It started with an idea: on tour in Ohio, Celtic band Ensemble Galilei sat down one night and talked about what was important to them.
“[We talked about] how we, as a country, seemed to have forgotten ourselves,” said viola player Carolyn Surrick.
The instrumental group wanted to share America’s incredible struggles and shared history through music, pictures and stories. And so, First Person: Seeing America was born.
The group got actress Lily Knight on board to be a narrator in their live, immersive shows several years ago. Surrick had known Knight since they were children and called her out of the blue when Ensemble Galilei needed an actress. Six years later, they still tour together, along with other guest narrators. Actor Bill Pullman was a choice narrator for this show, having already performed in the ensemble’s First Person: Stories from the Edge of the World. A double incentive was that his speeches as Mr. President in Independence Day were epic.
Lily Knight took the stage first. She recited a traditional poem by Navajo Indians by the name of “Night Chant.” Gaelic sounds whispered over her words.
This was followed by Bill Pullman, who shifted in his shoes a little uncomfortably as he prepared himself for his first speech.
“These pieces and the photographs combined with the Ensemble’s new musical compositions and arrangements shape a unique lens that allows us to see America,” Pullman said.
On the other side of the stage, Ensemble Galilei’s music sounded like they were having a below-deck Titanic party. One fiddler wore a purple button up and faded wash jeans. Hanneke Cassel wore a floral blue dress.
Pullman read an excerpt by Jim Harrison about the serenity of a mountain. Photographs of majestic hills and earthquake fault lines filled the screen. Pullman licked his finger before turning the page. Most spectators had their eyes closed in relaxation.
Knight jumped up at her chance to perform. She pulled her long button-less cloak behind her back, giving off the aura of a prize fighter as she rolled up her sleeves. She took the role of Calamity Jane Hickok, a fierce frontierswoman who hung out at the stagecoach and hated self-righteous women.
“See, I wear pants. So I can get around while these petticoated females yell for help. Ya know it’s queer how these nasty ‘nice women’ forget to use a handkerchief and blow their snotty noses on their petticoats,” Knight said, in character. At the word “petticoats,” Knight thrashed her hand in the air angrily.
Two members of Ensemble Galilei, including Cassel, played a fiddle show. Starting off slow and sweet, their instruments coincided like wine glasses tinkling together underneath an umbrella in the summer rain.
Slowly they picked up the pace and got faster and faster, becoming more fluid. Their strings moved at the same rate. His foot tapping made a power sound that thudded throughout the hall.