I am not particularly interested in the history of the automobile or auto racing, but I was held spellbound by Steve Etheridge’s new storytelling piece, The Incredible Vision of a Half-Blind Man: Carl Fisher. It premiered at the Indiana History Center last Friday night as the latest commission for Sharing Hoosier History Through Stories. This series is an ongoing collaboration between Storytelling Arts of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society to create storytelling performance art inspired by the society’s collections.
Full disclosure: I received a similar commission for the series. Mine premiered in 2009 and was called Of the People: Stories and Images of Abraham Lincoln.
Etheridge begins with his back to the audience, sitting at an old-fashioned desk. The phone rings and we hear him introduce himself as a lawyer. He learns that one of his long-time clients, Carl Fisher, has died. The person on the other end of the phone encourages the lawyer to share what he knows about Fisher. The lawyer shakes his head and says, “It would take a book!” But when he hangs up the phone, he stands and calls his secretary in to sit in his chair and take dictation.
This is a solo show so the secretary is imaginary, or rather, the audience becomes the secretary, listening to the lawyer share interesting highlights from Fisher’s life, beginning when he left school in sixth grade in the late 1800s to support his family. The lawyer’s reminiscences in 1939 include Fisher flying an automobile tied to a hot air balloon over Indianapolis to create interest in auto sales. They also include him buying land out in the country northwest of Indianapolis to build a first-of-its-kind racing track. And much more.
Etheridge selected just the right mix of funny, amazing, and humble details, quotes and anecdotes for his narrative to show both Fisher’s admirable and not-so-admirable qualities. Etheridge is respectful of his subject, warts and all. Fisher worked hard and played hard, became a millionaire but died broke, so you don’t feel exactly cheered at the end but you don’t feel depressed either. Etheridge does a great job of showing us a life lived fully and unapologetically.
You also feel grounded. Etheridge does a great job of weaving specific Indianapolis addresses and landmarks into his narrative.
Now that Etheridge has premiered his piece, other organizations may apply to have him present at their venues around the state this year with support from the Indiana Historical Society. If you are a potential host, I highly recommend this illuminating piece because it is well researched, well crafted and will appeal to more audiences than one might expect at first.
I took off a star because the pretend frame story of Etheridge telling the factual story as Fisher’s lawyer didn’t feel fully integrated yet. But I bet that will happen over time as Etheridge shares this new piece with more and more audiences.