Behind the Scenes on Mercy Street
Circulating Now readers recently learned about a unique register of patients from Mansion House Hospital dating from the 1860s and 1870s, which NLM holds in its collections alongside many other materials from that era, and about our exhibitions that helped to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Today, we feature an interview with Lisa Q. Wolfinger, co-creator and executive producer of Mercy Street, which is based on the Civil War hospital at Mansion House. It was a pleasure and privilege meeting her at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Historical Association, and we appreciate her interest in talking with us about her work and about Mercy Street.
Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?
Lisa Q. Wolfinger: I live in Cape Elizabeth, Maine; a beautiful town right on the ocean. As executive producer and co-creator of Mercy Street however, I have spent little time at home in the last 2 years. I’m involved in all aspects of writing and production, from researching, breaking down storylines in the writers’ room, vetting scripts, consulting with experts on historical accuracy, working with my production team in Richmond making sure that they—(production designer, costume designer, props, hair, make-up) fully realize our vision. I’m involved in casting, scouting locations, prepping directors. I’m also involved in post-production. We edit the episodes in Los Angeles and so when we are done filming in Virginia, I head out to LA to participate in the edit. And of course I’m involved in all aspects of promotion from posters to trailers. Making an episodic series is much more than a job, it’s more akin to birthing and raising a child! There is no such thing as time off.
CN: Congratulations on the premiere of Season 2 of Mercy Street! What sparked your interest to create and produce the program?
LQW: Thank-you! Mercy Street was initially inspired by the stories of doctors and female volunteer nurses who were in many ways the unsung heroes of the Civil War. One nurse in particular caught my attention early on in my research; Mary Phinney Baroness Von Olnhausen. She worked as a nurse in Mansion House Hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia. The hospital, once a grand hotel, offered a rich, dysfunctional environment, but even better was the city itself. Alexandria was a Confederate town occupied by the Union all 4 years of the war; it had North and South built in. It was a border town, an Army town, a hospital town, and a destination point for thousands of African Americans headed north, fleeing bondage. All of these people co-existing gave us a cauldron of conflicting voices, politics and experiences. The world of Alexandria gave us the opportunity to tell a story about the war from a fresh vantage point—the home front.
CN: Mercy Street draws on a range of original historical documents to tell its story. Where in the process of creating a period drama do you find that research in historical collections really has an impact?
LQW: We are constantly researching, at every phase of writing and production. But probably the most crucial phase is the initial research we do to find inspiration for our stories. I and my creative partner, Mercy Street’s lead writer, David Zabel, (who was also the showrunner and lead writer on NBC’s ER for many years), will spend months reading histories, novels, articles, memoirs, letters before even starting the writers’ room. That way we can begin the process of breaking down our characters’ storylines armed with facts and true stories we know want to draw from.
CN: What aspects of the historical research that informs Mercy Street did you find most interesting, or significant?
LQW: Probably the most fascinating and little known chapter of the Civil War is the story of the Contrabands, newly freed slaves trying to make the transition to freedom with little help or guidance from the Union army. Alexandria was home to a large population of destitute ex-slave refugees. It created a humanitarian crisis on an epic scale and yet so few people today know anything about it. It inspired us to expand the Contraband storyline in season 2 and tackle the smallpox epidemic that devastated Alexandria’s black community in the summer and fall of 1862.
CN: Period dramas like Mercy Street are enjoying great popularity. From your perspective, why are these dramas popular, and important?
LQW: Period dramas do two things—they allow filmmakers and viewers to explore difficult themes in a “safe” setting, (the past), and they provide an escape from an often confusing and overwhelming present. Our primary goal is entertainment, (much like other period dramas), but there is no doubt that we have much to learn from 1862 America. In some ways the stories we tell in Mercy Street have never been more relevant. History cannot and should not be forgotten, because, as writer, James Baldwin put it best, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
CN: What’s next for you and your colleagues?
LQW: We are hoping to continue on with Mercy Street. We believe Mercy Street has tremendous value today, in this country, on PBS. We still have plenty of war to go and plenty of stories to tell. Season 3 will take us from January 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation all the way up to the eve of Gettysburg. Season 4 will hopefully see some of our characters making a trip to Gettysburg and helping out at the Seminary field hospital. Our goal is to tell the story of the war in 6 seasons, ideally expanding the number of episodes per season from 6 to 8—much like Downton Abbey. But to achieve all of this, to continue to tell these stories and many more, we need our many viewers to keep tuning in and spreading the word about the show on social media.