Having worked on the Institute of Outdoor Theatre collection since January, the grant money used to hire graduate assistants has run out; this is my final blog post.
I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone involved in the IOT and the hard work they put forward to continue the outdoor theatre tradition. Having worked directly with the collection, I have seen firsthand the amount of dedication put forth by all involved in a production. From the actors to the army of behind the scenes people, each production reflected the unique history of each state and the pride of the people residing in it. The numerous documents being conserved and processed by the Special Collections department at Joyner Library highlight this and ensures that the dedication to the plays continues long after their productions.
Finally, I would like to thank the Special Collections Department. It’s been a pleasure to work with everyone on this wonderful collection. Special thanks to Ashley who not only is spearheading the project but took the chance on hiring me. It meant a lot.
Billy the Kid became an American legend in the 1800s as a western outlaw. His infamous antics became well known and the subject of many fictionalized works, some presenting him as a Robin Hood figure and others as a murderous thug. In 1987 historical playwright Don MacAlavy created the play Billy the Kid as a way to discover the truth behind Billy and his actions. Performed at the Caprock Amphitheater, located on the bluffs of Llano Estacado in New Mexico, Billy combined the entertainment of a musical, a romantic love story with moral, and historical facts. The play followed Billy as an established gunslinger in New Mexico and his struggle with the dubious law enforcement group (the Santa Fe Ring), to his death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner. Lasting for an hour and forty five minutes, the play was performed at night to create an ambiance of mystery and danger, just like the man himself.
The creation of the play and the subsequent draw it created in the tourism industry Read more
In 1886 New Hampshire celebrated its centennial. To honor the state’s birthday, Denman Thompson’s play The Old Homestead was brought to life for the festivities on April 5, 1886. Homestead tells the story of Uncle Josh and his adventures when he left his hometown Swanzey, New Hampshire to find his son Rueben in New York City. A Victorian morality play, Homestead acted as a study on New England home life and character versus the changing times in larger cities. The comedy-melodrama was performed in four acts at the Boston Theatre and met with great success. It was so well received by the audience that it warranted a European tour and even gave a command performance for Queen Victoria. At the conclusion of the centennial festivities, the production of the play stopped and The Old Homestead was forgotten until the 1930s.
In 1939, the tail end of the Great Depression, Homestead was revived by community organizations seeking to rejuvenate the community. Now held at the Swanzey Center, the play once again proved to be a resounding success, but this prosperity did not last long. As the world entered World War II the production once again stopped and the play abandoned. At the conclusion of the War and as America returned to normalcy, The Old Homestead once again dusted off and began production. The play’s story continued to draw audiences and the production ran smoothly until 1978. On December 11 a fire broke out, destroying the stage, scenery, seats, and part of the property itself. The production immediately initiated a rebuilding program and triumphantly continued the production on schedule for the 1979 season. The longevity of the play, 1986 marking The Old Homestead’s own centennial, has secured it as the third longest running outdoor drama in America.
In 2002, Montana celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. An outdoor production was created in honor of the journey and the story of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacajawea’s trek through Montana’s frontier. While it is commonplace for different outdoor productions to highlight different historic events in their immediate area, Montana’s Journey to Discovery: Lewis and Clark, Then and Now ventured a new approach. With the 200th anniversary, playwright Lucy B. Holmes wanted to keep the information factual while modernizing the telling of the story for the audience.
The production wanted to involve the audience, specifically children but not limited to them. This resulted in the actors and actresses walking down the pathways amongst the audience and engaging them directly. Keeping with the modernized theme to grip the audience, it was explained in letters to the Institute of Outdoor Theatre the idea of using raps and even motorcycles in the production were tossed around. While these modern updates proved effective in engaging the audience, the production’s modernizations never overshadowed the importance of the Expedition itself. This was achieved because the play was based directly on the journals of Lewis and Clark, and the importance of the Corp of Discovery. In a successful merging of modern storytelling, Journey to Discovery: Lewis and Clark, Then and Now proved a wonderful way to honor the 200th anniversary.
Jesse James is one of America’s most notorious and best known outlaws. Jesse and his crew were wanted for armed robbery of stage coaches, trains, banks, and even murder. Along with his brother Frank, Jesse captivated the country with the daring feats and criminal spree that marked the Wild West era. Most people only know of the James in this manner, as a rough and tumble bandits who challenged the established social norms. Rarely is the story of Jesse told prior to his turning criminal, but in Missouri, Jesse’s home state, the legend of Jesse James is broken down and his history revealed. Jesse James tells the life story of Jesse from childhood to turning criminal. Presented from the perspective of his mother Zerelda Samuel, and his brother Frank, “Jesse is presented as his mother saw him and as the more pragmatic Frank knew him.” Audiences saw the progression of a man who faced hardships and prayed to the Lord every night, and how that path led him to becoming the infamous bandit. Jesse James was no longer presented in a monochromatic light of solely being a robber, but as a good man possessed of flawed decisions and an eclectic past.
The play took place at Jesse’s childhood home, a farm house in Clay County, Read more
Outdoor productions focus primarily on historical events that happened near their base of operation. This, according to the Institute of Outdoor Theatre (IOT), connects the audience on a more intimate level with the play, story, stage, and actors. This is an important part of the story telling for the outdoor theatre as the different productions showcase the rich history of the area to both tourists and locals alike. The historical authenticity varies between the different plays and states. Some plays focus solely on historical accuracy; others spotlight a historic event and mix in their own artistic licensing. Both styles of the story telling have proven successful as evident by the IOT’s long list of registered historical dramas.
Minnesota’s Viking! interestingly does not quite fit into either type of historical drama. Playwright W.L. Mundell created the play off of the commonly held belief that Vikings infiltrated North America during their exploratory expeditions. No definitive proof exists that confirms Vikings made it to Minnesota, but circumstantial evidence suggests that it was plausible. Mundell freely admitted that the production made “no claim to be on the actual site, nor … profess[ed] to be historical fact”, but that the production explored a potential historical event, whether true or not, which permeated throughout the Minnesota culture. People from over 26 different countries, and 48 states were drawn to the production of Viking!, in addition to the local community. The play focused on the Vikings’ raids and social interactions with the Native Americans, even explaining why the Mandan tribe exhibits seemingly European traits. A combination of the music composed by Eric Peltoniemi and Larry White and the strong fight choreography helped bring the legend of the Viking! to life.
In the late 1990s, early 2000s, Michigan produced Beacon on the Rock, a musical celebrating the Upper Peninsula’s diverse heritage. The play begins with a group pf modern high school students wondering how their families wound up in Michigan. Following the different student bloodlines, the diverse histories of the Italian, American, Chinese, German, Swedish, and Native American heritage is explained. Each individual story reflecting the thousands of peoples who moved to the Michigan wilderness and the hardships they faced as they created a community all their own. Beacon won the 1999 Michigan State Historical Society’s Award of Excellence for Historical Contribution for the plays portrayal of Michigan’s rich past.
Interestingly, while the play presented itself as an outdoor production, Beacon did not meet the qualifications to be a true outdoor production. The play was presented Read more
In 1953 Massachusetts produced The Devil and Daniel Webster. A music-play with ballet, The Devil was an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936. This was not the first adaptation of Benét’s work as it initially debuted for the New York City’s Martin Beck Theatre and even the big screen before its summer of 1953 run in Massachusetts. Pulitzer Prize winning composer Douglas Moore oversaw the musical component of the play that followed the story of Jabez, a man who sold his soul for the improvement of his material condition. On the night of Jabez’s wedding, Mr. Scratch (the Devil) comes to collect Jabez’s soul. Fictionalized Daniel Webster, who in real life was a lawyer, congressman, senator, and secretary of state, challenged the Devil to a court case over Jabez’s soul, citing that a foreign prince could not judge Jabez. The Devil agrees to a court case and creates a jury of the damned –all Americans to appease Webster- to oversee the proceedings. Webster ultimately Read more
Wings on the Wind celebrated the founding of the Maryland colony and the establishment of religious freedom by law. Written by the famed playwright Kermit Hunter, the play focused on the years of 1633-1647 and the tensions that arose betwixt the Catholic and Protestant settlers. Beginning in England, Wings followed the settlers across the Atlantic to St. Mary’s City, Maryland’s former capital.
Once in Maryland, the hardships faced by the Catholics manifested itself in the form of the Virginian Protestants who disliked their new neighbors. This dislike stressed the Chesapeake region, specifically the Catholics in Maryland. But as the play progressed the Marylanders persevered and established religious toleration unbeknownst in the English New World. As Wings explained, the actions of the Maryland colonists set the stage for future generations to continue the tradition, markedly the Americans who would take over the region and institute the First Amendment.
The play began production in the 1970s. The materials protected within the collection are in good quality and offer insight into the cast and crew of Wings. In the 1976 souvenir brochure Denzel Washington, the famous American actor, was amongst the many actors and actresses credited with bringing the play to life. Washington, who had yet to become a Hollywood leading man, lent his talents as the narrator and Mathias da Suasam, an indentured servant, in Wings. Also within the collection are letters, pamphlets, and formal invitations promoting the play that highlighted one of the New Worlds first attempts at creating religious freedom.*
*While Maryland took strides in legally recognizing religious freedom, their religious freedom law was meant strictly for Christians. Other religions were not recognized.
The Amendments: http://constitutioncenter.org/constitution/the-amendments
Continuing Paul Green’s (a Pulitzer winning playwright) long standing tradition of creating remarkable historical dramas, Louisiana Cavalier explores the dynamic atmosphere of early 18th century Louisiana. Chronicling the life of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, a French Canadian, the play explored the volatile relationship between the Spanish, French, and Native populations of Louisiana and St. Denis’s role as mediator between them. Each nationality claimed similar areas of land and disputed the other’s authority to encroach on their property. With so much tension between the three different nationalities, St. Denis was pivotal to the development of the region as he was one of the very few people who successfully mitigated the tensions and promoted peace. St. Denis therefore went between the three rivals to mollify the uneasiness of the region, and the play rightfully transports the audience from Red River Valley, to Mexico City (where St. Denis spent 6 months in jail), and back to Louisiana, showing St. Denis’ wide range of operation.
Louisiana Cavalier debuted in Read more