Our Town: The sum of its parts

Cynthia Riggs
Tucked behind the cables and pulleys, Cynthia Riggs listens intently from the beam where she sits.

By CK Wolfson - March 1, 2007

Brian Athearn, in the tradition of his late uncle, Leonard Athearn, tends the veterans' graves at the West Tisbury cemetery. He is accompanied by his two-year-old son, Emmett, and five-year-old son, Hunter, who follow slowly along pulling a red wagon filled with the small flags. They move slowly, stopping at one gravesite after another, and at each, before moving on, pause while a somber Emmett offers a salute and quietly says, "Thank you, sir."

It's a lesson in history and Thornton Wilder: a reverent glimpse of the people and tasks that make a small town function, and give it its unique character - just the sort of idiosyncratic particulars for which West Tisbury is known.

Next week, "Our Town, West Tisbury 2007," will debut on local access MVTV. Each broadcast, containing two 15-minute segments, showcases West Tisbury residents, like Mr. Athearn, whose collective efforts comprise the threads that form the fabric of the town and keep it running.

Created by West Tisbury author Cynthia Riggs and producer Jonathan Revere (the partnership that's been producing "On Vineyard Writing" for MVTV since 2005), the show originated as the result of a casual conversation they had about the merits of a positive approach in campaigns for town office.

Jonathan Revere
Producer Jonathan Revere readies his camera.

The Martha's Vineyard Museum and the West Tisbury Public Library have already requested copies of the 75 interviews that are planned in the completed yearlong series.

"I think this kind of program will show people that there's an awful lot more positive than negative. Can you imagine how wonderful it will be to look back at these shows 50 years from now and see these people as a wonderful record of the town?" Ms. Riggs asks.

And Mr. Revere admits, "I've really become more positive in my own feelings about the town. I tend to just look at the problems, but this project is a great leveler. It's really like a voyage of discovery."

"Nothing is preconceived. There is no script," Ms. Riggs stresses. "From the minute we got the idea, it was clear the show would be about the people, most of them volunteers or people receiving a small stipend for what they do to make the town what it is." She continues, "I just ask the questions about things I would like to know. I tell them, 'It's your show. If you don't like the way it's going, we'll stop.' "

When Mr. Revere adds, "We're trying to make this as natural as possible, Ms. Riggs laughs and adds, "Sometimes we even leave in directions from Jonathan about the sound or where to stand. We really don't want this to look professional." And Mr. Revere finishes the thought: "We want the personalities of the people being interviewed to come through."

Many of their subjects are interviewed at their tasks, doing those sorts of things everyone knows, but may not notice: animal control warden Joanie Jenkinson tending to errant dogs; Andrew Woodruff at his farm; Howard Curtis among the library books; Ag Fair manager Eleanor Neubert reminiscing about entering her chickens in the Ag Fair when she was seven; Bob and Marjorie Potts in the office of The Broadside - all working in plain sight, yet invisible except for the cumulative effect they have on town life. Like Tom Hodgson, the former keeper of the town clock in the steeple of the First Congregational Church. (The current camera-shy keeper of the clock is Scotty Young.)

Tom Hodgson and Cynthia Riggs
Tom Hodgson and Ms. Riggs confer before filming starts.

Shortly before noon on Friday, Ms. Riggs and Mr. Revere, his camera and tripod in hand, climb a ship-style ladder in the choir loft of the church, shimmy through the cake-box size opening above the church organ, and onto the darkened rafters behind the clock face. While Ms. Riggs perches on a rafter, Mr. Revere crawls into a tight-fit cubby under the eaves in order to get enough distance to film Mr. Hodgson preparing to wind the clock.

It is a quiet demonstration of the respect that can elevate any task to art. Mr. Hodgson, describing the old gears and mechanism with obvious regard, explains the history and workings with little encouragement. While everyone anticipates the bell chiming the hour, he points out the increased tension in the cables, and the different parts that seem to be awakening. He explains repairs to the old crank, puts it into place and slowly begins turning.

Each of the segments has a comparable quality, a grace and ethic that goes beyond the responsibility of the deed: tree warden Jeremiah Brown expressing his concern about the dead trees along Old County Road, pointing out the moth egg cases on the shingles of his house, and admitting he visits the trees he has planted and maintained to see how they are doing; shellfish warden Tom Osmers walking across the ice on Tiah's Cove to saw a six-inch-thick hole through the ice so he can check out the oysters, before walking across the middle of the Cove; Anna Edey explaining the conservation systems she's rigged in her own home, and the greenhouse that surrounds her bathtub.

Like the gears, pulleys and sprockets that remain hidden behind the old clock face, these are the people who make the town tick, give it its pulse, and viewers will have the chance to see them all: John Alley, Kate Warner, Manny Estrella, Chris Morse, Prudy Burt, David Merry, among the 75 already selected for filming.

Ms. Riggs says, "Something that strikes me is that the town is being run by all these people - not just the ones sitting in town hall."

Our Town, West Tisbury, 2007, will air on MVTV twice weekly: Tuesday and Saturday at 8 pm.