August 2007 Issue
Chillicothe's renowned outdoor drama brings Shawnee warrior Tecumseh to life.
Raymond Speakman stared in wide-eyed wonder at the scene before him, transfixed by what was unfolding. The 13-year-old never tired of watching Robert Redford and Will Geer battle the harsh frontier in his favorite movie, "Jeremiah Johnson." But here in Chillicothe, he was in the thick of it: Native Americans and frontiersmen duking it out with rifles and tomahawks amid galloping horses, booming canons and blazing campfires.
"I fell in love with '"Tecumseh!" Speakman says, recalling the night in 1976 when he vowed to someday be a part of the production. That dream came true 25 years ago when the Ross County native joined the cast of the outdoor drama, which takes center stage at the Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre. For 35 summers, the play has chronicled the life of the legendary 18th-century Shawnee leader as he struggles to defend his Ohio homeland. Leading the charge for the white settlers eager to claim the territory for themselves is frontiersman Simon Kenton, a role Speakman has played for 12 years.
Although a show veteran, Speakman remains awestruck by the play's pageantry. "You can't help but catch the excitement," he says. "A lone horse and rider appears and the next thing you know you're surrounded by Indians. The combat that follows is incredibly realistic. That's one of the aspects we work the hardest on –– we have to keep it safe while making it look as lifelike as possible."
With the help of a dozen steeds, 500 pounds of gunpowder, recorded narration by actor Graham Greene and a soundtrack by The London Symphony Orchestra, a cast of 60 gathers six nights a week to present this critical chapter of American history.
Many, like Speakman, have made theater their life's work (before "Tecumseh!" he spent five seasons with the Nashville Children's Theatre in Tennessee). Others are newly minted college graduates making their debut. But no matter what their résumé holds, actors quickly discover that assuming these roles also means accepting an uncontrollable assortment of challenges –– from dealing with a horse that strays off the beaten path to braving quick climatological changes.
"What makes outdoor drama unique is also its Achilles' heel: the fact that it's outside," explains Marion N. Waggoner, who's been the producer and artistic director of "Tecumseh!" for 21 years. "You have all this natural setting –– woods, a pond. It's absolutely gorgeous. You can smell the honeysuckle blooming, feel a soft breeze, see a glorious full moonrise.
"And the next night it rains."
But, he adds, dealing with whatever Mother Nature doles out on any given night "is part of the fabric of outdoor drama."
For Chillicothe, that tapestry began taking shape in 1970 when a group of the town's business leaders decided an outdoor drama would be just the ticket to attract tourists to the area. A fund-raising campaign was launched and historian Allan W. Eckert –– a seven-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who won an Emmy Award for his work on Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" –– was commissioned to write the work.
Much like the settlers to the New World profiled in "Tecumseh!" scouting parties were dispatched to seek an ideal location upon which to build –– only this time, 150 or so years later, their mission was to choose the perfect spot for a 1,800-seat amphitheater, museum, gift shop and picnic area. Sites were combed in Pickaway and Pike counties, but it was ultimately a bowl-shaped hollow on the side of Sugarloaf Mountain in Ross County that was chosen for its scenic vistas of pine, and the natural acoustics made possible by the convergence of two ravines. Over the next two years, as part of a training maneuver, members of the Ohio National Guard helped clear a portion of the forest and dig the roadway.
Even three days of rain couldn't dampen the spirits of the 2,000-plus theatergoers who attended opening night on June 30, 1973. Arthur C. Rolette, then principal chief of the Absentee Shawnee, was on hand to give his blessing.
|Location: Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre, 5968 Marietta Rd., Chillicothe, 866/775-0700. www.tecumsehdrama.com
Time: Mon.–Sat, 8 p.m., through Sept. 1
Tickets: Mon.–Thur.: $17, children 10 and under $10; Fri.–Sat. $19, children $12
**Not recommended for children age 6 and younger due to some violent content and loud battle scenes**
"It was a very emotional moment," recalls playwright Eckert. "Arthur came up to me, threw his arms around me and gave me a big bear hug. When he turned to me, there were tears in his eyes as he said, 'You've brought Tecumseh to life.'
"It was a night I'll never forget."
Since that evening, more than 2 million visitors have seen the production and been privy to the lessons it teaches.
"It's so important to understand that these are real people and the story is based on truth," says Demetrius Thomas, who has portrayed Tecumseh for three seasons.
The 35-year-old Georgia native, of African-American and Cherokee descent, has come to appreciate what the play stands for.
"Tecumseh was a man who saw change coming," Thomas says. "For him, it was about love –– not hate –– and preserving his people's way of life."