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Where Hope Is: Stories of Benedictine Influence

Where Hope Is: Stories of Benedictine Influence

An interview with playwright Jenn Bokoch Gillett and director Ashley Thaxton-Stevenson 
The new interview-based play Where Hope Is: Stories of Benedictine Influence will debut in Erie on June 30. It reflects a snapshot-in-time – 1960s to 1980s – of the influence of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and is created from a dozen conversations selected from more than 60 interviews Jenn conducted with St. Benedict Academy (SBA) alumnae, Benedictine sisters, and others. The story is one of spirituality, community, and steadfastness in facing questions of meaning, faith, and gospel accountability. It’s a story of prophetic voices and compassionate commitment to those denied a place at any table. It’s a poignant—and sometimes humorous—women’s story of ongoing potential for new generations seeking connection and meaning today.

Those who go before us shape who we become. Jenn, what have you learned about your own story through conversation with women who played a role in shaping the lives of your mom and your aunt and, through them, you and your generation?

In storytelling or any sort of creative exercise, intergenerational communication is always important to me. Part of why I wanted to do this project is because my mom and my aunt are no longer with me, and I have a lot of questions that I would have liked to ask of them. (Editor’s note: Jenn’s mom, Janet Nicolia Bokoch, SBA Class of ’72, died in September 2022, and her aunt, Mary Ann Nicolia Kuta, SBA Class of ’68, died in March 2023, both after Jenn began work on this project.) Occasionally when I’ve interviewed somebody and they remember the “Nicolia sisters” it makes me feel a little bit closer to my mom and my aunt. Being able to hear stories about them and see images of them when they were teenagers makes me feel closer to them, even though they’re no longer with us.

Jenn, your more than 60 interviewees spanned generations. Was there any single thread that connects them? Can you tell us about it?

Through the interviews I have been reminded that people generally want to do good. What that looks like can change from generation to generation but everyone I spoke with wanted to leave a positive impression both on the world and in their interactions with others. 

Another throughline is everyone I spoke with, in every age group, absolutely loves the Benedictine Sisters of Erie! The sisters have had such an impact on people from every generation over the span of many decades. I’m sure they’ve touched many people before the time that our process has focused on, and that people will continue to be impacted by their important work today and their future work.

Not very long ago women’s stories were largely ignored, and those that survived were mostly written by men and told from their vantage point. Ashley, what does it mean to you and your actors to be bringing these women’s stories to light?

Throughout time, the history of women and women’s stories have been set aside as not as important, as too mundane, not exciting, or not interesting enough to take a forefront in our imaginations and our storytelling practices. In many ways this play, Where Hope Is, counteracts that. In addition to being artistically exciting for us, the process of creating this play has taken on significance as an important piece of history that we are documenting. It’s been joyful to be in a creative community, lifting up the fact that women’s work matters.

One of the exciting things to me is that we have the technology to capture women’s stories in their own voices. (Editor’s note: All Jenn’s interviews will be made available in an online archive.) It is incredibly powerful every time a woman is given the time and space to tell her own story. It’s been special to be the ones facilitating that specific opportunity for SBA alumnae and the Benedictine sisters. 

Telling stories of the past is key to shaping the future. The play Where Hope Is: Stories of Benedictine Influence remembers what was. Jenn, how do you see the play shining a light on the future of Benedictine community and the sharing of Benedictine values? Where IS the hope for today’s young people?

The Benedictine sisters live in and understand the real world and the challenges people face; rather than watching from the sidelines, they take action. I feel like this is extremely rare and witnessing that kind of resolve and dedication has been inspiring to us and to every actor or audience member who has been a part of the development of this piece. The Benedictine sisters are living proof that through faith, peace, and love we can care for each other and our world. They offer a living example to young(er) generations that the actions of a community can truly make a lasting difference. We can feel hope for the future by looking to the past and seeing how far we’ve come. The Benedictine sisters provide an inspirational example of the good that can happen when people truly care, and they can give us strength for the work that lies ahead.

Ashley, can you say something about the genre, “interview-based theater,” and what our audience can expect to experience?

Jenn and I both studied interview-based theater techniques in our time in NYU’s Program in Educational Theater. Our experience creating Where Hope Is (and our other artistic collaborations) builds on the legacy of theater artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, Johnny Saldaña, Joe Salvatore, and the Verbatim Performance Lab at NYU, and the Tectonic Theater Project. Each of these artists engages in ethnographic research as part of their theater making process—collecting stories and data through research and interviews which are then brought to life onstage. Scripts for these projects are created from the transcripts of interviews, as well as news articles, photos and video, and other primary sources. As we worked through the transcripts and videos from Jenn’s 60+ interviews for this project, we noticed themes and ideas emerging and put together a script that highlights both specific memories and anecdotes, as well as larger theological and social concepts. While not every interviewee’s voice will be heard in the play itself, each interview was essential to our understanding of the lasting legacy of the Benedictine sisters and SBA on the lives of individuals and the city of Erie. And while every voice may not be present in the play, we are thrilled to share excerpts of every interview, all of which were deeply moving, in our online archive.

Something Jenn and I are particularly interested in is combining this work of interview “data” with physical devising techniques and collaborative theater making practices. So, what can you expect to see in the staged reading of this play? You will hear the words of Benedictine sisters and SBA alumnae (verbatim from transcripts of their interviews!) performed by actors with scripts in hand. There will be music, video clips, and physical storytelling. And perhaps most importantly, there will be an audience to witness and share in these stories and the creative process!

Buy your tickets now!