Children’s play highlights Great Lakes maritime history

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Jeff Duncan wrote short stories for years and they never went anywhere. Until one day, his friend at the Iowa Review told him the dialogue always was great in his stories. That’s when it hit him – he should write plays.

Twenty years later, Duncan just finished his 23rdplay. This one is for the Wild Swan Theater in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the plays are for children, he said.

The set of Jeff Duncan’s play Shipwrecked! shown at Wild Swan Theater. Photo: Hilary Cohen

Shipwrecked! is a play about a family caught in a storm while transporting Christmas trees in 1893, he said.

“They’re a family that owns a boat and does Great Lakes shipping,” he said. “November is a good month to have a wreck and in 1893 there was a bad recession so that’s why they were doing it.”

The project began when the Michigan Humanities Council awarded Wild Swan a grant to write a play about maritime disasters to be performed all over Michigan, Duncan said. The play has shown at various elementary schools and will be shown at museums in Michigan.

“There was a woman who used to do a lot of short essays for NPR (National Public Radio),” Duncan said. “The only thing she could get all first graders to read about was maritime disasters. During the research, I found the amount (of people) who have gone down is amazing. Thirty thousand people have drowned (in the Great Lakes).”

Hilary Cohen co-founded the Wild Swan Theater 32 years ago when she and her friends realized there was a need for a good, accessible theater for young people, she said.

Shipwrecked! is pretty typical of how we start a process,” she said. “We have an idea, but leave a lot open. We did a lot of research, we went to a lot of museums and we learned from great maritime historians and different eras of shipping in Michigan.”


The cast of Shipwrecked! had to stay small so they could travel around Michigan easily. Photo: Hilary Cohen

Wild Swan produces plays that do not talk down to children and keep them engaged, she said. It is also accessible to the disabled.

Duncan said there are usually two people doing sign language during every play that are in costume and a part of the show.

“We wanted to make sure everything was very professional and as accessible as possible,” Cohen said. “So we started looking into sign language and descriptive audio services to make the plays available.”

Duncan said if the play is good, adults will like it as much as children. His goal for Shipwrecked! is the same as every other play he writes – to excite people about the arts.

“Well always, with every play, I want kids to be fired up about plays and works of imagination,” he said. “And with this one, to be fired up about history and Michigan history; the teachers I talk to hardly do anything with the lakes when studying Michigan history.

“It is absolutely fascinating, and exciting and dramatic. This is the Great Lakes state, right?”

Shipwrecked! will be performed at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, Mich., on April 20 (not open to the public) and April 21, and will move on to Detroit to play the Detroit Historical Society on Belle Isle on May 16, 17 and 18.

The play also is seeking funds to travel to the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point and Peter White Library in Marquette.

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