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'Sanctuary: A Bird Masque' gives wings to 100 years of environmental conservation in Granite State

Actors first flocked to the stage in "Sanctuary: A Bird Masque" 100 years ago, giving wings to a growing sense of environmental conservation in the United States.

This weekend the national parks of Vermont and New Hampshire pay tribute to that pivotal production, which took place at the opening of the Meridan Bird Sanctuary in Meriden in 1913 and drew President Woodrow Wilson.

Centennial performances will take place at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., on Saturday, Aug. 24, and Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish on Sunday, Aug. 25.

The 2 p.m. performances will be preceded at noon by exhibits and demonstrations by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS), the Vermont Center of Ecostudies, Change the World Kids, and Vermont Audubon. Admission is free.

Cast-member Hamilton Gillett of Woodstock describes the play as a "fun, celebratory, and very visual piece."

After its 1913 performance, "Sanctuary" was performed with author and Cornish Colonist Percy MacKaye's encouragement by amateur theater troupes across the country. Its popularity arose not only from its colorful bird costumes and lively verse dialogue, but from an underlying social and environmental message about the rampant hunting of wild birds for their feathers, which were used by the fashion industry in popular women's hats.

"Sanctuary" resonated with the dawning environmental consciousness of the time, coinciding with the growing popularity of Audubon Bird Societies and the movement to create a National Park system. In 1918, President Wilson signed the Migratory Bird Act.

"The message of this play is just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago," says director Kevin Fitzpatrick. "Then it was solely about bird slaughter, but now it is about larger environmental concerns. Beneath the overt message, it speaks to the ways people have of living with nature."

Having been a resident of Upper Valley for the past 20 years, Fitzpatrick believes local communities are ideal audiences.

"Vermont and New Hampshire are synonymous with natural beauty and defense of the environment," Fitzpatrick said. "Ecological goals are very important to this region."

Fern Meyers, the play's costume designer, prop master,and music director, stresses "Sanctuary's" connection to the Upper Valley community, speaking of its historical as well as environmental roots.

"I think it's important for Americans to know about our cultural history," said Meyers, who also is director of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site's long-running concert series.

"Sanctuary's" costumes are based on photographs of the original cast taken by Arnold Genthe.

In preparing the music, Meyers discovered manuscripts in the Dartmouth College archives of the four songs written for the 1913 production by Cornish composer Frederic Shepherd Converse. Meyers also arranged incidental music using other contemporary pieces composed by musicians associated with the Cornish Colony.

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