Adaptation of Bauer’s ‘The War Dept.’ on Exhibit

A stop-action video adaptation of The War Dept., a music theater piece by Shore art teacher and Art Department Chair Ruth Bauer and her husband, Jim Bauer, is the subject of an exhibit at Montserrat College of Art’s Frame 301 Gallery. Commissioned by the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University as part of a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of American Civil War, The War Dept. had a workshop performance at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 2014. Along with her collaborator Blyth Hazen, a professor at Montserrat, Ruth Bauer transformed some of the elements of The War Dept. into a stop-action video using puppets and a miniature set.

According to Bauer, “The idea for the video adaptation came about when my husband, Jim, and I were visiting artists at Montserrat in a puppetry class. It was then I met Blyth Hazen, and we had an ‘a-ha’ moment as we talked about The War Dept. and puppetry.” On display at Frame 301 Gallery is the set from the video production, including the lighting grid, the puppets that were animated, and various artifacts from the process of making the piece, such as storyboards, tools, molds, and more. “With help from a few student interns from Montserrat,” says Bauer, “we completed the production and post-prpoduction between 2017 and 2018, working mostly in the summers.”

The video and the original musical piece on which it is based both tell the strange story of the eccentric savant Private William T. Clarke, who toiled after the end of the Civil War in an obscure and mysterious division of the War Department, sorting through mountains of records housed in Ford’s Theater, dark since Lincoln’s assassination there three years before but now repurposed as the Bureau of Records and Pensions. The Bureau housed cases and cases of Civil War records, and it was the task of clerks such as Clarke to reckon with the enormous amount of information they contained as visitors arrived looking for information about loved ones missing in the war.

“The story takes place in the contained universe of Ford’s Theater,” explains Bauer, “which is a perfect parallel for musical theater as well as stop-action video. It gave us the opportunity to invent the world of the story using sets and puppets, all based on extensive research. But in the video, instead of working with an expensive set on a theatrical stage, we had the freedom to manipulate cardboard and paper and paint and build the universe ourselves.”

    • Ruth Bauer with the set from 'The War Dept.'

    • Puppets from 'The War Dept.'

    • Tools from the making of the video