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Rhody Radio episode transcription has been been made possible by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.


Hey Jude: A Conversation with Judith Kalaora

Lauren Walker: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library radio online.


I'm your host, Lauren Walker, from the Rhody Radio crew and Coventry Public Library. Today I'm talking with Judith Kalaora, the founder and artistic director of History At Play, which educates and entertains audiences with their immersive living history experiences. Judith is a professional educator and living historian. She founded History At Play in 2010 to chronicle the lives of influential and often forgotten figures. Judith researches, writes, produces and performs the productions along with employing guest artists globally. She has entertained audiences all over the world, and we are excited to host her here today on Rhody Radio. Hi, Jude. Is Jude okay?

Judith Kalaora: Jude is great, Lauren. Thanks for having me.

Lauren: We just met recently when you did a performance at the Coventry Public Library as Deborah Sampson. We all loved the performance, but for those who don't know about this living history program, can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you do with your company, History At Play?

Judith: Absolutely. We take primary sources, first and foremost, and biographical sources that are very reputable. We use that as the foundation for a script. The performances are generally all ages, though a lot of the concepts that we cover do highlight concentrations that can be more mature in terms of social rights, human justice. These programs are immersive. I like the term 'immersive living history experiences' because the audience is always involved in the story in some way. [00:02:00] It's generally a one-person show, although we do have ensemble productions as well.

By necessity in a one-person show, you do use the audience as a character, whether they be a Greek chorus, or whether there is a call and response aspect to it, or even onstage volunteers for younger youth audiences. That's more of a soliloquy experience where the performer speaks directly to the audience. We use all of that to create an experience that brings you through this person's life. These are influential figures in history who may not have received the credit that they deserved.

Lauren: That's great. I know we had a little boy at our program who actually does like reenactment type stuff with his family, and so he was perfect to jump right into your performance. I thought that was great that you took volunteers when it applies.

Judith: I love to. Whenever we're at a school we always use volunteers. Whenever we're at a community program or an adult event, and there happened to be a kid, a grandkid or a child in the audience, then I'll always ask the client if they'd like me to pull some students or some kids on stage.

Lauren: I know the living history programs, everyone who comes to our Coventry adult programs at least because that's what I do, they really love those. It was nice to have-- sometimes kids come too and they really liked it too. Tell me about yourself. Have you always loved history? How did you get started acting? What's your story?

Judith: Always loved history. Father is a big history buff. He used to do a lot of storytelling. They weren't necessarily the most engaging stories the way he told them, but he was truly passionate about it. Sometimes that passion is what is necessary, even if you don't have the professional or rhetorical experience. I started performing when I was eight. Students, two students actually, female students from [00:04:00] Boston University, their graduate program thesis was to start a drama program at a public school that did not have one. Lo and behold, they came to my school. I love telling the story because I hope one day one of them will hear it. I don't even remember their names. I was eight.

I went to Juniper Hill School in Framingham, Massachusetts. It's no longer operational. It's defunct now. They came and they started this improv troupe and I was like, "Oh, improv. What is that? I don't want to have anything to do with that." I saw at the end of their session, the students that had participated would come into our class and show an example of what they had learned and they created a machine with their bodies, different gears and parts. I think it was a candy machine, a gumball machine or something.

I was so mesmerized by this. I was like, "I want to turn into a gumball machine." I signed up for the next class they offered and I was hooked. Then they started producing traditional theater and the first performances I ever did with them was Aesop's Fables. That was it. The rest is history.

Lauren: Very cool. I always loved doing these history programs or history podcasts. I actually ended up majoring in history for my undergrad because I started off majoring in journalism and I hated it.

Judith: Oh, really?

Lauren: I didn't know what else to do. I know. It's so weird. I really hated interviewing people, and now somehow I'm doing it again and I don't hate it anymore.

Judith: That's so funny. You've come full circle back to the thing you didn't like. You got to face what makes you uncomfortable. Once you let that wash over you, the discomfort melts away.

Lauren: Yes, exactly. Also, every professor was like, "This is a dying industry. Good luck getting a job." It was like, "Oh, my God. This is a bad idea." [laughs]

Judith: I'm actually really surprised. I went to Syracuse and journalism is one of the-- they have one of the top programs there in the country, at least when I was there. [00:06:00] I actually wanted to have my minor be-- my major was performing arts, acting, and I wanted my minor to be journalism, and they would not allow you to minor in journalism. You have to major in journalism. They told me if you'd like to switch your major, you're welcome to join us. I had audition to get into Syracuse, so I was like, "Gosh, do I want to, not throw that out, but I didn't-- journalism wasn't something I saw myself going into, but I always loved it because I love telling stories. I love teaching. I love getting the other side of things.

I bring an aspect of journalism into my programs because if I'm portraying someone who was more recently alive like Christa McAuliffe, the teacher in space, for example, I get to interview people who knew her. I think a huge part of the research is oral histories of either people who were there or who knew person, and so there is an aspect of journalism to what we do as well.

Lauren: It's funny too because our library director also used to be a journalist. There's something about journalism funneling into librarianship, I guess. Long story short, journalism didn't pan out, so I majored in history just to be-- this is the other thing that I like. That ended up becoming-- I had to get a master's degree to do anything with a bachelor's in history, so that's how I ended up becoming a librarian.

Judith: Did your history professors ever say like, "Lauren, you're never going to find a job in the history field"?

Lauren: They didn't.

Judith: That's funny, crazy that the journalism did.

Lauren: Maybe they all assumed that everyone in their class wanted to be a history professor, and that was just a--

Judith: How funny. Very interesting.

Lauren: Yes. What made you decide to bring these historical figures to life?

Judith: I think it all goes back to college, for sure. My [00:08:00] junior year, I want to say, of college, I was involved in a program called Voices of Pan Am 103. For those of you who are not familiar with Pan Am 103, it was a flight that crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland. I believe it was 1985 or '86. I'm sorry. I can't remember the exact year. I apologize for that.

Well, most of the students that were traveling back from their semester abroad from London to New York from Syracuse were on board that flight, which is the same program that I would end up doing about 20 years later. It's always been a very big part of Syracuse culture. There's a scholarship called the Remembrance Scholars that goes to a student really of the highest caliber, and that's in honor of the students that passed away on that flight. It was a terrorist bombing.

There was a teacher at the school, Joan Hart Willard, who collected the diaries and letters and photo album pictures and art of the students who'd been on board, and she compiled it to create a performance called Voices of Pan Am 103. I was fortunate that I was selected to portray Luann. Luann Rogers is her name. Louise was her actual name. Luann was her nickname. Luann Rogers was a visual artist who actually come from another school, but Syracuse has a very good abroad program. She left Syracuse to London.

It was the first time in my life since I've been eight years old that I had a play script where I didn't have to come up with my own backstory for the character. Suddenly, I had letters, photos, art she had created, voice messages that she had left on her parents' answering machine. I was able to create a human that was not contrived or based on deduction. It was based on fact. [00:10:00] I'm a very creative person and I'm also a very factual-based person. I like to teach. The aspect of knowing that what I was saying was right, and knowing how I was portraying her was accurate, was really, really important to me. Once I had done that, I thought, "I don't ever want to create a backstory ever again when I can create something that's real."

Governor Michael Dukakis, he ran for president a long time ago. I saw him at a lecture and he said, "Oh, I never read fiction, because the truth is so much more interesting." That's how I feel about theater now, is I don't mind doing fiction plays or plays written by a playwright that are not necessarily based on historic events or actual events, but I much prefer to do programs that are based on history and primary sources. That's how I started. That's really the first person I ever portrayed that was a real person.

Lauren: That sounds like it was a good place to start for you because also, you felt like you could relate to her as well.

Judith: Yes. I'd been on the same flight. 20 years later, I had the best time of my life when I did my semester in London. I performed at the Globe Theater. I trained with the Globe instructors. It was really the formative experience of my educational career and certainly launched me into the professional world with a knowledge that I was capable. To have that all taken away on the flight back, I couldn't get myself out of that head space of having the best experience of my life and knowing I was about to take the world by storm, and then knowing that you're going to die because it didn't--

They hijacked the plane. There was some moments, I'm sure, where the passengers on board were aware that this was not going to end well before it actually did blow up. It was really, really wrenching in a way that gave me like, "This is my active service. This is what I need [00:12:00] to do with my career. There's a reason why families and people are relying on these stories to be told." I carried that into a few years later starting my company, basing my programs off primary sources, real people.

Lauren: Who are some of the historical figures you portray and which one is your favorite?

Judith: Well, the historical figures range 250 years and they range different industries as well. I like to cover subjects that span all of my vast interests, which are [chuckles] very vast to say the least. I think I mentioned Christa McAuliffe, teacher in space. Space has always been a huge interest for me. When I was graduating from high school, my mother said, "Jude, you can either go to theater camp or you can go to space camp, but I will not send you to both."

She made me choose. She often would give me big choices like that at various points in my life. I did choose theater camp. Now I get to play a person training for the space program in a program that I've had the honor to write. Christa McAuliffe is certainly one of my favorites, but my real favorite, I would say, and I'll tell you about some of the others, but I do want to get my favorites out first. My real favorite is Deborah Sampson, who you have also experienced that program. Deborah Sampson was the first woman that I wrote a program about. Deborah Sampson, for those of you who don't know, she was a soldier in the American Revolutionary War. You're like, "How could she be a soldier? She was a woman."

Yes. She disguised herself as a man and she concealed her identity and she enlisted and served for about 18 months, so nearly two years of active combat in the Hudson Valley of New York. It's like Westchester County, Dutchess Counties. She served with prestige. She earned a rank of officer, [00:14:00] we believe up to corporal, although there are varying sources that say she could have even been promoted to a higher rank and perhaps refused it, which also makes sense because she didn't want to attract a lot of attention to herself, but she even dug a musket ball out of her own thigh when she was injured in combat to ensure that she was not discovered.

She is honorably discharged, ultimately, by General Henry Knox in October of 1783. The reason why she was discharged was because she fell ill with a fever and she was discovered by a surgeon and he actually nursed her back to health and then sent her back to West Point with a letter to her commanding officer. Her story just gets even more interesting as she goes on. She ends up applying for a military pension, which she ultimately gets, but 20 years after service. She ends up going on a national lecture tour to help promote a book that was written about her life. It's first woman to be paid to be a professional speaker, first woman to enlist successfully in the army, first woman to be honorably discharged in the military.

It's just so many different firsts. She's also the official heroine of Massachusetts, which is where I'm from. That state, Massachusetts, was the first in the nation to declare a person to be an official symbol of their heritage. To have not only the first person be a woman is one thing, to say the least, but a woman who then crossed societal and gender norms and essentially was a very gender-fluid human being, although that term didn't exist at that time, that for me is like the best of both worlds. She's not just a woman being a woman, she's a woman showing that a woman could be "a man." Whatever that actually means.

Those are my two favorites. I'll just give you a sampling of some of the others. Hedy Lamarr is a Hollywood film star who was very active in the 1930s and 1940s, what we call the Golden Age of Hollywood. She was a [00:16:00] technological savant and she invents this technology, which she calls frequency hopping, which is actually spread spectrum technology, which allows Wi-Fi to essentially hop from one radio signal to another and not jam up a signal and to not be traceable. It's a secure wireless communication network, and she submits it to the Navy during World War II, but she doesn't get any credit for it. Now the whole world is based on the concept, everything, GPS, Bluetooth, so on and so forth.

One of my other favorites, certainly a not a forgotten figure, but our newest program is about Princess Diana, who she was such a role model to me growing up. I didn't realize as a child how much she struggled with mental health challenges and compulsive behaviors like bulimia, cutting, suicidal ideation, and having battled as a creative person myself with mental health struggles over the years, depression, and significantly more so over the last couple years because of COVID, it was really important to me to bring a story to light that not only confronted mental health, but that also showed how someone who really defied all odds, like she was struggling with this, she would vomit four times a day.

For 10 years she was a severe bulimic, and yet she still somehow, in spite of people in the palace calling her borderline personality disorder, imbalanced, unpredictable, she was still able to go out and fulfill her duties and be a humanitarian and bring light and joy and happiness to so many people all over the world. She didn't stop. She fed off-- the only thing she really made her happy and comfortable was bringing joy and comfort to other people. I think that's really beautiful. Then there's so many others. Dolly Madison, a woman named Lucy Stone, [00:18:00] who was a leader in the women's suffrage movement, an abolitionist movement. World War Women is a compilation of five different women's stories from World War II. It just, I've written 13 productions for the company and more to come.

Lauren: That's awesome. I have to ask, do you or have you watched The Crown?

Judith: Yes. It was interesting. I loved, loved, loved the first-- I don't know, when was it? Five seasons. Whenever they brought Diana in, that first season they brought Diana in, I couldn't watch it. I hated how she was being depicted. It was so anti-Diana. Then I was like, "All right, buckle down." I was writing the program, but I had finished the drafts because I didn't want to watch too much of it while I was researching and writing the program because I didn't want it to infiltrate my research, because we all know these TV shows, they are based on fact. But we at History At Play are a historical educational entertainment company. The entertainment is the third word in the description of the company. The first and foremost needs to be historically accurate and educational content.

Once I had written the drafts, I did watch it. The second season that they had her in, I was just like, I didn't particularly love how she was being portrayed, but the actress who portrays her was so spot on with the way she tilted her head because I'd been studying this. One of the things I really do is I really try to emulate. I'm a bit of a chameleon, so I try to really emulate how people look, how they hold their faces, the shape of their mouths when they speak, the tone of their voices when they talk. I was just blown away by this actress, and I haven't actually watched the new season by her. They just like skipped over her death, which is pretty upsetting to me.

Lauren: Oh, really?

Judith: Yes. Sorry, spoiler.

Lauren: [00:20:00] No, no, no. I'm trying to remember. I think the last season, because I think I'm caught up, I think the new season comes out next month or maybe in September, I thought someone was saying. Is it already out?

Judith: My friend who is very involved in TV and film production said that in the new season, he believes they jump forward into when William met Kate.

Lauren: Oh, my gosh.

Judith: Basically, they're going to skip, and honestly, I think the palace has something to do with that.

Lauren: I have to say in the most recent, not the new one, obviously, but the last season I felt like it was weird how little Harry was in it, like he exists, he's a person, so I already was like, alarm bells. I don't know why they left him out. My only thought was it came out right before his book came out, and I thought maybe they were like, "Let's wait and see what he says about his own life and add it in." I wasn't sure if the writers were on UK side or Hollywood side.

Judith: I don't think it has anything to do with the UK. I think it has to do with the palace or, as Diana called it, the establishment. The establishment goes back as we know, the Windsor family, hundreds of years, but the royal family thousands of years. They are not a country. They are not a government. They are not anything. There's no way to classify them. They exist in a world unto themselves. They have power that we can't even begin to fathom. That power is very scary. I give Harry a lot of credit. I don't agree with everything Harry's done. Harry's a little bit younger than me, and knowing how it affected me--

[00:22:00] When Diana died, a very crazy thing happened to me. I don't even know if I should go into it, but it's almost supernatural. I have never ever fainted in my entire life. She died, it was right around midnight but Paris time, so you have to take time zone changes into consideration. I was taking a shower to get ready to go to my friend's bat mitzvah. It's a very, very specific memory. I was finishing up in the shower and suddenly I got super, super, super nauseous, so nauseous, and the shower wasn't particularly hot or anything, I wasn't sick or anything, and I'm like, "What is going on?" I held onto the wall and suddenly, everything went white.

The next thing I remember was hearing my mother scream at the top of her lungs. The next thing I remember after that, I still couldn't see anything, I could just hear, after my mother screamed I heard down the hall the TV said, it was a news reporter saying, "We've just learned that Princess Diana has died in a fatal car accident." That was how I came back. I opened my eyes and still, all I could see was white but it was actually the white porcelain of the bathtub. I had fainted, which I've never fainted in my entire life, never fainted ever again, and I smashed my head on the side of the bathtub.

Lauren: I was going to say--

Judith: I was bleeding down my face, there was blood in my eye. My mother obviously heard this clonk and went in. That's why she saw me, she screamed. It was so surreal because it hit me in such a way that-- I don't know. I'm very spiritual, I'm very connected, and she was so important to me. I was so inspired by her work in Angola with the clearing of the landmines and her work with AIDS patients, and I was always very involved in the theater industry, so even as a young person, starting [00:24:00] theater at the age of eight, I knew what AIDS was because a lot of my theater directors or teachers had friends who had died in the AIDS crisis.

They didn't talk about it forthright, but it might have come up, "My friend died," and I'd be like, "What did your friend die of? I'm sorry," and they'd be like, "My friend died of AIDS." Then you're a kid, but you're like, "What's AIDS?" I knew about her involvement in that crisis, during that epidemic, and I think just in some way I was just spiritually connected to her and it just took the breath out of me.

As someone who's the same age as Harry who wasn't even related to this woman, but now having lost my own mother, I lost my mother a decade ago, I can't even imagine what his life was like. Although I haven't read his book, I do know that in his book he does talk about that he didn't know she was dead and that people didn't talk to him about the fact that she was dead, and he thought she was alive somewhere.

Lauren: I did read it, and it was more like everyone is like, "Is it true, blah, blah, blah?" Assuming that what he writes about his own life is accurate, it was the middle of the night, his dad came in, told him what happened, and then just left. He was in a dark room by himself for the rest of the night with this knowledge that his mom had died, and as a kid, he didn't even get a hug.

He had no way to process any of this. He always held this idea- it was a closed casket, he always held this idea that she wasn't actually dead. He talks about there was a moment when he was an adult that he finally came to terms with the fact that she really had passed. He was still, even as a teenager into adulthood, thinking he might walk around a corner and see her and that she had fled because of all the media and she would come back for him.

Judith: There are people who, if you go down the [00:26:00] rabbit hole, because I was researching her for years and continue to follow research about her, if you go down the rabbit hole on social media, there are channels, there are accounts that believe she's alive and have taken photos in some facility, like skilled-care facility, of a woman's silhouette that is alarmingly like Diana's profile.

You're like, "This could be AI. This could be just photoshopped." Then there's one part of you which is like, "Well, yes, it was a closed casket and, yes, there was no real photos of the actual accident, there was no video camera from the accident." I'm not saying the accident didn't happen, but was the accident fatal? You could talk about families who had tragedies happen that basically concealed that person, like the Kennedys. What was it Rose or something?

Lauren: Rose Marie.

Judith: Rose Marie, yes. Rose Marie, gave her a lobotomy because she was developmentally challenged and they were like, "Oh, this will cure her," gave her a lobotomy and basically turned her into a vegetable and then just made her disappear. If the Kennedys can do it, which is the only family in the United States that has this similar not being able to be categorized as the royal family, then who's to say the House of Windsor can't do it, right?

Lauren: I feel like her kids were so much of her life that I don't think she would have been able to do that.

Judith: Well, maybe she didn't have a say in it.

Lauren: Yes, maybe she didn't. I don't know.

Judith: Now we're down the conspiracy rabbit hole. Woo.

Lauren: I know. [chuckling] Well, I think you did talk about, is it Christina or Christine?

Judith: Christa McAuliffe.

Lauren: Christa McAuliffe and Deborah Sampson. What are a few facts that people would be surprised to know about them?

Judith: [00:28:00] Ooh. Christa's husband, Steve, she was like 16 years old, and she's like, "Steve, if you ask me to marry you I will say yes." She never dated anybody else. It was love at first sight for them. She'd gone out on a date with some kid from her street. He was like, "Will you marry me?" and they were 16. She said yes, and then they decided to wait until after they graduated from college, which is probably for the best since they were both attending Catholic high school. [laughter] It was scandalous. I always love that story because there's people like, "Ah, childhood love, whatever," but I do know. I have a friend that they met in middle school and they got married and they're still married. I like that aspect of it does exist.

Christa McAuliffe passed the bar exam in New Hampshire, so she was actually able to practice law. She was actually teaching a law class at Concord High School at the time of her selection. I think that's really cool. She wanted to go into administration, so principal, vice principal, but her principal at Concord High School said that the school was not ready for a female administrator. This is in 1984, '85. Not surprising, but also very interesting. I think she probably would have continued in education and gone into-- some people think she would have gone into politics, but I personally think she would have gone into administration and then done some speaking engagements had she survived, had the program been successful.

For Deborah, let's see. In the same vein, I'll start with a funny-- After Deborah was discharged from the Army, she did actually get married and seven months after she got married in 1785, she had her first child,-

Lauren: Uh-oh. [laughs]

Judith: -which is so funny because people are like, "Not in that time." I'm like, "No, these are 18th century colonists. These are not 17th century Puritans. [00:30:00] The Puritans of the 1630s and the American colonists, specifically the Boston area American colonists from the late 1700s, are like, if you could swing from one side of the pendulum to the other in terms of radicalism, that's what you've got. Puritanical, conservative. If you don't go to church on Sunday, you're going to be putting the stockades and publicly humiliated to like, let's overthrow our government. Oh yes. It's the strongest empire in the entire world. No problem. We can get that done. [laughs]

Lauren: I'm actually reading a book right now called The Season and it's the History of the Debutante. It's only a couple of chapters in. I read it before bed and I read two pages and I'm out.

Judith: [laughs] So it's not very interesting.

Lauren: No. It's reading in general. I usually listen to audiobooks because actually physically reading a book, I don't know, whatever my eyes are doing, it's making me sleepy. [laughs]

Judith: Same.

Lauren: I just got to the chapter where it started off talking about women or girls being launched on society in England, and then over in the colonies, the same rituals started and it was so much decadence. There's one point where it mentions that John Adams wrote to his wife that he was disturbed by how sensual all the jellied food was. [laughs]

Judith: Wow.

Lauren: I guess jelly molds and jellied food was a popular trend.

Judith: Probably shaped.

Lauren: Yes. [laughs] I don't know. There was a lot of decadence, apparently.

Judith: Well, one of the women I portray that it was a commission for the Hingham Historical Society which is on the South Shore of Massachusetts, is Sarah Derby, who founded the Derby Academy which is the first co-educational private school in New England. She met her second [00:32:00] husband, Richard Derby, at the house in Salem of the Massachusetts Supreme Court judge. I am going to kick myself, not remembering, I could look it up right now in my notes, but then you're going to hear me clicking on the computer. He was the Supreme Court judge of Massachusetts. He presided over the trial of the Boston Massacre. John Adams was the defense attorney in that trial. He had, at his house, it was called The Pleasure Gardens.

Lauren: Oh my God. [laughs]

Judith: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts had parties at his house called at The Pleasure Gardens. You can only imagine what type of things were going on in The Pleasure Gardens. I have a couple ideas, but I won't vocalize them.

Lauren: There was probably jellied food.

Judith: Probably, at the very least, at the very least. I don't remember how we got on this. [laughs]

Lauren: Deborah Sampson, seven months.

Judith: Oh yes. [laughs] Seven months giving birth to her first child. Something else that's really cool about Deborah Sampson. Now, we don't know, I can't put this in the performance because I don't have a verified primary source. It's in Herman Mann's novel about her called The Female Review, but there's two editions of this novel. The first one she signed off on, the second one, she was dead so she couldn't sign off on it.

Both are available. One of them that's online is the second edition. She didn't sign off on that one. That's sensationalized and thought to be highly inaccurate. The first one you can get in hard print at the Massachusetts Historical Society and some other archives might have originals. Actually, there was a nurse at the camp that developed feelings for her. Of course, it didn't feel comfortable speaking or getting close with a lot of the guys around her as like, "Hey, buddy," because they called her Molly because she couldn't grow any facial hair.

She just said she was a [00:34:00] 15-year-old boy. If people start prying too much, it's going to get more and more difficult to remember what you told to who, so on and so forth. She befriended this nurse and this nurse started to have feelings for her. The nurse proposes to her, which is unheard of in the 18th century, but in a time of war, I think anything goes.

Deborah, according to the lore, writes a letter back to this nurse and says, "I'm very flattered by this offer, but I simply cannot accept." Signed, the same sex," and that's it. She signs this letter in a manner that doesn't connect her actual name in a new way to it but informs the person and the woman, according to the lore, she understands and she just lets it go and just honors the secret.

Lauren: She is just like, sorry, I am--

Judith: She's just like, wow. Now I know why I liked you so much. [laughter] We could talk. [unintelligible 00:35:00] together.

Lauren: No wonder you're a good listener. [laughs]

Judith: That's funny.

Lauren: Is there a particular time period that you find the most interesting?

Judith: Certainly, the American Revolutionary era, late 18th century America, or the late 18th century world, I think, is a really interesting time in history. I don't know if you watch Outlander, if you've read the Outlander series.

Lauren: I'm a season behind.

Judith: Oh gosh, it's so amazing. If I could have any dream come true, that would be my dream. The ability to travel back is also part of that dream. Would I want to live all the time in the 18th century? Heck, no. Like, no, I would not. I do like having plumbing. I do like having antibiotics. [laughs] I do like the modern marvels of the world and of the human species. If I were to go back and stay [00:36:00] there, I think the 1920s before the stock market collapse, the roaring '20s, I would definitely see myself after World War I and before 1929. If I could hang out in that decade, I think I'd be just at home there.

Lauren: [laughs] Nice. For the freedom at that time?

Judith: Yes. 1920, women are in the right to vote. Women's lib. That's an 85-year recorded process of first woman to really speak in front of Congress, petitioning for the rights of humans and, therefore, the rights of women is Angelina Grimke in front of the Massachusetts legislature. I want to say that's like 1835. 1920, right to vote. Well, now you're talking, now I want to be a part of this society because I'm actually a part of the society. Secondly, the music. People have that one thing that feeds them. For me, besides performing is music. I assume music is my religion. The music from that era is just absolutely phenomenal. It's just top-notch and that big band kind of feel and the dancing, the Charleston, the fashion, the flapper dresses.

Compare it to 18th century, you've got the stays and the bum rolls, and then you go to the Regency era. There's just like, heyo, let it all flow, let it all lay loose. The empire waist dresses, no more restrictive corsets, and then you go back to the restrictive corsets in the antebellum and the Victorian era. Then in the 1920s, it's just like, all right, girls, it's off for good now. [laughs] Just let it all hang loose. I love that. The first thing I do when I get home is [00:38:00] remove the restrictive garments off of my body. [laughs]

Lauren: That makes sense. Then you go back to it with the girdles of the-- I don't even know, maybe [crosstalk].

Judith: The '50s and '60s. Yes, you do. You're right. You're absolutely right.

Lauren: For me, if I were going to go back to visit, I would do 1969. I don't have to wear a girdle. [laughs] There's enough of women being more independent and free that I could do most things on my own. I think if I were to pick a time to live in and stay, I would pick the '90s because I have a personal theory that life satisfaction peaked in the '90s where we had the advantage of using computers for information, but they didn't take over our lives. Kids still played outside all the time and everything and women had rights for the most part. I could say that about today. [laughs]

Judith: Except for Monica Lewinsky or anything like that. [laughs]

Lauren: History for women is, as you know, there's always the asterisk of, but you're a woman. I feel like to live in, I would go back to the '90s, but to visit also for the music and the interior decorating and the clothes, I pick late '60s.

Judith: Those are really good traces too. I can absolutely vibe with the sentiments for both of those eras.

Lauren: Well, if you could have dinner with any famous person alive or dead, which one would you choose and why?

Judith: See, I always feel like I have to put that there's not one answer to this and there has to be categories.

Lauren: Fair enough.

Judith: For example, as an actor, I don't do a lot of TV and film anymore but I [00:40:00] used to. When the opportunities arise, I still take them, but my work as an artistic director and founder of History At Play and being on tour all the time definitely does take up a lot of my time.

If I were to be involved in a cinematic production, I would really, really, really want an opportunity to work with Quentin Tarantino. I'd love to have dinner with him and just talk about his films and his influences, and why he chose certain people to work with, what was it that he saw in them, why he feels he needs to do a cameo in all of his productions, and when can I audition for his next film. That would be what the dinner would entail. From a cinematic perspective, definitely Quentin Tarantino. Historically, it's an obvious answer, I think, but Deborah Sampson.

I've been doing research on this woman's life for 18 years and I still don't feel like I have the answers to some of the major questions that I want to know. I feel like she communicates with me as much as she can through the outlets that she has. For folks who have seen me portray her, weird things sometimes happen when I'm portraying her. Lights will flash. Things will happen in the program. Specifically, this happened in Sharon, Massachusetts, which is where she lived as an adult.

The DAR, Deborah Sampson's Daughters of the American Revolution chapter can attest to the fact that weird things do sometimes happen. She does let me know she's there and she does give me hints, but it's nothing like just being able to sit down and just pick her brain. Because I can only infer based on following the tracks that she was in, trying to see both [00:42:00] sides of every option she was given, and then why did she choose that option instead of the other option? There's only so far I can go before I'm making something up.

Then from just a life perspective, oh gosh, just in general, I think about this all the time. I'm from a very international family. My father is from Turkey and then also my ancestry is from Spain, and so I often follow the path of history and why my family moved from one place to the next. In my case, it was generally religious-based. My family is Jewish, so they were really cast out of Spain during the Inquisition. It was convert, leave, or die.

Then, of course, my family emigrates to Turkey, and then Turkey has antisemitism on the rise. Then my father immigrates out of Turkey for that same reason. Obviously, when you think about all of this and you think about your heritage as a Jewish person, the Holocaust is such a big part of our shared existence. One of the first people that made me really understand the Holocaust in a different way was Elie Wiesel and his book that I read in elementary school. We wrote him letters and he wrote back and it was amazing to have this experience of-- What was that? Is it Into the Night? Oh gosh.

Lauren: That sounds right, I think.

Judith: To have this experience of reading this book and then be so compelled, then I'm like, I need to write this man a letter. I'm a kid. I think I was in fourth grade or fifth grade, or whatever. Then to have him write back. [00:44:00] I always was like, I want to know what it was to live in prewar Europe when Hitler was coming into power. It's such an interesting time for me because people just think, oh, he usurped power. He did everything totally legally, totally by the book.

Totally with the approval of the public. Totally swayed the public into this mass hypnosis of blaming one group of people for literally all of their problems. Then evoked this massive hysteria of if we get rid of this group of people, Hitler will think we're good little girls and boys and will treat us nicely. Elie Wiesel wrote it in a way where I could understand. I just wish I could sit down and have dinner with him to tell me more about what it was like to live the Weimar Republic lead-up.

What was it like to be in society and to watch these things happen from the legislators changing to Kristallnacht where the protestors really first smash all the windows and there's that first really public globally recognized moment of, let's get rid of these people, let's make their lives miserable. There was a lot leading up to that. I would like to pick his brain more about that. It went down the Debbie Downer rabbit hole there. I apologize for that, but that's the truth of the matter. That is it.

Lauren: Those are all very interesting people. That's so cool that he wrote back to your whole class. I would imagine other classes were doing that too, so he probably spent a whole day writing letters to the kids. That's really cool.

Judith: I'm sure it brought him great joy. Because [00:46:00] that's what you do when you write a book like that, is you are praying or hoping, whatever word you choose, or willing that it's not forgotten. Because that's the only way we're not going to do it again. We are canceling out things that make us uncomfortable.

By removing a book from the bookshelf, banning a book from a curriculum, you are not making it okay for anyone except you in that moment. You are ruining the future of society and the future of your children by denying them of the knowledge that that book brought into your landscape and it made you uncomfortable. Ask yourself, why is it making you uncomfortable? Don't make everyone else be bereft of the knowledge that made you uncomfortable.

Lauren: I always say, as a librarian, if we were to remove from ourselves every book that either someone just didn't like or offended someone, we would have no books on any [crosstalk] shelves.

Judith: Exactly.

Lauren: It would include Harry Potter. It would include Captain Underpants. [laughs] The Wizard of Oz was banned at one point because they didn't like a strong female character. That was literally the reason. The Lorax was banned because of its portrayal of the foresting industry. You could find a reason to pull any book off of a shelf. The thing that you actually do is you leave them all on the shelf. There's actually a movie called Storm Center. I don't know if you've ever seen it. It's obscure and probably only librarians know about it. Bette Davis plays a librarian.

Judith: I like it already.

Lauren: Someone on her library's board, I believe, or the town or city council wants her to remove the communist manifesto from the library and she refuses. She is like, how is anyone ever going to know how dangerous these ideas are and [00:48:00] what the ideas even are if they can't read the book? At the time it came out, it was like everyone was afraid of communism.

She was basically saying, A, you can't understand what you're trying to fight if you don't even know what it is, and B, you're giving power to the communists by saying that their book is so dangerous that you can't even look at it. She ends up getting fired and there's this whole thing, but it's a really good movie. It was surprising that it was made in the early '50s, and it holds up.

Judith: I wrote it down because I am really interested in watching it, and there are a lot of movies. Even Hedy Lamarr, she created her own film production company called Mars Productions, like Hedy Lamarr, Mars Productions. Her films never got distribution because of it was strong female characters. One of them specifically was dealing with a woman who had some addiction issues and compulsion issues. She tries to commit suicide at the beginning of the film and it just turns, it flips the whole world upside down on what a woman-- because these were man problems.

It's called the Dishonored Lady. You can watch it on YouTube for free because it never got distribution. The Strange Woman is another film she did. She not only produced them, she starred in them and she directed them. Incredible. The Strange Woman, she depicts herself as very manipulative dark character that manipulates people into committing heinous crimes for her advancement. She couldn't get distribution for them. They're brilliant films. I think if she had had a stronger director to help her, her performances would have been even better in them.

She's often limited by having directed and produced my own programs that I perform in. To share your headspace with all of those other hats can be very difficult in one end, and [00:50:00] eventually will end up suffering. Especially for her with English being her fourth language. It's definitely that sometimes her moments of acting are perfect and some moments of her acting are really forced but it is never at a point where I'd be like, I don't want to watch this film. I recommend everyone watch The Dishonored Lady and The Strange Woman which you can watch online for free on YouTube.

Lauren: I will definitely watch those.

Judith: Really good.

Lauren: I think I would probably also have two options for my dinner guests as well. I think the first one that always comes to mind is Carrie Fisher. I'm first of all a huge Star Wars nerdy but--

Judith: A Trekkie here but we'll agree to disagree about which one is better.

Lauren: Fair enough. Also, she's written a ton of books. She wrote, I think, three or four autobiographies but then also a bunch of novels which were also semi-autobiographical. I just feel like she would be so great to have a conversation with. She was always so honest about herself, her struggles, her life. I just think she would be so funny and just a good time to hang out with her.

Judith: Definitely.

Lauren: Then the other person is, I used to work at the Newport Mansions, and Rosecliff was always my favorite house, and the woman who lived there was this woman named Theresa Oelrichs, but she went by Tessie. She was a friend of Alva Vanderbilt. No one really knows a lot about her, there aren't a lot of records about her. It's supposed that she was always the life of the party and very funny. She played banjo and stuff. She just sounds like she was really interesting. I would love to know more about her. In lines with your Deborah Sampson, I think I would also choose her.

Judith: Sort of reminds me of an Isabella Stewart Gardner kind of [00:52:00] character. Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Lauren: I don't know much about her. I've been dying to go to the museum but I still haven’t.

Judith: You got to, you got to. It's free on your birthday or it's always free if your name is Isabella.


Lauren: That's cool.

Judith: It's a really, really cool place. It's unlike any museum in the world. She's just like this. I don't think she's playing a lot of instruments or anything, I don't think that's part of her, but she's just this incredibly cultured-- She's the first woman, I can't say anywhere ever because I'm not going to be that superlative, but she travels the world basically by herself. Obviously she's got people with her who are servants and hired help, but she travels the world specifically to collect art. Not only art, bust tapestries, sculptures, musicians. She finds musicians from all over the world.

She just literally uses her husband's funds to create a house that will be forever for the people to enjoy featuring in exactly the formation that she wants it to be, every piece of art that she's ever collected throughout the course of her life. She's not particularly attractive so she must have had this absolute enamoring energy. She just seems like such a phenomenal person that she could have had every man at her doorstep. She wasn't a particularly good-looking woman but yet she just was so knowledgeable that what the world needed more of was culture a lot.

Lauren: That’s really cool. I definitely have to get there.

Judith: Fast.

Lauren: I know some libraries have passes too.

Judith: Yes. Oh, I’m sure. Absolutely. Your library will definitely have either a reduced pass or a complimentary pass. That's how I go to all of the museums.

Lauren: Oh good.

Judith: See, when you work for libraries-- when I would perform for libraries, amongst other places- we perform everywhere- but a big percentage of our [00:54:00] clients are libraries, you then start to realize how much importance and value libraries have in our society. They're not just places where you go and get books. I'm not sure if you're familiar with what happened in Dudley, Massachusetts with the Pearle Crawford Library but it shut down. It was a very bureaucratic nonsense move that shut it down and laid off all of the librarians.

They're one of my clients. I was reading the posts on social media and it was like, those places are obsolete anyway. Some people were like, are you kidding me? These are places that kids go there after school, it's a safe place for them to be, people go there for educational programs, myself included. I perform there. It's literally how I make a living, is having libraries be functional. What people don't realize is now the town's library loses accreditation, now the citizens of that town can't go to another town to use their library. They're literally not allowed.

It's really going to mess up the whole town of Dudley, Massachusetts. Library is one of those very main ways that they support the community, is you get free passes everywhere. [chuckles] So easy. There's so many libraries that you actually don't even need to be a resident of that town. I have a library card for the town system, the network that I live in, but then I have a Boston Public Library pass even though I live right on the edge of Boston, technically in the next town over. Then I have a New York City Library pass.

Lauren: In Rhode Island, it's a statewide system since we're the smallest state. If you have a library card, say from Coventry, you can use it at any public library in Rhode Island. If we don't have the museum pass or the book, or whatever you're looking for, you can just go to the right or not with museum passes, but with materials, we can order it from somewhere else.

Judith: Very cool.

Lauren: Which leads me to my final question. [00:56:00] Do you have any books to recommend to our listeners, either biographies or historical fiction, or non-historical, anything, whatever you like?

Judith: Your attestation about listening to audiobooks is also true for me because I have a photographic memory which is a blessing and a curse. It makes it very difficult for me to pleasure read because if I find the content interesting, I will stare at it until I've committed it to memory, which it's about double to triple the amount of time that a normal person would take to look over the page. That makes pleasure reading really difficult, so I listen to audiobooks because I'm on the road all the time, and so it just keeps my brain going. I do always love to recommend books that correlate to people that I have researched.

If you do find Deborah Sampson's story interesting as I have over the last almost two decades, I recommend reading Alfred Young's novel Masquerade: Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier. Alfred Young, for those of you who are unfamiliar with his works, is one of the best historical biographers and just historical writers, I think on par with David McCullough. He does incredible research. It's all in the footnotes and the bibliography, and the index. He also includes in the Masquerade novel, biography I should say, he includes facsimiles of primary source documents.

If you can get to the Massachusetts Historical Society or the American Antiquarian Society, you can still see a copy of the image in the book, which is really cool. Another book that I think is really, really interesting just in regard to just understanding human behavior is called The Originals. I blank on the author's name right now and I'm sorry. The Originals [00:58:00] taught me a lot about different creatives styles of thinking, like procrastination is not procrastination in the negative sense of the word because we are planning everything in our minds and then we execute things very, very quickly in very small condensed amounts of time.

Because when I do programming, I'll be researching for a year and then I'll write a script in a week, and then I'll do a revision. Then I'll rehearse it. I’ll rehearse it for two weeks. Then I'll put it up. Over the time that I've been researching it, I've been collecting all of the props that I want to use, all of the set pieces I want to use. I've been designing the show from a scenic perspective, costume appropriation. I design the program first and then I write it in a really short amount of time, and I rehearse it very-- because when you write something and when you're a professional performer, you don't need a ton of time to rehearse something.

Generally, you learn how to do things more efficiently. I always thought, oh God, why am I waiting so long to do this? Why am I such a horrible procrastinator? Then I learned Martin Luther King Jr. was up writing his speech for the I Have a Dream speech at 4:00 in the morning, he started writing a speech. He's done at sunrise, and then guess what? He stood up on that podium and some woman behind him said, "Tell 'em about the dream." He threw out the whole script, and he just went off book. Just went off the cuff and said I have a dream.

Lauren: Wow.

Judith: It's like all of this you need to be prepared, you need to take more time, you need to check the boxes on this to-do list. I'm like, what if my to-do list, I can do the amount of work in one week that someone takes a year to do? Does that make me not as prepared a person or does that make me procrastinator in the bad sense of the word? No. Originals are original for whatever reason. Some plan and some don't. I recommend that book for people who want to learn their styles and what that means.

Lauren: Very cool.

Judith: Thank you.

Lauren: Before we wrap [01:00:00] up, is there anything else you'd like our listeners to know that we didn't touch on?

Judith: I'd love our listeners, especially those who are history lovers like myself, to follow us on social media @historyatplay across all of the platforms, even TikTok and whatnot, if that's your thing. We also have our website,, where we're going to be adding our autumn shows to that upcoming events tab on that website very shortly. We send out an email blast once a month. We'll be sending one out this week.

I'm not sure when this will be aired, but nevertheless once a month, so I hope you'll sign up. Come to one of our programs, we do them in person all over the country. Not just in New England, but all over the country. We do have virtual options as well for streaming our performances on demand. I just ask that you all make history and have a great day. Thank you for having me, Lauren.

Lauren: It was great chatting with you. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. Thank you for listening. You can find more information about Judith Kalaora and History At Play by visiting her website,, or on social media @historyatplay. There you can find information about upcoming events near you. Of course, I always recommend subscribing to your local library's e-newsletter. On top of the usual library news, you'll be the first to know if Judith is coming to your library. Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book, and brought to you by library staff and community members all around the ocean state.

This episode was made possible in part by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders. You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and give us a review on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you [01:02:00] listen to help us reach more Rhode Islanders.


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