with family and community members. She blended their tales to create contemporary fictional characters, such as the working mom, elderly uncle and woman baking a holiday pie. They speak directly to the audience, as if they are unspooling family yarns among friends.
Common themes emerge, particularly the loss of the French language. The baker remembers how the nuns in her school actively suppressed the mother tongue, even telling parents not to speak it to their children at home. “I feel like it got taken away from me, my Frenchness,” she reflects. Another recurring subject is how new immigrants from Québec faced ethnic and religious discrimination. The working mom realizes this may have affected her mother’s enthusiasm for passing on cultural traditions. “It had been very difficult for her, being French,” she admits.
The recollections overflow with sharply drawn specifics. “The details is where you get all your pizzazz,” the housekeeper sagely notes, as she complains about the dull eulogy given for Old Beaupré. Paige shuffles and slouches slightly to reflect the woman’s advanced age. But the housekeeper’s eyes twinkle irrepressibly as she remembers her departed neighbor “pissing on his vegetables” when she walked by his garden early on summer mornings. “He said he did it to keep the deer and groundhogs away, but I think he just liked to watch the unsuspecting look on people’s faces when he gave them beets and carrots in August,” she confides.
A few times, Paige alternates roles within a single scene. Because each person builds sentences and expresses thoughts so distinctively, changed language patterns signal the character switch. For example, two people talk about making the traditional tourtière (meat pie) at Christmas. The baker’s speech flows freely as she recalls how her female relatives have “just about come to blows over the spices.” By contrast, the reserved salesman parcels out his holiday memories haltingly. Paige lowers her vocal timbre slightly, but the shift is clear without her having to exaggerate physical differences.
Damien Bertrand’s sound design is integrated with the storytelling. When the lights dim slightly between scene changes, brief excerpts from recorded interviews play, accompanied by French Canadian music. Authentic voices and vibrant fiddling keep theatergoers connected to the reality of the history.
Between scenes, Paige replaces a costume item that goes over her neutral base outfit of brown pants and a pale gray shirt. The working mom sports a fitted purple blazer; the housekeeper wears an oversized, pale pink cardigan. When a character’s role is complete, Paige hangs the clothing beside the set’s central feature: Matilda Sargent’s pastel pieced quilt.
The quilt also operates as a gentle visual metaphor throughout the show. Individual pieces may have rough edges, but together they fit. In Piecework, Paige has assembled a patchwork of stories into a cohesive, beautiful whole.