Freeport student actors take on obscure piece of town history

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FREEPORT — After 150 years, a not-well-known piece of the town’s history will finally be told.

The story of Capt. Josiah Mitchell, which reveals author Mark Twain’s connection to Freeport, will be shared with the public in an original musical, “Letters at Sea,” by the Freeport High School drama club.

The show, based on research from the Freeport Historical Society and journals kept by Mitchell and his crew, was written by Simon Skold, the school’s theater teacher and drama program director.

“It was an interesting process for the kids,” Skold said. “It’s a play no one’s ever done before.”

“Letters at Sea” will be presented Nov. 11, 12 and 19 at 7 p.m.; Nov. 13 and 20 at 2 p.m., and on Nov. 16 at 5 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at our.show/lettersatsea.

The Freeport Historical Society reached out to Skold last year to see if he would consider writing a play based on the voyage Mitchell, a ship captain who lived in Freeport, took in 1866.

“I wasn’t stoked about doing a Freeport pageant, but this had the theme and characters that made it bigger than that,” Skold said.

Mitchell, along with a crew of almost 30 men and two passengers, set out for San Francisco on a freight clipper in January 1866. Because the trip occurred 48 years before the Panama Canal was built, the sailors had to travel down and around South America to reach their destination.

In May 1866, the crew had to quickly abandon the ship when it caught fire west of Mexico. The sailors went into three lifeboats, two of which never reached land.

After 43 days, the third lifeboat, which carried 15 people, including Mitchell, arrived at the Sandwich Islands, what is now Hawaii. Because they had little food and water, the survivors arrived in poor health.

While on the islands, the crew encountered a journalist, Samuel Clemens, who went on to be known as Mark Twain. At the time, Clemens was working for the Sacramento (California) Union newspaper, which had sent him to write stories about the islands.

Clemens broke the story of Mitchell’s journey, and, according to his book, “My Debut as a Literary Person,” written under the Twain pen name, he considered the story to be his big break as a writer.

“This was always on the fringe, but to him it was very important,” Skold said.

The story, “Forty-three days in an open boat,” was published in Harper’s magazine in December 1866 under the incorrect byline of Mark Swain.

Skold said he’s excited to share Mitchell’s story because of its obscurity.

“It’s a big story that we as a collective have forgotten,” he said.

Stories from days at sea aren’t told often enough in general, Skold said. 

“The stories of the clipper-ship age have faded,” he said. “This is honoring that.”

This is the first show that Skold has written. He also wrote the lyrics to the show’s 10 songs; Jesse Wakeman, who has worked on other musicals at the school, wrote the music.

Skold said the Freeport Historical Society was skeptical when he said he was telling the story as a musical.

“There’s something about music being involved that allows it to break from reality and look into the inner psychology of the characters,” he said. “The story, to me, was looking to be sung.”

Skold also said the students have enjoyed playing people who existed in real life.

“There’s someone they’re representing, which is interesting,” he said. “The kids have a level of pride in that.”

The show has a 35-person cast and a 32-person crew. The students designed and created all of the sets and costumes, are doing all of the lighting, and did all of the choreography.

Jordan Grotz, a senior, plays the lead role of Mitchell. Senior Simon Handelman plays Clemens, and junior Julia Haldeman is Mitchell’s wife Susan. Senior Henry Jaques and sophomore Ben Morang are brothers Henry and Samuel Ferguson, who were the only non-crew members on the ship.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Simon Skold, right, who teaches theater at Freeport High School and directs the school’s drama program, wrote the fall musical, “Letters at Sea,” which is based on the true story of a ship captain from Freeport who was lost at sea for 43 days in 1866. Student Henry Jaques plays Henry Ferguson, one of two people on the ship who weren’t members of the crew. 

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.