by Jay O'Callahan
Reprinted from The Tale Trader
The Story Store Focus this issue is on creating "Pouring the Sun," a long story about an immigrant woman in a steelmaking city. Creating a long story is like joining the army. It takes time, it opens you to a new world and changes you.
In January of 1996, I stood with a former steelworker on Fourth Street in the steel making city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania at sunrise on a freezing winter morning. The streets were still empty. A block away the great black blast furnaces looked like frozen black castles. They sat silent. I looked up at Webster Street, one of the many steep streets on the South Side. My friend, Francis, in his late seventies said, "Forty years I came down this street for my shift. For a hundred years steel workers came down these streets going 'to work.
"Different nationalities?" I asked.
"Oh yeah. Down Hayes Street, you had Italians. Ridge Street was Polish and Russian. Maybe some Lithuanian. Then you had the Windish."
"Yugoslavian. Then Irish, German, and Greek. You had everybody. There used to be a Mexican village right on the steel property. That was way back."
"Hey, Louis," Francis called to a spare man in an overcoat. "How about some coffee? My friend, Jay, here is writing a story about steel."
Louis was a thin, black eyed man in his late seventies.
"I worked in the steel in 1936," Louis said. "The beams we made became the Golden Gate Bridge."
I was standing on the frozen street because I'd agreed to create and perform a story about steel making and the steel making community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Bridget George, managing director of the Touchstone Theater, had asked me and Lehigh University then commissioned me to do the story.
I interviewed steelworkers, historians, waitresses, engineers, a former president of Bethlehem Steel, steel salesmen, professors, waitresses, union organizers and former superintendents and foremen. After two years I knew a lot about steel and thought the story was too big to do.
The story had become so overwhelming, I wrote Bridgett George of the Touchstone Theater saying the story was too big to do. Bridgett wrote back saying, "Trust that you'll find the story in one moment. And if you don't do the story, you'll break my heart." That was the perfect thing to say. Bridgett supported me, she believed in me. No one, certainly no artist, can create without support. That was the first lesson. Get support.
The second lesson was realizing that I could only provide a window into the steel making community. I couldn't do all the stories. I had to choose who it would be about and let the story be. Taking Bridgett's advice I was on the lookout for one moment.
I sat down with 82 year old John Waldony in his living room and felt warmed by his humor. John, who had been a local union president at Bethlehem Steel, told me stories about his dad, Fritz, working all his life for Bethlehem Steel. John talked of his dad's drinking to "cut the dust." John also told me of his involvement in the violent strike in 1941. John said, "The State Police came in on horseback and broke up the strike with clubs. They called them the Coal and Iron Police." His details were vivid and sharp. I was onto the story.
The next crucial step was sitting down with John Waldony's sister, Mary Soltysiak, in her kitchen at 721 Ridge Street. Ridge Street is at the top of one of the steep hills, and from Mary's kitchen I could see the blast furnaces far below. "Yeah," Mary said, "We had the flecks all over the vegetables." Mary's voice is bright and strong. "Our mother got us through," Mary said. "In the Depression our mother got us through. She was tough."
Mary and John's mother, Ludvika Moskal, came to American by herself when she was eighteen. I was struck by the image of a young woman setting out on her own with little money, little education and no English. Ludvika became a force that nothing, including the Depression, could defeat. The image of that young woman standing on a ship coming to America, was alive to me. I had my moment. I could see the story in her eyes.
I learned several things that are crucial to creating a big story. I mentioned support and not trying to do too big a story. I also learned the importance of commitment. For two years I felt I could back out of the project, but the day that I made a firm commitment things began to move.
Trust the images. Imagining steelworkers coming down those steep hills, brought the whole South Side alive to me. The image of Ludvika on the ship had fire for me. Images are like torches leading us through the dark. I had to remind myself over and over to trust the images.
I learned once again that having a feeling for the place of the story is all important. I walked the South Side of Bethlehem over and over. I visited the union hall. I toured the steel plant. I sat in Mary's kitchen where Ludvika had spend so much of her life. Kitchen talk is the real thing.
I knew the story needed a chance to grow. Stories grow when they're told to people. I scheduled times to tell "Pouring the Sun" in living rooms as I toured the country. In between tellings, I worked on scenes with Doug Lipman. A full year before the Steel Festival, I told "Pouring the Sun" as a Work in Progress at the Touchstone Theater.
I also had many rehearsals at my house. I invited neighbors and they brought friends.
Making the story was like climbing the Appalachian Trail. There were times I could not believe how steep the hills were. There were times when the fog was thick and I lost my way. And there were times when I just loved the beauty of the characters.
I finally performed "Pouring The Sun" at the Steel Festival. The night was blustery, a hurricane was sweeping over the east coast. Mary Soltysiak and John Waldony came with the Waldony family. Steel workers came, community people came. Mary said after the story, "You're part of our family now." The story had grown up. "Pouring the Sun" gave me a deep respect for the immigrants who built the great cities of this country.
The Tale Trader