House museums, the root form of the historic preservation movement in the US, seem often to face questions regarding continued relevance in an ever-evolving field. But for me, house museums have always been a favorite way of engaging with history, and played a significant role in my becoming a preservationist. Since moving to New York, one example I’ve become fond of is Clear Comfort, the home and studio of Alice Austen (1866-1952), who has been called “the earliest American woman of importance in photography.” The house on Staten Island (a c.1700 Dutch farmhouse remodeled as a Gothic Revival cottage) is now a museum under the Historic House Trust.
It’s also the setting of a new musical: Sundog Theatre‘s original production, If You Could See: The Alice Austen Story. I was fortunate to sit in the front row for the musical’s Manhattan opening this week, and it was surreal to watch a house and story I’ve researched and written about, transformed to song and stage. The show spans decades and interweaves the stories of young Alice, living what she called the “larky life” with partner Gertrude Tate at Clear Comfort, and Alice in her late 80s, discovered in a poor farm by Oliver Jensen of LIFE Magazine, who sought permission to print her photographs. Alice’s life, love, and work play out against a backdrop of the arrival of immigrants in New York, the rise of industrialization, and the stock market crash, which ultimately tore Alice and Gertrude from Clear Comfort. Provided by the house museum, the show’s physical backdrop is a series of Alice’s photographs projected on a screen. While I tend to resist the use of digital images in theatre productions, in this case it was one of my favorite elements of the show; the archival photographs bring the house to the stage, and are especially poignant when juxtaposed with the actors’ restagings, little tableaux vivants of Alice’s friends alongside her own own visions of them.
The house museum has been criticized in the past (including, admittedly, by me) for its arguably outdated interpretation of Alice’s life, but its story has increasingly emerged to light, and If You Could See represents a renewal of much-deserved appreciation for Alice as a groundbreaking woman and artist. After the show, I overheard audience members expressing eagerness to visit or revisit Clear Comfort. The house museum musical seems to me to be a pretty promising new genre!
As Sundog Theatre says, “Alice’s world is remarkably similar to ours, making If You Could See a musical for our time – celebrating a significant artist and true American iconoclast.” Catch the final performances of If You Could See at Manhattan’s Five Angels Theatre this weekend, and visit Clear Comfort on Staten Island, the actual stage set of a remarkable larky life.