StoryCorps collects Vineyard tales

StoryCorps trailer
Since its arrival last week, the StoryCorps trailer has attracted attention outside Cronig's Market. Photos by Susan Safford

By Pat Waring - May 17, 2007

Grocery shoppers whose curiosity was piqued by the sight of a sleek silver trailer parked in front of Cronig's Market in Vineyard Haven last week got their questions answered at a festive reception Thursday. Neither space capsule nor milk tanker, the trailer is a rolling studio for StoryCorps, a project of National Public Radio (NPR), which gathers interviews with everyday citizens across the United States. Beginning last Thursday morning and continuing until May 19, every day except Sunday, Vineyarders are coming to the compact recording facility to tell their personal stories. By the time the trailer heads to Orleans for its next recording stint, May 24 through June 8, more than 50 Island interviews will be completed. Along with being archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, if the subjects agree, copies will also be kept at the Oral History Center of the Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown and be made available for educational and non-commercial use. Each participant will receive a copy of the recording session to take home and excerpts from many of the interviews will be aired on NPR and/or on WCAI, the Cape and Islands public radio station.

Elaine Davenport
Facilitator Elaine Davenport answers questions at the reception.

Instead of a having a professional interviewer question the subject, StoryCorps solicits friends or relatives to conduct the conversations. These interview partners are scheduled to work together. The intention is that interviews will focus on the subject's personal life, and be spontaneous and unrehearsed.

Eliza Bettinger, senior coordinator for StoryCorps, had visited the Island on Feb. 22 to announce the program and encourage locals to sign up for an interview. The program stresses the importance of gathering stories from everyday residents, not only those in the public eye.

"Ahhh...beautiful...healing...a wonderful time," said Steve Bernier who had recently emerged from the trailer. The Cronig's Market owner had been interviewed by his son, Steve Bernier Jr. "I wish everyone on Martha's Vineyard could come through here and do this," he said.

Mr. Bernier, who had accepted warm thank-yous for his support of the StoryCorps visit from John Voci, station manager at WCAI, who emceed the informal event, stressed the importance of "living local" whether with home grown food or preserving community memories. Calling to mind the recent Living Local festival at the Ag Hall, Mr. Bernier said WCAI should have been invited because of its role in keeping Island neighbors connected.

Sarah Geis
Facilitator Sarah Geis in the recording booth where interviews take place.

Mark Alan Lovewell strolled in the sunshine in front of the trailer, singing sea chanties and urging the small crowd to join in. Pastry and coffee was set up on a table nearby along with information about Story Corps, WCAI, and a small display from the Martha's Vineyard Museum's oral history center in Edgartown.

Linsey Lee, oral history curator at the museum, said the Vineyard is a remarkable place, especially because of its diversity. Ms. Lee and the Museum worked with WCAI to coordinate the StoryCorps project here.

"There are so many stories to be told on Martha's Vineyard, so many stories to listen to," said Ms. Lee. "We need to have our stories listened to; it's a life-affirming process to have your stories listened to."

Also on hand was Susan Loucks, development director at WCAI and Ms. Bettinger along with facilitators Elaine Davenport and Sarah Geis. While Ms. Bettinger's role is to set up the overall project, the facilitators work directly with the interview partners, explaining the process and the equipment and making sure all works smoothly during the 45-minute recording session. They also take notes and photos of the subjects to be included in the archives.

Eliza Bettinger
Eliza Bettinger, senior coordinator for StoryCorps, inside the trailer.

This Vineyard visitor is one of three StoryCorps trailers; a second one travels West of the Mississippi and the third, dedicated to specially themed projects, is currently collecting stories from African Americans as part of a program titled The Griot Initiative. The trailers generally spend one month in a given community but in this case the time is split between the Vineyard and Cape Cod where operations will be set up in Orleans. Staff members also said there may be a single day set aside for interviews with Nantucket residents.

The trailer remains staffed and busy all day and continues to attract attention in the parking lot. Last weekend WCAI volunteers were inviting bystanders and surprised grocery shoppers to stop by for impromptu interviews. "How long have you lived on the Island?....How did you happen to get here?....What do you like best about the Vineyard?....What do you like least?" they asked, giving the subjects plenty to talk about. Material from these interviews may be broadcast on WCAI.

For more information about StoryCorps on the Vineyard, contact Linsey Lee, 508-627-4441, ext. 113 or eliza@storycorps.net or, for general information, visit storycorps.net.