On a beautiful sunny day in June, AAS Director of Outreach Jim Moran and I headed out to Historic Deerfield in western Massachusetts to meet up with a film crew from Northern Light Productions. Surrounded by the dark wood and heavy equipment of the Wilson Printing Office, it wasn’t difficult to set the stage for a young Isaiah Thomas to enter into his apprenticeship with Zechariah Fowle in 1756 Boston. For that’s exactly what we were trying to do. In a 5-minute film, we were looking to make Isaiah’s story about his earliest years—the abandonment of his father, the destitution of his mother, and his subsequent placement with Fowle by the Overseers of the Poor—come to life.
The film is part of a larger project, which we have taken to calling Digital Isaiah, to create an interactive educational website inspired by the one-man theater performance Isaiah Thomas – Patriot Printer that AAS has been touring periodically for seventeen years. The play, which was written by Jim Moran, has and will continue to serve us well on a local level, but we also wanted to bring Isaiah’s story to a national audience. With themes of literacy, artisanship, civic engagement, entrepreneurship, and preservation, Isaiah’s story is full of relevance for today’s students.
With a generous grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, we set out to create a prototype of just one segment of the site, focused on Isaiah’s apprenticeship and the legal indenture document that bound him to Zechariah Fowle. The short film introduces the document and explains the story behind it. (A sneak-peek at the prototype itself will be coming in another blog post soon.)
Creating the film was a particularly fun part of the prototype process, for it made historic people that we talk about all the time here at AAS real. Here was a very young Isaiah in Fowle’s printing shop, asking what his apprenticeship meant and learning to read by setting type and studying a dictionary and Bible, just as he tells us he did in autobiographical manuscripts he left behind. Young Isaiah is played by William Hood, the son of Nan Wolverton, the director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) here at AAS, and we were even more pleased that she agreed to play Fidelia Thomas, Isaiah’s mother!
The scene in Fowle’s shop is set up by an adult Isaiah, sitting in his study in 1812. We have long thought that Neil Gustafson, the professional actor who has played Isaiah all these years, looks remarkably like the man himself. We were able to take full advantage of this in the introductory shot to the video, which fades Isaiah’s portrait into Neil. And although it is often hard to capture the power of a live performance on film, with Jim Moran once again writing the script and Neil applying all of his experience as Isaiah, there was a strong foundation to build upon.
We’re now setting out to raise funds to turn the prototype into a full website. But in the meantime, we’re excited to give a glimpse into what that may look like by sharing this first short film about Isaiah’s indenture. We would love to hear what you think!