Category Archives: Collection Highlight

Outdoor Theatre and the New Deal, Take Two

Back in February, I first wrote about two amphitheaters represented in the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives that were constructed through New Deal programs. I now present another amphitheater that has its beginnings in the Great Depression and New Deal programs: Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina.


Roanoke Island residents in 1936 commissioned Paul Green to write a play to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare. In 1937, the play, The Lost Colony, debuted at Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina. The world and the United States were in the depths of the Great Depression, and would remain so for another two years. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had placed relief and reform measures in place to help lessen the worst effects. Those involved with the The Lost Colony benefited from New Deal programs, and without them, the drama may not have developed.

Waterside Theatre was built by local Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) labor and Works progress Administration (WPA) funding. Construction was led by Albert Quentin “Skipper” Bell, and was completed within about six months. The Lost Colony’s first director, Samuel Selden, requested the stage be built first so rehearsals could take place while the seating was completed. Costumes were made by local WPA seamstresses, and boys from a nearby CCC camp had roles as Natives. While many of the other actors in the play came from Roanoke Island, six leading roles (along with several assistants and counselors) came from the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project in New York City. Among the actors were Katherine Cale, as Eleanor Dare, and Lillian Ashton, as Queen Elizabeth. 

The Lost Colony was originally intended only for the summer of 1937, but public outcry warranted the drama becoming a yearly production. The theatre had not been built to last as a permanent structure. In 1941, with funds matched by the WPA and under Bell’s watch, the theatre was improved to resist the “peculiar atmospheric condition” of Roanoke Island. (1941 souvenir program)

Since the Waterside Theatre was first built, it has been destroyed twice – once by fire in 1947 and once by Hurricane Donna in 1960. Despite these obstacles, the theatre was rebuilt and the stage remains much the same as 1937 when The Lost Colony first debuted. What has changed is the seating and addition of rain shelters and concession stands, but the stage is still very much recognizable as Bell’s 1937 construction.

Waterside Theatre

Early Texas Heritage Foundation, Paul Green, and Kermit Hunter

Paul Green and Kermit Hunter are names found again and again in the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives. Between them, over 43 outdoor dramas are represented in the archives, with multiple dramas still being performed presently. Both great writers in their own right, but what if they combined their efforts for one drama?

In May 1968, this was the intention. A planning group and feasibility study was being done by the Institute for Early Texas Heritage Foundation in La Grange, Texas. There are a couple of letters between Green and Hunter discussing the possibility of collaborating on the script. Green was originally contacted about writing a script for an outdoor drama about Sam Houston. It is unclear when exactly or how Hunter was brought into the project. But in a letter dated 2 May 1968, Green wrote “…you can see how pleased I am that we finally have a chance to work together on a good, and I mean good, outdoor drama project.” Hunter responded in kind, saying he was “delighted at the prospect of our working together.”

In a separate letter Green wrote to Early Texas Heritage Foundation President Charles Lemmons, Green said “I am delight too at the prospect of having Kermit Hunter come into the picture as co-author…He and I in times past have talked of collaborating, but the proper project didn’t come along. Now I believe it has. We have been close friends for years and I am sure we will have fun in bringing this project to fulfillment.” Hunter studied under Green at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, completing his master’s thesis (Unto These Hills) in 1949. By that time, Green had already found success with The Lost Colony and The Common Glory.

Despite the early excitement for a drama about Sam Houston, the feasibility study produced does not make that recommendation. Instead, the drama should be based on the men and women who lived in the area and not just passed through. Focus on a minor historical figure, such as Joel Robinson who captured Santa Anna, giving the playwright “great freedom in creating out of him a fully realized dramatic character who would represent the spirit of the region and the times,” specifically recommending the Texas Revolution. With less widespread knowledge of the historical figure, the playwright could take more liberties with the drama, an option that would not particularly be available given a well-known person such as Sam Houston.

Unfortunately, the materials all but stop after the feasibility study. Members of the Foundation left for a variety of reasons and the whole project lost steam. By May 1973 the project lay abandoned.

The Swan Song

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.


A Trip to The Lost Colony

Paul Green Bust

Paul Green bust

I have now been working on the Institute of Outdoor Theatre’s archives for more than eight months, and had never seen an outdoor drama. I knew once I started on this project I was going to have to go see at least one, particularly since there are nine different plays and companies in North Carolina alone. Well, this past Friday I finally saw my first outdoor drama: The Lost Colony. And what better than to start with the outdoor drama that has been produced since 1937, making it the oldest outdoor symphonic drama in the country. It was written by Paul Green, a name I have come across countless times in the material.

But what made this trip even more interesting for me was I got to see more than just the play. Susan Phillips, from the Institute of Outdoor Theatre, had arranged for a backstage tour and trip to their archives earlier in the day. The day started out with stopping by the administrative offices for The Lost Colony where we met Bill Coleman and Lance Culpepper, both of whom I had met at the Institute’s conference in January. Inside the administrative building was a large room that had a artifacts in display cases around the edge: items that had survived one of the multiple fires over the years, a deer headdress I immediately recognized from photos in our collection, and various photos and trinkets from the early years.

Women's dressing room.

Women’s dressing room

Bill took us over to the theatre area Read more

Blackbeard in Outdoor Theatre Exhibit

For the past two months, we had an exhibit, Blackbeard in Outdoor Theatre, in Joyner Library. It focused on the four plays in North Carolina that featured Blackbeard. The first one, Queen Anne’s Bell, was produced in 1955 to celebrate the town of Bath’s 250th anniversary. To honor the heritage of Bath’s people, everything from Bath’s founding to traditional Bath Christmases were depicted, including one of Bath’s most notorious residents, Edward Teach – better known as Blackbeard. Teach was depicted as a boisterous drunk, lacking any moral fiber. Despite this, the greedy Governor Charles Eden and his secretary Tobias Knight allowed Teach into Bath to trade his ill-gotten goods. Because of those two gluttonous colonial officials, Teach was allowed to disturb the otherwise tranquil town.

The second play, Blackbeard: Raider of the Carolina Seas, was written by Ruth Peeling of Carteret County and first performed in 1963. The play centered on the fictional characters of Loretta Thaxton and Theodore Buckman, and their shared hardships while prisoners aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge beginning in July 1718. Blackbeard was portrayed as an impulsive, self-centered man exemplified by his decision to keep Loretta as his servant against the wishes of his crew, instead of ransoming her at Charles Town as planned. Both Loretta and Theodore finally gain their freedom after Lieutenant Maynard of the Royal navy tracked down Blackbeard and put an end to his career. But as the two former prisoners go off to live their lives, they see the ghost of Blackbeard, explaining the legend of Blackbeard sightings.

The last two plays were both written by Stuart Aronson. The first, Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag, was performed for ten years beginning in 1977, and revived in 2005 for Bath’s tri-centennial. The play sought to humanize Blackbeard during his last five months. Told from the perspective of Mary Ormand, Blackbeard’s wife, the play explained that Edward Teach was a man capable of great kindness, and that his ferocious persona of Blackbeard was all an act to create his notorious reputation. Spurred to piratical raids by the greedy Governor Eden and his secretary Knight, who were portrayed as the true villains, Blackbeard became an empathetic person trapped in an unfair world. The play ends with Mary learning of Blackbeard’s death and Lieutenant Robert Maynard decapitating the body.

DSCN0106The second, Blackbeard’s Revenge, debuted in 1985. In what Aronson freely admitted as a “fanciful romance,” the play filled in the gaps of the pirate’s early career. Beginning with Teach’s service as a seaman onboard Captain Hornigold’s privateering vessel, the play proceeded to chronical Teach’s rise to the notorious persona of Blackbeard. But the play did not last long. Resulting from financial difficulties, Crystal Coast Amphitheatre, where the play was performed, was sold to a Christian organization in 1987. The new owners opted to replace Blackbeard’s Revenge with a passion play, ending the beginning of Blackbeard.

IMG_4326IMG_4325DSCN0093   IMG_4324

The exhibit was recently taken down, but above are photos. Items used in the exhibit include photographs, souvenir programs, and publicity material. Additionally, the Institute’s archives has correspondence and various other materials related to each of the four plays involving Blackbeard.

There are currently no outdoor plays that focus on Blackbeard. But there is always the possibility of one of these plays being revived or a new play written. What do you think? Is there enough interest to generate a Blackbeard play? Or perhaps you attended one of the plays mentioned?

Billy the Kid

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

Don’t Call It A Comeback, It’s Been Here For Years

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.

Exploring Montana

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.  

Banks, and Trains, and Murder. Oh My!

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

A Legend of History

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.

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