So I am finishing up my time working on the collection and thought a final wrap-up might be in order. Based on my experience with the collection I think it is a very valuable resource to see the detailed records of an organization that worked tirelessly (and still does) to foster growth and camaraderie in the world of outdoor drama. From souvenir programs spanning over 50 years to feasability studies and attendance statistics, the IOT records tell the story of an organization that has been there providing support and sage advice to the industry. Searching through the collection, one gets a sense of the history of the outdoor theatre movement with its early successes through boom times and economic downturns. One thing remained steady though; the hard work of the Institute of Outdoor Theatre and the many theatre companies, past and present, who risk it all to bring high quality entertainment to the masses and provide economic sustainability to regions throughout the US and beyond. I am thankful to have learned more about outdoor theatre than I knew there was to learn and to have been able to work with great people while doing it. I plan to get out and see as many productions as I can this summer and encourage any readers out there to do the same!
2004 Souvenir Program – Johnny Appleseed
Ohio has had incredible outdoor dramas over the years from Trumpet in the Land to Blue Jacket, to Tecumseh! More recently they added another to this list; Johnny Appleseed. While there have been many, many historically focused outdoor dramas performed over the past fifty years, I am always excited to see the ones which stray into mythology. Since childhood, I have loved the idea of Johnny Appleseed wandering the wilderness planting apples. In my mind, I associated him with Jack from the Appalachian folk tales and his larger than life adventures. Johnny Appleseed the drama brought our hero back down to mortal proportions with a time (early 19th century) and a place (the Ohio frontier). In addition, this drama brought out a side of Johnny of which I was unaware; that of a missionary. It seems he handed out more than apple seeds on his journeys. A Swedenborgian (Jeopardy word of the day), his beliefs strongly influenced his modest, pacifist way of life. At times a bit preachy, I think I prefer the Odyssean Johnny Appleseed to the Ohio-bound religious orchardist.
Johnny Appleseed Brochure
The drama was written by Billy Edd Wheeler and put on by the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center. Wheeler, a long-time NC resident, also authored Hatfields & McCoys, Young Abe Lincoln and a whole mess of country songs I am sure you’ve heard. Johnny Appleseed ran for two seasons from 2004-2005. The IOD archive contains souvenir programs, correspondence and an early script draft.
While around here in North Carolina, many people are familiar with Kermit Hunter’s Unto These Hills which has been performed in Cherokee for 65 years now (albeit recently with a new script), fewer may know that there was a sequel of sorts out in Tahlequah, Oklahoma at the western terminus of the infamous Trail of Tears. The story of Unto These Hills concerns the Cherokee prior to their forced removal in 1838 while The Trail of Tears centered around the events from the journey west, through the Civil War and ending with the Oklahoma’s statehood in 1907.The Trail of Tears was performed with a couple of exceptions from 1969-1996. Other authors wrote versions which were performed through 2005 but economics have recently resulted in the closure of all performances at the Cherokee Heritage Center.
Souvenir Program from The Trail of Tears, 1973
The prologue starts us off with an old Read more
OSF brochure from 1961. Photo by Dwaine E. Smith.
In a few rare cases, the establishment and growth of an outdoor theatre production is as exciting as the performances. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival with its roots going back to 1935, is indeed one of these. From the remains of an old Chautauqua building, Southern Oregon Normal School professor Angus L. Bowmer established an Elizabethan theatre festival in the small town of Ashland, Oregon. As unlikely a location as any to find a Shakespearean theatre, the festival and the town prospered. Not confined to the works of the Bard, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has grown over the years into a multi-stage, indoor and outdoor affair, annually bringing in over 100,000 people and contributing over 85 million dollars to the local economy (according to ye olde Wikipedia). Read more
Souvenir Brochure of the Pittsburgh Bicentennial in 1958.
Sometimes the celebration of the past becomes a historic moment as well. Historical outdoor dramas not only provide a platform for the history but can also mark the present day occasion. Many outdoor dramas were produced to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. Pittsburgh however beat them all to it with the celebration of its own bicentennial in 1959 and The Golden Crucible. They went all out building an amphitheater on the water and having Kermit Hunter write the play. The Stouffer’s restaurants in town (yes, of frozen lasagna fame) offered nightly The Golden Crucible dinners.
I love the expressions of the Seneca Indians.
The play itself managed to cram two hundred years of Pittsburgh history into two acts. In the very first scene, George Washington shows up (and you can’t have any good founding play without the beloved Washington) to make friends with the Seneca Indians and by Scene 5, Daniel Boone is telling Washington “we don’t need a fort at the Forks of the Ohio—we need a town. This country here’s gonna be a gateway to sumpin’ further on.” This town founding story is powerful enough to impress Virgil himself. In true Pittsburgh fashion, however, the performances were overshadowed by a union picket line. On opening night, the Governor of PA and the Mayor of Pittsburgh made a show of seeing the picket line, tearing up their tickets, and driving away! Well, in any case, it made for a memorable bicentennial.
Cover of Souvenir Program from “The Liberty Tree”
Perhaps the most interesting quality of outdoor historical dramas is their ability to speak for the people. Being both historically based and yet fictional allows for the creation of idealized history in which the audience, presumably locals, can view their past through rose-colored glasses. The Liberty Tree does just this for the residents of South Carolina. From the introduction, the warlike natives are swept away by the technological progress of the settlers who were “not adventurers but hard workers” only seeking refuge from the “turmoil and injustice of the Old World.” In this new Eden, playwright Kermit Hunter declares that “all a man had to do was work, respect his neighbor, [and] fear the lord.” The play itself looks to the American Revolution and praises well-known South Carolinian heroes such as Andrew Pickens, Thomas Sumter, and the infamous Francis Marion. In the end, the British politely sail away and America is left to a “government intelligently devoted to progress.” Reading the script is very much like watching The Patriot starring Mel Gibson and gives that same delightful feeling of patriotic escapism.