Berkshire Theatre Group | A touring Melville tale, beyond the whale

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PITTSFIELD — There's more to the life and times of author Herman Melville than "Moby Dick."

In her latest book, "Billy Budd in the Breadbox: The Story of Herman Melville and Eleanor," and a Berkshire Theatre Group stage adaptation of the same name, North Egremont-based author Jana Laiz details the "story of a very special relationship between a very inquisitive little girl and her brilliant author grandfather," and a secret Eleanor goes on to discover about him.

Laiz has been a writer-in-residence at Arrowhead, Melville's former Pittsfield home, and said she was inspired by the artifacts and the family's histories archived there, as well as the school groups that visited the museum.

During an interaction with a group of international students, Laiz had a revelation.

"They had all heard of "Moby Dick," but they hadn't heard of Melville. Nobody knows the amazing stories about Herman and his family. People tend to know his books, but not much about him," Laiz said.

So, the author drafted a tale based on a true story of how Melville's granddaughter — the late Eleanor Melville Metcalf — came to discover one of her grandfather's masterpieces.

"While seated at Herman Melville's table, I was inspired to tell his life story through the eyes and voice of his 9-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor," Laiz says of her process.

The book, which includes illustrations by Irish artist Declan Kerr, was officially released on Oct. 20 during a special reading held at Arrowhead. Joining Laiz for that event were members of the Berkshire Theatre Group cast of "Billy Budd in the Breadbox."

This is the second production that associate artist and director Travis G. Daly has adapted and directed based on work by a Berkshire County author. Over the past school year, he oversaw an educational touring production of "Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade," by Pittsfield's Ty Allan Jackson.

Daly, a self-proclaimed fan of both Melville's and Laiz's works, said adapting "Billy Budd in the Breadbox" felt like the perfect fit for an educational touring show.

"The play, first and foremost, is a history come to life. But it's also about grandparents and grandchildren sharing stories together and families learning from one another," the director said.

Because of this, the production includes a multi-generational of community and regional actors, whom are cast in multiple roles to allow flexibility for the rigorous touring schedule. Shows have been booked for area elementary and middle schools between now and the end of the 2017-2018 school year. A question-an-answer session follows so that students can learn more about the show and the actors.

One of the people portraying young Eleanor Melville is 11-year-old Julianna Salinovici, who admitted, like many of her peers, that she didn't know much at first about the famed author of "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd."

"It's been cool to learn about the 1800s and talk with a different kind of grammar," she said.

Salinovici describes Eleanor as someone who is "very adventurous and wants to know everything she can about everything."

"She really loved her grandfather and listening about his stories and about his love for storytelling," Salinovici said of her character.

Isabella "Izzy" Brown, 10, portrays another grandchild, Frances, who Brown describes as "comic relief" to the more studious sibling. She said she's also learned a lot about Melville and his family through the play, and also about herself, growing as an actor. "I think I've learned that I'm a hard worker as well," Brown said.

Ralph Petillo is one of the grown-ups who portrays Herman Melville in the touring cast. He said it's a "good role" for him because, "I have a 9-year-old granddaughter in real life and I'm the same age as Melville when this story takes place."

He said he can also relate to Melville's "appreciation and love of the Berkshires" and wanting to live and work here.

Petillo lauded both Laiz and Daly for their respective efforts to bringing the author and this tale back to life.

"Suddenly, Melville becomes real to people and his granddaughter becomes real. ... There's also that aspect that says to children, listen to your grandparents because they're living history lessons. That's the warmth that comes through in this show," Petillo said.

To learn more about the show, visit berkshiretheatregroup.org.

To learn more about the author and upcoming book events, visit janalaiz.com


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