Signature Theatre’s world-premiere of “The Voices on Blackwell Island” focuses on two badass, fearless women of the turn-of-the-century, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Packard. Bly went undercover in a woman’s mental institution in 1887 to expose the inhumane treatment of patients, documenting her work in the groundbreaking piece of investigative journalism “Ten Days in a Madhouse.” Packard, forced into an insane asylum by her abusive husband, became a champion for women’s rights, winning a landmark case against her husband and founding the Anti-Insane Asylum Society, which fought for other women imprisoned against their will.
As part of their education program, Signature in the Schools, 28 high school students from Arlington public schools will form the cast and crew of “The Voices on Blackwell Island” alongside one of the District’s most beloved actors, Holly Twyford. It’s a pretty heavy historical topic, but as playwright Dani Stoller shares, the students are finding connections to many of today’s issues, from the overturn of Roe v. Wade to the toxic masculinity of Andrew Tate and his takedown by 20-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg.
We spoke with Stoller about the drama, finding inspiration in today’s teens and why this isn’t just another high school production. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
District Fray: Can you tell us about “The Voices on Blackwell Island”?
Dani Stoller: It’s sort of historical fiction, inspired by two real women. Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Packard, whose work was instrumental in shedding light on issues in the asylum system and the ways they were mistreating their patients, specifically women. When [Signature in the Schools] picks out a new play idea every year, it has to be based on something students are going to be learning or a book they’re reading. Last year, it was “The Great Gatsby.” When Roe was overturned, we wanted something that highlights the historical truth that institutionalization has often been used as a way of policing women’s bodies. Because at that time, men could have their wives committed with just a hearing.
That’s what happened to Packard. Didn’t her husband commit and imprison her?
Yeah. She was basically like, “Hey, you’re being very zealous about religion.” And [her husband, Calvinist minister Theophilus Packard] was like, “Well, I don’t like your feelings about that. You’re crazy.” He had her committed and when she was released, he barred her from seeing her kids. So, she sued him and she won, and then she started the Anti-Insane Asylum Society. Bly wrote “Ten Days in a Mad-House” (1887). She vowed not to act insane from the minute she crossed the threshold of the insane asylum. It was almost as if the more [women] expressed their sanity, their declaration of sanity was another marker of their insanity and their inability to care for and understand themselves.
Both Bly and Packard are just so remarkable in their bravery, and in the legal and institutional changes they made happen.
Yeah, totally. I think it’s really fascinating and really courageous. There’s a play by Friedrich Schiller called “Mary Stuart,” which is sort of a fictitious meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots that has been translated and adapted hundreds of times. But, it made me think: What would it have been like if these two women had met? What if Packard and Bly were at the asylum together?
“The Great Gatsby” remains a perennial high school classic, but are the Arlington students studying this play’s topic in school?
When we picked “Gatsby,” that was on their reading list. This year, we’ve provided them with Bly’s “Mad-House” and works on Packard. This year, it’s much more of a timely metaphor for where we are right now, rather than being tied directly to what they’re reading in class. They read “The Scarlet Letter” and things like that, so they’re not ignorant to the structure of the patriarchy. But I think for this year, we were providing them with a lot of the information so that it has a direct connection to what we’re going through right now. Andrew Tate inspired some of this conversation. Holly [Twyford] plays the mother of a young woman in 2023 who is dealing with young men in her high school being obsessed with Andrew Tate, and she uses the story of Bly and Packard as a means of [explaining how] to stand up for your values. Being called crazy as a woman is not a new thing. It’s a tale as old as time.
What’s it like working with teaching artist Holly Twyford and director David Zobell on this project?
Could you ask for anything better? Holly is so talented and brilliant. I did one of my first professional productions in my 20s [“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Folger] with Holly, and just stood in the back in awe. Right now, we’re in this sort of space where there’s this emphasis of protecting kids from knowing about our history, this fear that kids are not smart enough or mature enough to understand things. But they get it. They know exactly what’s going on. They’re so intelligent and hip to it. And David is such a great leader. He’s so great with these kids, working with them on pretty heavy material. They’re just fearless and awesome, and they work so well together. I feel so really blessed to have them doing this.
Let’s talk about this heavy material and working with high school students, and writing this difficult material for them to perform.
They watch “Euphoria” and “Riverdale.” They are talking about things in a way that is so above where I was when I was their age in terms of labels, gender and violence. It’s really about building a safe space, making sure every student is taken care of, heard and seen. And we have had students ask, “Hey, can we change the verbiage on this so that it’s less tense?” We make a space where kids can express discomfort or [raise] their questions, and we’re willing to change it and move things around. But for the most part, they are already so aware of what’s going on in the world and the importance of this story. They realize: This happened and it’s scary, but if we ignore it, we’re doomed to repeat it. Because this isn’t school, we can have frank conversations about women’s rights and what we’re being asked not to talk about, such as book banning and sanitizing our history. There’s a certain amount of activism that comes with this piece. Signature in the Schools is aligned with art as activism because its meaning is didactic but, at the same time, it’s meant to inspire the kids who are watching it.
This seems like a play that will appeal broadly. This isn’t just theatre for young audiences.
I think sometimes people think Signature in the Schools is just a show done by kids for kids. But these young people are incredible artists. The designers are all award-winning professional designers. David is an incredible director, and Matt [Taylor Strote, education program manager and assistant director] is incredible. This is a show that’s being performed at a Tony Award-winning theatre, and so I would say that it’s not just a children’s show. It’s a show that adults can and should see, and [they can] bring their kids and have conversations afterwards.
“The Voices on Blackwell Island,” written by Dani Stoller, plays at Signature Theatre January 31 at 7:30 p.m., February 1 at 10:15 a.m. and February 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, which you can purchase here. Follow Dani Stoller on Instagram @danidangerstoller and visit her website at danistoller.com.
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.