Photo by Kathleen Spikes
Rachel Atkins and Sheila Kelly discuss "Page to Stage" for Treadwell Gold.

At Large In Ballard: Family Gold

By Peggy Sturdivant

After Sheila Kelly learned more about her family’s history in Treadwell, Alaska she realized after some years that she would need to do a book. Twenty years and a fully researched and published book later she had the idea of turning it into a play, perhaps a musical.

Even though Kelly had never written a play. So of course she took a playwriting class because the Kelly is as dogged as anyone who went to make their fortune in Alaska or work the mine in Treadwell. The class was just ending when Kelly had back pains and was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Almost two years later after aggressive treatment and recovery Kelly asked of herself the question posed in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” ‘Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’’

She knew the answers immediately. Spend time with her family, and turn her book into a play. Part of her impetus is that the 100th anniversary of the Treadwell Gold Mine Disaster was upcoming, and Perseverance Theater in Juneau was interested. “There was skin in the game,” Kelly said.

There were many things Kelly would do differently if she was starting over. For example she would document her sources, distinguishing early what Kelly learned later, the differences between primary and secondary sources. She learned to ask what could be on the record in oral interviews, how to actually record interviews, and when to identify that interest had veered into obsession.

“Treadwell Gold: An Alaska Saga of Riches and Ruin” was published by the University of Alaska Press in 2010. An environmental consultant by background Kelly had learned about the geological causes of the 1917 mine cave-in as well as more about many families than their descendants knew. Based on her interviews and acquired knowledge she was asked to speak at family reunions and memorials, not of her own family.

Having already learned too many lessons in writing her book, Kelly committed to working with a professional in order to turn the book into a play. After recovering from lymphoma Kelly began working with a playwright Rachel Atkins as her coach. Rachel Atkins is a scriptwriter and teaching artist with Living Voices/Theaterworks.

Atkins initially consulted with Kelly giving her directives on paring down the story to one year, and combining characters as necessary. As the revisions accrued and a 100th anniversary and theater date loomed Kelly turned the lead over to Atkins and became the collaborator. She’d realized she didn’t want to be a playwright, but she did want to get her book to stage. Specifically to the Perseverance Stage in Juneau over the 4th of July in 2017.

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