Children’s play highlights Great Lakes shipwreck

By ALETHIA KASBEN

Capital News Service

LANSING — Jeff Duncan wrote short stories for years but they never went anywhere. Until one day, a friend at a literary magazine told him the dialogue in his stories was great.

That’s when it hit Duncan – he should write plays.

Twenty years later, Duncan finished “Shipwrecked,” a Great Lakes maritime tale for children. It’s his 23rd play.

The plot is about a family caught in a storm while transporting Christmas trees in 1893.

“They’re a family that owns a boat and does Great Lakes shipping,” said Duncan, who lives in Ann Arbor. “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 a grant to Ann Arbor’s Wild Swan Theater for a play about maritime disasters to be performed all over the state, Duncan said.

It’s been put on at a number of elementary schools and will be performed at several museums.

“There was a woman who used to do a lot of short essays for National Public Radio,” Duncan said. “The only thing she could get all first graders to read about was maritime disasters.”

In his research, Duncan discovered that 30,000 people have drowned in the Great Lakes, a number he calls “amazing.”

Wild Swan co-founder Hilary Cohen said “Shipwrecked” is fairly typical of how her theater starts such projects.

“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,” Cohen said.

Duncan said that if a play is good, adults will like it as much as children do. His goal for “Shipwrecked!” is the same as for all his plays – to excite people about the arts.

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

Other performance sites include the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena and the Detroit Historical Society. If funding is available, more potential venues are the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point and Peter White Library in Marquette.

Alethia Kasben writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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