After 24 years as a librarian for Elmwood Elementary School spent perusing the history department’s large collection of autobiographies, Marie Papciak has found her calling. She brings to life seven historical women she looks up to with a series of skits she performs as each character.
All of the women were in the side margins of the history books, and I want to tell their stories,” said Papciak.
Papciak developed her program, Women Who Changed America, because of the response she received from students every March, Women’s History Month. She dressed up as different female figures from history and encouraged students to do the same. Many students would participate in mini-assemblies, dressing up and talking in first person as if they were that particular woman.
“I just feel women’s history should be celebrated all year long,” said Papciak.
After retiring in 2000 from the library, pursuing the program turned into Papciak’s dream. She took a year to collect artifacts and props, sew costumes and research her dialogue before hitting the road with her one-woman act. Although Papciak has not yet performed outside of Michigan, she has every intention of it, and has made it as far as Iron Mountain, MI.
“March is my busiest time because it is Women’s History Month. I’ve had up to 11 bookings [in that month],” said Papciak.
Papciak’s passion is contagious as she reminisces over each woman’s history and describes in detail their lives and hardships. During her performances, she not only dons that character’s dress, bonnet and boots, but borrows her accent and stature as well.
“I feel that I’m opening up youth, adults and senior citizens to history alive,” said Papciak.
She organizes her performances by acting as one woman for the first 30 minutes, changing on stage (she wears many layers), and becoming a second for another 30 minutes. This is followed by a question and answer session.
The performances requested the most are her acts of two infamous Michigan women: Sarah Emma Edmonds, who successfully enlisted in the army and fought in the Civil War, and Laura Smith Haviland, an anti-slavery activist of the 1800s.
Papciak’s favorite woman to portray is Mary Todd Lincoln. She wants people to look at Lincoln differently and to salvage her reputation.
“I hate when people say she was crazy, she was just a misunderstood lady,” said Papciak.
Another one of her favorite women to portray is Susan B. Anthony, who she typically follows Lincoln with. She explained how hard these women worked and all that would be lost today without their efforts.
“It’s not just giving the women the right to vote — young girls would not think about college if it weren’t for Anthony,” said Papciak. “These women worked tirelessly to give women opportunities.”
Papciak has expanded her list of women to include portrayals relevant to the special interests of her audiences, such as Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter, Barbie doll creator Ruth Handler, correction fluid inventor Bette Nesmith and Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.
“I knew if I wanted to make a success of this, there needed to be a variety, and I might change the performances if I get interested in somebody else,” Papciak said.
Papciak decorates tables with artifacts that were found during the time period. One of the more popular items she exhibits is original Civil War bullets.
“We’re such a visual society, it helps that I’m bringing these women alive and giving these children a real picture,” Papciak noted.
She also sets the mood of her performances with music. She typically chooses music to go with the theme of the woman she is portraying, so “everyone gets in the right frame of mind.”
“If I can fire up just a few people in the audience, I know I’m doing some good and I’m pleased,” said Papciak.