Alexandria Brown, foreground, and Ahna Dunn-Wilder rehearse “Needle’s Eye,” one of the dozens of songs the cast of young women will sing in the Whidbey Children’s Theater presentation of  the musical, “Quilters.” - Cynthia Woolbright
Alexandria Brown, foreground, and Ahna Dunn-Wilder rehearse “Needle’s Eye,” one of the dozens of songs the cast of young women will sing in the Whidbey Children’s Theater presentation of the musical, “Quilters.”
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

A lot can be said in the fabric, love and care that is woven into a quilt. One quilt can speak a thousand words.

Friday evening, Whidbey Children’s Theater will open the curtains on a musical that tells the stories of the lives, the loves and the losses of pioneer women. Through Oct. 9, “Quilters” will speak the words of one quilt, one group of women and the pioneer lives they lead.

The musical is under the direction of Lani Brockman, founder and artistic director of Studio East in Kirkland. Musical direction comes from South Whidbey’s own Shelley Hartle.

“Quilters” blends a series of stories of pioneer women, as told by one family. Audiences will enter the story as the mother of the family is nearing the end of her life.

But before she makes her final pilgrimage, she wants to share with her daughters the quilt that she’s spent the last 50 years making.

She’s piecing it together and needs their help quilting together the 16 blocks from “Rocky Road” and “Baby’s Block” to “Shadow Block” and “Crosses and Losses” in the end.

At Brockman’s Studio East — a training center for the performing arts founded in 1989 — “Quilters” has become a perennial production that is performed every couple of years as a right of passage, of sorts, for the young actresses of Studio East.

“It’s important for young women to experience these stories,” Brockman said. “Life is so different now, almost too easy, and these girls learn about the fortitude and strength these women had to have to make it through pioneer life.”

Each story and song the cast of 10 young actresses and one adult tell coincides with a block from the family matron’s legacy quilt.

It follows the girls from birth through childhood, from adolescent development through young courtships, and from marriage to the birth of their own children.

The high school girls filling the daughter roles are: Christina Atkinson, Alexandria Brown, Ahna Dunn-Wilder, Allie Firth, Elizabeth Grant, Kate Hodges, Hilary Mellish, Samantha O’Brochta, Marissa Wilhelm and Samantha Yocco, along with adult actress Marty Eagleson as the mother.

“It’s her legacy, quite literally pieces of her life, and she asks her daughters to not bury her in her best quilt, not to bury her stories,” Brockman said.

The cast of young women have been studying up on more than just singing, dancing and dramatic skills. They’ve been learning about life’s legacies, how life is different for them versus the pioneer women and even the finer points of quilting.

Brockman brought in books about pioneer life, pictures that depicted the hard times and the good.

“We tried to inform them of the choices these women had to make and why their lives were the way they were so they could better understand what their characters were going through,” Brockman said.

Along with vocal rehearsals, dance rehearsals and running their lines, the girls attended quilting classes at Island Fabrics in Freeland. They learned hand-stitching techniques and created their own lap quilt. Not only did they stitch, cut and quilt but they also learned about where the different fabric patterns came from and the history of the play’s quilt squares that are truly historic patterns.

Hartle, a veteran actress and vocalist who performed with Sing!chronicity, has been with the girls through months of rehearsals to prepare the seven-part harmony required for the dozens of songs in the musical.

“This cast is being challenged like they’ve never been challenged before,” Brockman said. “I’ve always felt it’s my job as a director to bring an education component to any production and with ‘Quilters’ you can’t deny that opportunity.”

The actual quilt squares and quilt used in the production have quite the legacy of its own.

They are the same quilt and squares that have appeared in every single Studio East “Quilters” performance. They were handcrafted by Brockman’s grandmother twelve years ago for the first performance and have stories of their own to tell.

“They’re absolutely beautiful,” Brockman said. “This is the fifth time we’ve done the show and you can bet they’ll be in every ‘Quilters’ we do from this point forward.”

Brockman stands by the play as a tribute to the courage and spirit of the nation’s pioneer women.

“While the men took care of many of the duties of everyday life, the women followed and also did their share, but weren’t always given the credit,” Brockman said. “Pioneer women are as much of a reason this country became as great as the men were. You always hear about great pioneer men, we’re here to remind them of the women.”

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