Sunday, February 15, 2009

ONSTAGE ONCE AGAIN

[This is the first of several posts on my "onstage" experience as Patty Bartlett Sessions. Several others may be expected sooner or later.]


The highlight of my bush league stage experience came out of the Wyoming blue. "Bush League"--now there's an old slang term that has been renewed and intensified during the most recent presidential administration! Here's the standard definition: "Bush League is a general term used to describe an action or thing as being amateur, inferior or crude." Now back to the Wyoming blue.

One day in 1984, an historian in Salt Lake City got a phone call from one Lou Burton in Wyoming. Lou, freshly retired from the military, admired the famous mountain man Jim Bridger, and had been giving lectures across the state of Wyoming, dressed in fringed buckskin, toting a long rifle, and telling tall tales for which the old hero had been well known. Burton had just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a tour throughout five Western states with a presentation called "Trails West, Rails West." "Jim Bridger" would be the star attraction,of course, but he'd be joined by several other historic notables,among them, Thomas Durant, who engineered the Union Pacific railroad, and Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of explorer and miltary hero John C. Fremont. Lou Burton needed one more person, preferably a woman for gender balance and political correctness, preferably a Mormon pioneer since Mormons had been so famously involved in the westward expansion.

Thus Burton's call to historian Maureen Beecher in Utah. Could she tell him of a Mormon pioneer woman who'd come along the great "Mormon Trail"? Beecher certainly could: Patty Bartlett Sessions, a legendary midwife who had kept the most detailed journal extant of the Latter-day Saints' Westward migration. "Splendid!" said Burton. Now one more thing: did Beecher know a contemporary woman who could (a) write a 45-minute monologue based on Sessions' journals, and (b) travel around for six weeks the coming summer, portraying Sessions in an NEH-sponsored Chautauqua? Beecher batted not one eyelash as she named me.

Thus Maureen Beecher served as midwife in the rebirth of midwife Patty Bartlett Sessions. In addition to the six weeks of 1984, I had the keen pleasure of performing "Aunt Patty Remembers" as a solo for half a dozen years thereafter, including as a speaker for the Utah Arts Council's statewide slate of offerings. Bush league? Absolutely. The "major leagues" of such "Cast of One" acting include the likes of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, the late James Whitmore as Harry Truman, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf. But I have a hunch that our touring troupe of 1984 had every bit as much fun as any of the big names.

We toured small towns, the NEH theory being that the federal funds should be spent on taking history to out-of-the-way places with less access to great museums and live theater available in Salt Lake City or Denver. Our venue in sunny weather was a small red-white-and-blue tent over a wooden stage. The audience sat outside the tent in folding chairs or on the grass. We gave the folks of Left Boot, Montana, or South Wahoo, Wyoming, three costumed characters each evening for two days. Each monologue lasted about 45 minutes, with another 15 minutes alloted for questions and answers.

The Chautauqua Players adopted a particular pattern in Q & A. We would come back on stage after our set monologue was done, but still in costume and in character. Audience members would ask questions which we would answer as our particular character. As the days passed, we Players became a tad playful (not to say mischievous)during Q & A. For example, Patty Sessions, a meticulous record-keeper, had delivered a total of 3,977 babies in her long career. That became a ready number to answer an assortment of audience queries about which we amateur (or non-)historians hadn't a clue.

"How much did it cost Mrs. Fremont to sail from New York to San Francisco back then?"

"Exactly $3,977.00!"

"How long was the completed Union Pacific Railroad?"

"That would be 3, 977 miles."

Finally our honcho, Lou Burton, told us to quit the shenanigans.

The program moderator, Terri (Mrs. Lou) Burton) always reminded audience members to ask only questions that the characters could logically answer in their time frames.
No asking Jim Bridger, "How 'bout them Rockies?" No asking explorer Richard Burton when he died. Sometimes audience members asked questions that our characters could have answered, but we the actors could not. To me, that was a good sign: it meant that the line had blurred between historical character and summer thespian. One evening when I came back after my monologue, still as Patty, an elderly gentleman in the front row, an assortment of small tykes beside him, stiffly raised his hand.

"My great-grandfather came across in one of the handcart companies, and then he lived up there by City Creek near where you were. Do you remember him?" And he gave his ancestor's name.

Well, Aunt Patty surely must have known him, but I had nary an idea about the man. Yet I couldn't stand up there on the stage, Patty's authoritative cane in my hand, and say I didn't know this man's revered forebearer. I squinted as if trying to remember, stroked my chin, and then said, "Ah! Yes indeed! Yes indeed I do remember him! A fine man. Wonderful family man. Oh, mercy, was he a hard worker! A great example to us all!"

The old gentleman nodded. He seemed content.

2 comments:

Celeste said...

Wonderful, as always .... CB

Marcia said...

I really like this........always wanted more details of your experience. I recently reread my dad's life story and reflected on his exciting job in 1922 traveling around setting up the tent for the Chautauqua series.