The Treadwell mine holds historical importance for Alaska, and there are those who are committed to its remembrance. Sheila Kelly’s book “Treadwell Gold: An Alaska Saga of Riches and Ruin” depicted the period in Juneau’s history through historical research. Kelly envisioned more for her book and reached out to Seattle playwright Rachel Atkins, initiating the collaboration that concluded in the creation of the play “Treadwell Gold,” which is currently performing at the Perseverance Theatre.
Kelly’s original interest in the history of Treadwell arose from her curiosity toward her family’s history.
“It started out as a family memoir, because my father and his two sisters were born (at Treadwell),” Kelly said. “They would kind of tell me stories, and of course when I was young I didn’t pay attention. So as I got older I was much more interested, my father died, anyways, my aunts told me stories about living there.”
The Treadwell mine was founded in 1882, but her book’s story started in 1899 when her grandfather arrived as a machinist, then the three children were born, her father in 1899 and her aunts in 1901 and 1903. The Kelly family remained at Treadwell until 1925.
“In doing my research I couldn’t find enough really to just write about my family so I talked to other families, other children of Treadwell… and they had interesting stories too and so I started recording those also,” Kelly said.
The phenomena of a company town entranced Kelly.
“So I was researching in the library here in the archives. The photographic archives are so magnificent here. This was back in 1996 or so.” Kelly’s research expanded to studying the process of gold mining. “I’m no expert but I did spend some time learning and trying to understand and explain, articulate simply, what the whole process was,” Kelly said. “You get aware that Treadwell was a very significant part of opening up Alaska.”
Kelly’s research started in the 80s and she wrote two articles in 1985. “A Childhood in Treadwell” based completely off of her aunts’ memoirs and “Honey and Arch: an Alaskan love story” were both published in the Alaska Journal. Those memoir writings were created from a story in and of themselves. Arch, Kelly’s Aunt Honey’s husband, had a stroke and had to move from their home in Ketchikan back to Santa Barbara.
“To help Arch remember, my Aunt Honey would write little stories to help him remember,” Kelly said. “What she was doing was not just helping Arch remember. She was living in Santa Barbara then and she’s an Alaska girl, those memoirs allowed her to be back in Alaska. So those handwritten 100 pages were one of the primary resources I had to start out my writing.”
The University of Alaska Press published “Treadwell Gold: An Alaska Sage of Riches and Ruin” in 2010. The Rasmuson Foundation gave a grant to the Friends of the University of Alaska Press to assure the photographs used in the book had high quality handling.
“I was so thrilled that all my effort was honored,” Kelly said.
The book received special recognition from the Mining History Association (MHA).
Kelly remains involved with the ins and outs of this book and was recently in Fairbanks talking at MHA’s annual conference.
What started out as an interest in family somehow ended in a remarkable historically accurate book, which is the reason why Kelly calls herself “an accidental historian.”
“I learned the hard way,” Kelly said while addressing her tactics on writing the book. “Because I didn’t set out really clearly with my outline and I just let myself wander through all of these archives and photos and files and letters and all, so it wasn’t the most efficient way to produce it but it was rich and wonderful and fed me in lots of ways. And it resulted in, I think, a superb book, if I do say so myself.”
The book can be found at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum as well as Hearthside Books.
The reestablished interest in the book is due to the emergence of the play “Treadwell Gold.”
“I had the thought that it would be interesting to see it in a different genre, to see it on the stage. In fact jokingly after I finished this book, which took me 20 years, people would ask me, ‘Well what are you working on now?’ So I would jokingly say, well I’m working on ‘Treadwell the Musical,’” Kelly said. A positive response was received and Kelly decided to attempt turning her book into a play.
“The first thing you need, when doing something like that is you need a script. So you need to somehow turn a dense non-fiction book into a dramatic piece,” Kelly said. “Going from the page to the stage is a different set of skills. When I actually gave a run at it I found that it wasn’t one of my strengths.”
In 2013 she took a playwriting course, and then something happened. “I actually got cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and was sort of knocked out for a year,” Kelly said.
“I’ve been all clear since, but coming back from this… I thought okay, well, I still want to do this.”
So a friend pointed Kelly in the direction of Rachel Atkins and on St Patrick’s Day of 2015 they met over lunch. What began as collaboration ultimately ended with Kelly handing over the whole project to Atkins making her the adaptor.
“She’s very accomplished and skilled,” Kelly said. “She was exactly the kind of complementary kind of energy and skill that was necessary to move this from the page to the stage.”
Atkins writes for an educational theatre company that’s based in Seattle called Living Voices. It is a touring company that has been in Juneau for the Empty Chair Project.
“Through Living Voices I have 12 different multimedia shows that are all based on history and social justice,” Atkins said. “So I have a background in research based playwriting… Taking historical stories and creating theater, historical fiction theater that honors the history and is truthful to the history. What I always say about Living Voices is everything that happens to these people really happened to a person they just didn’t all happen to the same person. And so taking on Kelly’s book, it’s different in that the history is much more focused, but it felt like a similar challenge.”
Atkins didn’t waste any time and carved up the book into a tidier script. She limited the timeframe; redefining the story as taking place between July 4 of 1916 and July 4 of 1917; in-between that time was the cave-in of Treadwell.
“She formed it elegantly, covering a year,” Kelly said. “She also did a great job of carving down my cast of thousands into a cast of nine.”
When asked if the process was a challenge Kelly responded by saying, “Of course it was… because a play is by definition a fiction. Through this I’ve learned that fiction can bring certain and even higher levels of truth to an issue.”
There were moments of difficulty for Kelly.
“(Atkins) would say that in service of the play we need to do this or get rid of that and I’d argue or assert my point and she was very good at respecting my needs to respect the integrity of the story. She again, along with Art and the Perseverance people, helped me see… you can communicate truths, I don’t want to say above facts, that gets tricky, but there are ways to do it and drama and art does it in a different way than non-fiction writing.”
Kelly ended up stepping back because of the confidence she had in Atkins.
“Sheila had done all this incredible research on place and on these people,” Atkins said. “So taking what she had done and turning it into a story that people could follow on stage, whether that’s characters you can identify with, not necessarily bringing those real people, the exact real people, to life but bringing the story to life that reflects what it was really like for people living in Treadwell at that time felt like a really natural fit to what I already do.”
When Perseverance Theatre took it on Kelly was “pleased and honored.” Art Rotch, the Artistic Director of Perseverance Theatre, had been supportive of Kelly’s dream to turn her book into a play since October of 2013 at Philanthropy Northwest Regional Conference that both Kelly and Rotch attended. Kelly is on the board of the Charlotte Martin Foundation that is based out of Seattle, but has funded projects in Alaska.
“I approached Art with my book, he knew the book and he liked the book, immediately we connected and I had said what do you think about a play made from this and he had said ‘Oh that’s got possibilities’,” Kelly said. “And really from that point he’s been encouraging and supportive. Even through my illness he stopped by my house in Seattle and we continued to talk about the play.”
Since then Kelly and Atkins came up to Juneau in October of last year to do a reading and see if Perseverance was still interested.
“We had no expectation of this being a production; we certainly had a hope especially ‘cause this year will be the 100th anniversary of the cave-in. It had always made sense that if we were going to do something, 2017 was the year to do it. We didn’t have any kind of commitment from Perseverance cause we didn’t have a script yet. When we left here at the end of that trip it was with a question mark,” Atkins said. “Perseverance deciding to take this on was really last minute. I mean theatres generally plans their season a year, a year and a half in advance so to decide in October that they were doing to take this on as a production, basically as a special addition to their season less than a year later was a big leap of faith on their part and a big jump…. But of course it was great they were able to make it work because it is so timely to be doing it right now.”
Some of the play takes place underground, and the production team found a way for the audience to see above and below ground at the same time.
“They found some really cool ways to realize that on stage. Which is exciting,” Atkins said. “Another thing that is exciting is how they are using sound. Sound is such an incredible part of the mine; the mine was deafeningly noisy 24 hours a day. And that is present in the play. They figured out a way to create a deafening noise, or the sense of sound without drowning out actors.”
The audience can expect to see “exciting things with sound and projections” that will give a sense of what the Treadwell world felt, looked and sounded like while still allowing the actors to do their job and the audience to follow what’s happening on the stage.
“I wrote the most specific stage directions I ever have before. There are very specific things that happen especially on the day of the big disaster. And I think it’s the favorite stage direction I’ve ever written ‘A 200 foot geyser comes up the shaft from the mines!’ I’m not going to tell you how, but they make a 200 foot geyser come up on the stage,” Atkins said. “A 200 foot geyser! That’s too good to not put in the script. And they did figure it out.”
Remaining times to watch the play are Thursday, June 29 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 2 at 4 p.m., and Monday, July 3, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets to Treadwell Gold are available at the Perseverance Theatre box office, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, Hearthside Books, by calling 463-TIXS, and at ptalaska.org. Treadwell Gold is specially priced at $25 with $20 for military and seniors, $20 for subscribers, and $15 for youth. $15 Rush tickets are available 30 minutes before curtain for each performance, space available.