In True Form
Docents at Berkshire’s historic sites bring the past to life––and find inner peace
Interpreters Jack Steffek, Jeffrey Brace, and Stephanie Guelpa in front of an authentic Shaker building.
Photographs by Christina Rahr Lane
During the season she spent as an interpreter at Hancock Shaker Village, Cynthia Wade slowed down, focused on the tasks at hand and listened to the silence. “I needed to get out of my own head—maybe even out of this century,” the local filmmaker and freelance director recalls of her decision to volunteer one day each week at the living-history museum.
Wade dressed as a Shaker woman, circa 1880s, and busied herself with cooking in the Brick Dwelling, weaving in the Sisters Shop, and helping with the Shaker music program. Her friends called it “bonnet therapy” and, despite the fact that her Toyota Highlander was parked in the back lot, Wade tried to channel the Shakers. She became more deliberate, less distracted, and more patient.
What Wade describes is but one facet of that which drives tour guides—and visitors alike—to historic locales where distant, albeit audible, echoes of the past remain. As a result, being transported to a bygone era, while remaining firmly footed in the present, becomes the real cultural attraction.
Jack Steffek, whose full beard lends authenticity to his interpretation of a Shaker woodworker, shares Wade’s sentiments. “It’s quiet, and I don’t get in a hurry,” he says of his work in the old tannery where the floor is littered with fresh wood shavings. “Hand tools are sometimes better and faster,” he explains, noting how the 150-year-old Shaker tools evoke thoughts of those who used them and an understanding of their life.
“The idea is that we are facilitators of the past,” explains Cindy Dickinson, director of education at Hancock Shaker Village (HSV). “Our use of the term interpreter is meant to imply perhaps you are entering a world you are unfamiliar with, but you’ll be guided,” she adds.
While historic dress sets the tone of the time period, Dickinson is quick to explain the difference between first-person interpretation—the taking on of a particular persona from the past—versus an exploration of the nearly two centuries that Shakers inhabited the City of Peace. “When visitors share in that experience, it ultimately breeds understanding,” says Dickinson of the years spanning 1783-1960.
Stephanie Guelpa’s role as an interpreter has allowed her to ruminate on the importance of humanity and all she aspires to. “Simplicity, flexibility, spirituality—all the good stuff,” the volunteer from Copake, New York, recounts. “I respect the Shakers very much. They sacrificed a lot for how they lived—and it worked.” (Photo right: Stephanie Guelpa leads visitors in traditional song and dance at Hancock Shaker Village.)
Which, in many ways, is not always true in today’s fast-paced society. Shaker men and women were celibate, as carnal desire interrupted their underlying belief in “hands to work, hearts to God,” and their belief in “separate but equal” prevailed. Despite separate stairs, separate entrances to communal buildings, and separate seating at meetings, women were never discriminated against. In the absence of options in the 19th century, the Shaker lifestyle was different but appealing.
Interpreter Jeffrey Brace agrees. “I wanted to sense what an 18th century person felt,” he says, clad in a simple linen tunic of his own making, citing HSV as one of the neatest places to work, ever. Brace, who is transitioning into retirement, made a living in the fields of timber framing and non-traditional carpentry, both professions grounded in 18th-century living. His avid love of history coupled with nearly nine years volunteering at HSV have given him what he calls an inside look at the Shaker story, one which has allowed him to connect with the people he talks about on a daily basis.
This connection is precisely what fuels Anne Schuyler’s (photo left) first-person interpretation of Anna Catherine Bahlmann, the governess-turned-secretary of Edith Wharton. The two had what Schuyler refers to as, “an incredibly enthusiastic relationship about books and writing.” In fact, Wharton’s childhood copy of Dante’s Inferno, inscribed by her brother, Harry, as well as the original correspondence between Schiller and Goethe, a gift from Bahlmann to young Edith in 1878, are housed in Wharton’s library and part of the Backstairs Tour at The Mount.
This behind-the-scenes tour, which offers visitors a glimpse into the daily life of the men and women who ran the estate, is conducted completely “in character,” affording visitors an authentic—albeit staged—experience while exploring the rooms where Wharton once trod.
Schuyler and her colleague, Elric Walker (photo left and below right), embody but a pair of the more than 16 servants, including permanent staff and seasonal workers who were employed at The Mount between 1901-1911 while the Whartons were in residence. Walker, in his role as Alfred White, the Whartons’ longtime butler, greets visitors in the main entry hall as if they were arriving for a weekend visit.
“Good day,” he begins, employing an authentic cockney accent to suggest his character’s hailing from the working-class East London neighborhood. “If at any time you are in need of anything I, Alfred White, am at your service,” Walker declares before leading guests to the main floor, pausing only to make exacting square steps on each landing of the grand staircase as he ascends.
Walker says that with each tour, he is able to delve a bit deeper into White’s life and personality while simultaneously taking some liberties in the interpretation. Walker points to one of the most poignant moments on the tour—when White relates the story of his wife’s death from tuberculosis in 1901, the year construction began on The Mount—as a moment where, as an actor, he is able to bring some emotional impact to the role. “It comes and goes quite fast but if done well it can leave a lasting impression of this man,” he concludes.
Schuyler, too, has cultivated a great appreciation for the unsung heroines of the day, thanks to her work at The Mount. Her deepening understanding of Anna Bahlmann, who faced many obstacles in her own life simply to obtain the high level of education and intellectual prowess she possessed, has grown since assuming the secretary’s persona. “Bahlmann doesn’t get the recognition for this that Edith Wharton gets, but in her own way it was just as remarkable,” says the director of visitor services at The Mount. “As a single woman, she was able to fashion a life of humanitarian and intellectual significance. I enjoy bringing her story, and the stories of the other servants, alive for our visitors.”
That said, if anyone inquires as to life after 1911—the year the Whartons were divorced and left Lenox—they might be out of luck. First-person interpretation requires staying in character, which, even when pressed, Schuyler and Walker do to a fault. “I try not to know too much,” says Schuyler, whose character died in 1916, at which point Wharton had written just a fraction of the volumes she would go on to pen. Walker, on the other hand, remains impeccably in character, employing the utmost discretion when confronted, even with the most impolite of questions. Not one to suffer a foolish question without bristling a bit, White would likely have found a way to answer any question without offending given his position as a servant of the house. In short, the challenges of the job often translate to entertainment for visitors.
At Steepletop, in nearby Austerlitz, New York, docents lead the way for visitors hoping to gain a better understanding of the life and writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The word docent, which can be traced to its Latin root docere, meaning to teach, loosely translates to one who promotes learning or is a knowledgeable guide. There are docents who can recite Millay’s poetry, others who are well versed as to the volumes in her library, and still others who are experts on Millay’s gardens. As to the tie that binds them together? “I think of our docents as storytellers,” says Martha Raftery manager of visitors services at Steepletop. “We start with a script, and each docent makes it their own.”
T.M. Hawley is one such docent who appreciates the opportunity to share with visitors his passion for Millay’s rich life at Steepletop. “It’s not so much transporting people to her time, as much as getting people to appreciate her in our time,” Hawley says. He is full of amusing anecdotes—which in summer center on Millay’s annual tennis tournament, held on her clay-surface courts, and revolve around participants being chosen based on the level of humor in their application letter. Millay hosted wild parties, complete with drinking, invited guests to swim in her pool sans bathing suits, hosted itinerant theater companies to perform open-air productions, and simultaneously produced some of the greatest American poetry.
“She was a superstar in her time,” Hawley explains, while working to dispel what he calls a one-dimensional view of Millay. Many visitors have heard of her wild life, while others know Millay simply as a highly regarded poet. What Hawley finds fascinating is that both sides of Millay existed at the same time. Hawley is keen on introducing visitors to Millay’s poetry and has been known to recite “Dirge Without Music” upon request. For him, it is a sharing experience: “It’s just so wonderful to encounter true Millay fans. You recite poetry and see how they respond. It feels like such a gift to give that to them.”
Regardless of the approach, or the terminology used to describe those guiding your visit, one thing is certain. A playful examination of the respective time period ensues when visitors wend their way through cultural attractions alongside a passionate guide. In fact, Cynthia Wade was so inspired by her time at HSV as both a visitor and interpreter, the experiences continue to permeate her work. She is currently writing a screenplay based on a true story of two Shakers who ran away from the community and eloped in 1871—with deeply complicated results. Any Friday she is not traveling for work, she and her producer/writer husband, Matthew Syrett, make their way to Hancock. They inevitably slow down while scouring documents and gleaning details for their screenwriting process, with one ear cocked, listening for the distant echoes of a bygone era.