Monday profile: Jeannette Copperwaite
It’s not This American Life with Ira Glass or StoryCorps on NPR, but it’s just as riveting, poignant, and often funny – and best of all, it’s 100 percent local. California of the Past – the Digital Storytelling Project has been quietly underway at the Alameda Free Library for the past 18 months, with 14 short films by Alamedans remembering their past already completed, and more in the pipeline.
Behind all history there are people, and behind all history recorded, there are people too. The Digital Story Station (the fancy name for a computer, a webcam, and some other equipment inside a rolling cabinet), is run by a crew of three that includes Jeannette Copperwaite, a third-generation Alamedan, documentary filmmaker, web designer, history buff and an all-around fun person who interviews, records, and turns Alamedans’ memories into short films.
Copperwaite is a sprightly, entertaining redhead who got involved with the project after a library talk she gave on the history of Neptune Beach. Her enthusiasm for Alameda history caught the attention of David Hall and Claire Coustier, the library staffers who oversee the project, and they recruited her to help. And Copperwaite herself has an inexhaustible supply of Alameda trivia – from its proud place in world history to its fascinating lowbrow undercurrent and juicy local lore, much of it connected to the fun times had at Neptune Beach.
The project has offered two public screenings of its collection so far, and Copperwaite and crew are hoping to have another one at the library in June. Meanwhile, the project’s “road show” is available for booking, free of charge (and they’d love to get it out to schools and senior centers), and its staff is working with School Board Trustee Nielsen Tam on a project to train elementary school students to conduct pre-interviews of potential storytellers.
Tell me a little bit more about this storytelling project.
California of the Past is a statewide, grant-funded project, with participating libraries all over California. The idea is to collect short vignettes concerning aspects of local California history. They’re not meant to be full life stories; rather, a specific memory of a time, place, personality, in local community history – a “bite-size” piece.
Once a story is completed, it’s burned to a DVD to be circulated and archived in the collections of both the Alameda Free Library and the California State Library. The story is uploaded to the Alameda website, as well as the statewide project website.
Why Alameda history?
Alameda actually has a very unique and colorful past, once you have a chance to really examine it. It’s a little like finding out your maiden aunt was once a Hollywood starlet. People tend to view Alameda as a quaint, sleepy little island town but over the years it’s been quite rootin’-tootin’! We’ve hosted all kinds of characters – Wyatt Earp, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Amelia Earhart, Phyllis Diller, Jim Morrison and many more, and we’ve played a part in many larger world-stage events like Doolittle’s Raid in World War II. In many ways, Alameda’s history is like a microcosm of California history. And it’s always been a place people gathered to have fun – from Native American “oysterfests” and Spanish-Californio fiestas and bullfights, to Croll’s Gardens and Neptune Beach!
How does it all work? What is the process?
The process is really painless. Once a storyteller has decided on a story he or she would like to tell, and practiced a little to get it down to five to 10 minutes, the person makes an appointment at the library to come in and tell the story in front of the webcam. Storytellers can also bring supporting images, recordings and documents, which are scanned or otherwise copied and returned to them before they leave that day.
Then the media specialist (that’s me) will bring all this together with editing and add credits and music. The final version is then approved by the storyteller, and it’s ready to circulate.
How do you decide who to interview? How would someone know to contact you with a good story?
We don’t really turn anyone down – everyone has a story to tell – but what we especially seek are stories that will illuminate some little corner of Alameda history for those who wouldn’t otherwise know about or experience it. We want to hear firsthand what it was like to be here in that time, for that event, or with that person!
We have compiled a list of potential storytellers to approach, but so far we’ve been kept pretty busy even without consulting it! We find many people come to us, sometimes referred by others who have either seen our website, or know the storyteller.
What are some of your favorite stories so far?
I love Dan Solo’s story about Neptune Beach – he’s the perfect storyteller for that one. Dorothy Eggers (“Dancing Through the Depression”) was fun to interview. She is one hip, wisecrackin’ lady! Mr. Kido’s story (“The Silver Lining”) was motivating and inspiring – he managed to get married and complete his Ph.D. despite being held in an internment camp. Also Althea Hagemann, recounting the Carnegie Library when it was the spot to be during Depression times, because it was the only free entertainment.
Do you enjoy doing this kind of work? What do you get out of it?
I have always been interested in portraiture and biography, depicting and preserving the different ways life is experienced in a given time and place and situation, with one’s unique set of attributes. I think everyone has an example of a story they wished they’d somehow preserved. For example, my grandparents grew up in Hollywood in the 1920s and ‘30s, and they had the most fascinating stories to tell. But I never wrote them down or recorded them, and now that my grandparents are gone, they’re lost. I think this is what got me started in oral history in the first place. I would like to work on some longer personal history projects too – perhaps family stories a person would like to record for their children and grandchildren.
I know you are a person who won’t sit still, so what are you up to next, in the Alameda context?
Well, apart from the digital storytelling pilot program in the Alameda schools, I’m also working on a Neptune Beach educational curricula pack. And currently in the screenwriting and planning stage is a totally over-the-top history-detective noir film that takes place in Alameda! To say more would be to spoil the surprise … (dunt dun DUUUNNNNNNN!).