Interview with Shelley Russell

March 26, 2001

Dr. Shelley Russell wrote and directed the Northern Michigan University theatrical production Holdin' Our Own in 2000.

Question:  How are you associated with the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Answer: In 1999 the Marquette Maritime Museum and the Iron Ore Industry Museum jointly commissioned me to write a dramatic work to commemorate the 25th anniversary of loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew, and to honor the men and women who work in the maritime and great lakes' freighting industries.  I wrote and directed, Holdin' Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was produced at Northern Michigan University in November of 2000.  It was extremely challenging to the cast and they took it very seriously.  At one point they opted for a 3:30 A.M. run-thru rehearsal so that they could, "go through the decisions and emotions the crew lived just as tired as they were," as one college junior put it.  On Nov. 10th, before the third performance of the show, the company went to the lake for a memorial service, a group decision by the cast and crew.   

Question:  What play did you direct about the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Answer:  Holdin' Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Question:  When were the showing dates?
Answer: November 8-11, 2000

Question:  What are you a professor of?
Answer: Theatre Arts.  Also Artistic Director of Lake Superior Theatre, Marquette, MI.

Question:  Do you ever teach about the Edmund Fitzgerald or incorporate it into classlessons?
Answer: No.  I am a playwright.  I teach acting, playwriting, stage swordplay and combat skills.  I depended on the navigational experts and the maritime historians to guide me through the writing of Holdin' Our Own.  It is these people who should be teaching the probable causes and actual results of this tragedy in the classroom.

Question:  How long have you been researching/been interested in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
Answer: I have a strong connection to the lake, just living here.  And from my window I can see the big boats come in. The interest in this boat specifically came a few years ago when a local film and video specialist called me to say she thought I should write a play on the subject.  I read a book about the tragedy and became interested in learning more.

Question:  What do you think happened to the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald the night it sank in1975?
Answer: What I think about the sinking is included in my play script on the subject.

Question:  What theory of the sinking was used in your play?
Answer:  It is my understanding that we don't have all the answers and probably never will.  The authorities I employed offered theories involving loose or damaged plates, shoaling on the 6 Fathom Shoal, failed land and ship navigational equipment, choices regarding speed and navigation, a terrible November storm, huge waves, and inadequate life saving equipment and services.  Captain Jim Nuzzo (Lee A. Tregurtha), Robert Manning (multiple professional, ship and lake affiliations), and others have noted that one strength of the script is that it realistically raises all possibilities without opting for a single cause.  My intention was to dramatize what we know, to discount none of the theoretical possibilities, and to fill in the hours on board with dialogue that might reflect the thoughts of the crew on board.  MY interest as a playwright was on the men and the character of the big Fitz, not on taking a stand on what happened to them.  I tried to honor a respected captain, an experienced crew, and a great ship.

Question:  How long did the research take to gather in order to make this production possible?
Answer: About one and half years.  I had a lot of wonderful people helping me, great support all along the way.

Question:  Many families do not appreciate the fact that a play was made; they feel it willbring back too many memories, be presented bad, and become too commercial.   Why do you agree or disagree with this idea?
Answer:  After the opening night performance Darren Muljo, Ransom Cundy's grandson, came backstage and hugged the young actor who'd portrayed his grandfather. He said to the cast and crew that while he knew his mom could not sit through the performance, he would encourage others to see it.  He found it moving, inspiring, "respectful." His comments afterward included, "I just felt proud."  Such an incident does not belong only to those most affected.  We all learn from such events.  We learn technological data that may save others, and we learn lessons about the human experience, and the human spirit when set against overwhelming odds and the power of nature.

Question:  Who first taught you about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and when did youstart researching it?
Answer: I don't recall.  The lake has been important to me since I moved to Marquette.  I think she was part of the reason I moved here.  I find her beautiful, powerful, sometimes reassuring and often terrifying.  Friends say that regarding the lake I'm a romantic, but I honestly think the words above describe Lake Superior in realistic terms.  To live next to this body of water ...I'm having trouble finding words.  That's another play script perhaps.

Question:  Do you agree that a movie should be made?  Why or why not?
Answer: I think a conscientiously researched and well produced film might be educational and inspiring.  I'd like to be part of the process.

Question:  Will the production ever be reenacted and available for the public to attend again?
Answer:  Yes. 

Question:  Why, after twenty-five years, are we still trying to learn about the ship andits crew, and why is it still remembered?
Answer:  First, it was the greatest ship on the Great Lakes, a fine captain and crew, and at the time of year notorious for such storms, they were thrown against a beast of a storm on a lake with an unforgiving reputation.  Second, stories where human endeavor must stand against nature satisfy our need to understand our environment. Last, since many questions remain unanswered, we also have a mystery that leaves us profoundly disturbed.

Question:  Do you think that the wreck site should be reopened for exploration? 
Answer: I have been told that we can't learn from further exploration of the site.  I'd prefer the site left alone.  And I have signed petitions from hundreds of audience members who came to see Holdin' Our Own who felt similarly.

Question:  So should the wreckage be salvaged or raised from the lake bottom?
Answer:  NO.  This is only a playwright's opinion.  But what the hell would be the point?!  It would surprise me very much to hear that someone was actually considering this.

Question: Is the wreck of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald becoming too commercial?
Answer: It is an historical event.  The public has voiced strong feelings for the men lost and the families' suffering.  On the other hand, as with any historical event, the final hours of the E.F. will be discussed, analyzed, and debated for a long time.