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Clinton's Ditch

Carmen Swans, who plays the play's narrator. (photos by Lukia Costello)
Danica Riddick and G. Anton Moore, who play various roles.

A story of the Erie Canal on stage beside its historic terminus

This weekend, beside the canal in Buffalo’s Inner Harbor, a historical drama by Anne Porter Paris and Hugh Pratt called Clinton’s Ditch: the Story of the Building of the Erie Canal, opens. The director is Dan Shanahan, known for his site-specific productions in locations like the old Central Terminal and in Buffalo’s Ukrainian Cultural Center.

“The historical aspect of this production appealed to me,” says Shanahan, “because it deals with the engineering of a massive and seemingly impractical project. The questions raised are: Will a national identity emerge, will a ‘Herzogian’ battle with nature be rendered successful, and will the American experiment be successful?”

Shanahan’s work, while certainly site-specific, is more specifically avant-garde. The Herzogian battle he references is German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo, about an early 20th-century industrialist who tries to take a steamship over a hill in Peru. And lest anyone think the topic of the Erie Canal is too antique for Shanahan, he clearly sees contemporary echoes in DeWitt Clinton’s challenge to complete what would be the most successful public works project in the history of the world, and a feat that would make Buffalo a great city.

“These questions come amidst the threat of another war, a bankrupt society, a sense of optimism and fear of the unknown, persuasion of an elite class, and poker games of back-room politics,” says Shanahan. “As a director I often work with characters set against an impending threat. I found that in this project as well.”

The director reveals that “the dramatic structure is episodic, comprised of approximately 55 scenes involving the main historical players and locals involved in the building of the Erie Canal. The narrative arc is driven by the main character DeWitt Clinton, who in true tragic spirit, tests the limits of human potential, reason, and to large extent his own health, in order to achieve one of the largest public works projects ever attempted in the United States. Through his ambition, failures, successes, and political maneuvering, the audience gains an interesting perspective into how a project of this magnitude was attempted.”

While Shanahan has often delivered productions in unconventional settings, this time he is using a traditional stage, albeit against the backdrop of the Commercial Slip. If Clinton’s Ditch is produced again, he is interested to incorporate more of the surrounding canal landscape into the work. This time, however, many of his concerns have been practical.

“The Erie Harbor Development Corporation and Buffalo Place have been working with Indigo Productions for the outdoor events being help at the harbor,” he says. “Our tech support will be provided by Indigo and sound is the primary technical concern. The actors will be outfitted with wireless microphones so people can hear.”

Shanahan is aware that other cities similarly celebrate their history through dramatic performances.

“A particular source of interest for me has been a study of site-specific performance at historic sites prepared by Katie Chavez. The study takes Williamsburg as an example; it is a historical site utilizing aspects of performance and recreation to bring viewers in contact with a particular event or custom.”

Shanahan is pleased with the dramatic and historic setting.

“I took a recent ride down by the harbor near Tifft and Fuhrmann, and the designers of the waterfront did an exceptional job of excavating just enough to frame the remnants of industry, the grain mills, and train yards, while leaving marsh land and providing access to the water. It is a sign that we are starting to understand how to engage with our historical past in Buffalo, learning how to appreciate it and interact with it, while avoiding a precious attitude, rendering everything into a historical monument. It allows us to participate with our past, while setting the stage for investment in the future. I believe this is becoming Buffalo’s new relationship with their history.”

Presented by the Erie Canal Drama Theater, Clinton’s Ditch features Richard Lambert, Tilke Hill, Carman Swans, James Wild, Stephanie Dale, G. Anton Moore, Joseph Westphal, Elise Hoffman, Danica Riddick, James Heffron, Eyton Robinson, Andrew Kottler, James Steiner, Elizabeth Oddy, and Dinah Iglesias. Performances will take place on July 8, 9, 10, 22, 23, 24 at 8pm, at Canalside. Admission is free.