Exploring the Boundaries of “The Amish Project”

posted by Olivia O’Connor, Literary Intern

City Theatre’s presentation of The Amish Project, written by and starring Jessica Dickey continues in the Hamburg Theatre. Literary intern Olivia O’Connor was interested in the question of past media representations of the Amish, and how Jessica negotiated the delicate boundaries of fact vs fiction in her own stage representation. Here’s what she found out:

THE “RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE”

Representing the Amish: a Troubled Past

Despite small populations and a secluded culture, Amish communities have long been a source of national fascination. Among their numerous and divergent roles in the American consciousness: wholesome saints, heartless disciplinarians, and exotic tourist attractions. The Amish have also been a source of national disagreement, as scholars, entertainers, and ordinary citizens have battled about how to preserve and portray such an anachronistic, apparently fragile culture. With each incarnation and controversy, one point has become very clear: the Amish are inextricably linked to the modern world they reject, at once providing the portal to an idealized past and an affirmation of modern sensibilities.

Emblems of spiritual purity and hard work, the Amish have come to embody traditional American ideals. Even their simple, self-sufficient farms call to mind a pastoral old-world paradise—an idyllic America nearly lost to urban expansion. Bubbles of preservation in a quickly progressing world, Amish communities are celebrated by Americans for both their old-fashioned customs and their close-knit family and community units. The lifestyle provides a stark contrast to the material possession and individuality that are hallmarks of modern American life.

But such a clear-cut dichotomy of rural-urban and primitive-modern is problematic. And while both representations are reductive, Amish culture may be negatively impacted. After all, the Amish emphasis on privacy and humility often translates into silence, no matter how blatantly inaccurate a portrayal. Their reticence opens up a space for commercial ventures to run unchecked, a problem which has become particularly apparent inLancaster County,PA, where the “Amish” label is used disingenuously as an endorsement for restaurants, stores, hotels, and tourist attractions.

Occasionally, commercial ventures paint Amish culture in a negative light. These representations seek to expose a violent or oppressive zeal in the Amish faith—to bring down to earth what others have placed on a pedestal. Documentaries like HBO’s Devil’s Playground (which focuses on a drug-dealing Amish teen who eventually ends up in jail) demythologize the Amish lifestyle, while exposés like Glamour magazine’s “Escaping Amish Repression: One Woman’s Story” come close to demonizing the strictness of Amish doctrine. Even apparently innocuous portraits, like Plain and Fancy, a 1955 musical comedy about an urban couple’s trip to Amish country, may display subtle criticisms. After all, the story’s ultimate moral message is in favor of the urbanites, who manage to inspire empathy and forgiveness in a rigid Amish father.

Even positive portrayals of the Amish are not without their faults, as shown in Sue Bender’s personal memoir Plain and Simple. The short book is a journal of Bender’s experiences as she immerses herself in the home life of two Amish families. However, Bender’s quest for spiritual fulfillment tends to situate her hosts as exotic props or tools for self-discovery. At other times, the Amish household provides a set for her journey, which she compares to that of aHollywood leading lady. Throughout the memoir, Amish religion is almost never mentioned. Instead, it is replaced by an intangible sacredness—a healing spirituality which suits Bender’s need for transformation. As she describes it, “I looked at their life and saw it as art.”

This sense of ownership is common to American perceptions of the Amish, and is often the cause of conflict when commercialism threatens to overtake Amish custom. Such was the environment surrounding the 1985 Peter Weir film Witness, which was shot inLancasterCounty. The film follows aPhiladelphia police officer, John Book, as he brings a young Amish boy (who was the sole witness to a murder) back to his community. Book remains with the family as he recovers from a bullet wound and hides from corrupt police officers. The film’s plot, which included violence as well as a shot of a partially nude Amish woman, incited numerous scholars andLancaster county residents even before its release. John Hostetler, one of the nation’s premiere Amish scholars, was especially adamant in his denouncement of the film, insisting that the Amish had a “right to be left alone.”

The filmmakers, however, saw the project from a different point of view, and ultimately answered the question, “Should any human experience be off limits to storytellers?” with a resounding “no.” They argued that the purpose of Witness was not to provide an exacting replica of Amish life. Instead, it was the filmmaker’s responsibility to tell an interesting story—one that, in this case, included the Amish. Additionally, while scholars may “[search] for typical behavior, the storyteller looks for the exception.” It was an approach that was ultimately applauded by critics and audiences, perhaps one of the most successful representations of the Amish to date.

“STORIES BELONG TO ANYONE”

Exploring the Boundaries of “The Amish Project

It is on this unsteady ground—this long history of controversy, misrepresentation, and rare success—that The Amish Project treads. The show’s writer and performer, Jessica Dickey, was aware of the ripple effects of prior representations, including the negative feedback of some Amish scholars. She looks at these previous critiques with an understanding eye, noting that the work of researchers hangs on a “very delicate negotiation” of trust, a trust that could easily be compromised by intruding film cameras or interviewers.

However, Dickey’s own process was far from invasive. As she worked on the project, she read the works of Donald Kraybill, Stephen Scott, John Hostetler, and the like in order to educate herself on the culture she would be portraying. But she did not pursue the facts of the Nickel Mines shooting, opting to fictionalize the story and characters rather than to conduct interviews or reconstruct identities from newspaper reports. This choice allowed Dickey to separate the overarching issues and emotions of Nickel Mines from the details of the event, thus protecting the privacy of the real people involved in the tragedy. In addition, the fictionalization allowed Dickey the freedom to explore the story through a thematic lens, granting her an open space in which to “spend more time meditating on these things that happened, both the awfulness of it but also the goodness of it and the complicated terrain in between.”

That was Dickey’s ultimate goal on The Amish Project: to offer a meditation to the masses, to the people who heard the news of the Nickel Mines shooting from afar. It took an invitation from aLancaster theater for Dickey to determine this purpose, for when she declined the opportunity to perform the story in its home county, she realized she had to “admit to myself that I didn’t write this play for the people who went through it. I wrote the play for everyone else.” Dickey says this with a great deal of respect, explaining that “I didn’t believe that my play had anything to teach those Amish families, or that gunman’s family… I felt like it was really a fictional representation for the rest of us to meditate on, and that in the end it was a play—it was just a play.”

…A play that has been met with incredibly positive responses from critics and audiences. On a memorable night after one of theNew Yorkperformances, Dickey met with a non-practicing Amish woman who had been in the audience. The woman shared her experiences in the faith, explained her frustration with public perceptions of the Amish, and congratulated Dickey on the sensitivity of her portrayal—which she particularly appreciated for its variety and ambiguity: the lack of a definitive answer to what Amish “is.”

Negative responses have been rarer, although in one instance Dickey received an email from a woman who had not seen the play but was incensed that the script described the gunman’s widow going to the grocery store—an errand that the grieving woman had in fact been unable to complete for weeks. Dickey was troubled by the criticism, but reminded herself that “when you put a piece of work out there you have to be willing to stand in the fire a little bit.” The Amish Project is not an easy story to tell, and Dickey believes that part of her duty as its creator is to “step it up and dig in and get that courage and do your job.” However, she hopes that the writer of the email might have felt differently after watching the play, for the performance makes it clear that Dickey’s relationship to her work is a very thoughtful one. The play has forced her to explore a difficult but rewarding boundary, one in which ambition is balanced with “personal due diligence.” This, more than reportage of facts, is what Dickey sees as her responsibility: the upholding of not just “artistic due diligence, but my personal standard of diligence to people who have suffered more than I can imagine.”

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