Off the Path

How a Podcast Inspired ‘Seven Cousins’

As a new works theatre company, we are always on the lookout for untold stories and unique perspectives that challenge conventional narratives. One fateful day, as I was driving to work, an episode of Davis Dunavin’s Off the Path from New York to Boston podcast aired on WSHU just as I pulled into the office. This was the classic “driveway moment” you hear about on public radio pledge drives. It set in motion a remarkable journey culminating in the creation of Seven Cousins for a Horse by Tammy Ryan, which we will premiere this July.

The episode was called Searching for the Lost Limner, and at a modest eight and a half minutes, it’s worth sharing in its entirety right here:


The podcast introduced me to Ammi Phillips, an enigmatic American portrait painter of the early 19th century. I was fascinated, and immediately googled the artist to find the portraits so vividly described in the episode. I was preoccupied with the fact that Ammi Phillips, born in Colebrook, CT, was the most prolific folk artist in American history. I’m a fairly frequent museum visitor. How was it I’d never heard that name before? Phillips is estimated to have painted up to 2,000 portraits over more than a half-century career — at a time of convulsive change in America leading up to the civil war. Who were his subjects, and what did they think about living through such turbulent times?

As a theatre artist, I naturally began to think of how to tell this story on stage. I knew a play could unearth this untold history of our region and shed light on the hidden narratives that shaped — and continue to shape — our collective identity. We worked up a proposal, and after a few tries, we found generous funding through the Daniel E. Offutt III Charitable Trust, and just last spring, we commissioned the acclaimed playwright, Tammy Ryan to write the script.

Together, we embarked on a journey of discovery, immersing ourselves in research, conversations with experts, and visits to historical sites. The vision was to create a theatrical experience that would captivate audiences and provoke meaningful conversations about our shared New England heritage.

The result of our collaboration is Seven Cousins for a Horse. Set in 1848, the play delves into a pivotal moment in Phillips’ life — a time of personal and professional challenges, loss, and changing artistic landscapes. It explores themes of love, resilience, and the restorative power of family against the backdrop of a rapidly changing America. Far from a dry history lesson, “Seven Cousins for a Horse” pulses with energy, urgency, and relevance to the issues we grapple with today.

We hope you’ll join us for the play this July, and while you’re at it, why not subscribe to Off the Path? Who knows where Dunavin’s next journey of discovery might take you?

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