America’s great outdoor dramas: tales and tunes about our nation’s heritage ring out in exquisite settings produced by Mother Nature

America’s great outdoor dramas: tales and tunes about our nation’s heritage ring out in exquisite settings produced by Mother Nature

Randy Mink

FROM THE TEXAS PANHANDLE to the highlands of West Virginia, shirtsleeve audiences gather on balmy summer evenings to see professional theater under the stars.

Set against backdrops like rocky canyons or wooded hillsides, the best outdoor dramas are epic plays on a grand scale, complete with music and dance, comedy and romance, pyrotechnics and battle scenes. Horses and other animals also get into the act.

Most plays, though practically destinations in themselves, are staged in tourist enclaves loaded with commercial and natural attractions (some conveniently situated on the very grounds of the amphitheaters). Backstage tours, dinner buffi2ts and pre-show entertainment may be part of the package.

Curiously. a good number of America’s long-running outdoor dramas are clustered in the mid-South and lower Midwest, with quite a few in the Appalachian and Ozark mountains, where storytelling is a time-honored art. The outdoor drama industry began and blossomed in North Carolina.

The Institute of Outdoor Drama, the nation’s only organization of its kind. is a public service agency in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It divides these open-air spectacles into three categories: 1) historical dramas: 2) religious dramas: and 3) Shakespeare festivals.

Best known are the 40-some historical plays that dramatize events at or near where they actually occurred, often spotlighting the triumphs and struggles of early pioneers, Native American heritage and famous people like Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone. This genre is one of two original dramatic forms created in America. the other being the Broadway musical.

Scott Parker. executive director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama, said the mood of the country since September 11 works in favor of increased attendance at historical dramas, adding that Americans’ current preference for regional auto trips should help boost ticket sales as well.

“We anticipate attendance will, be strong this summer as families on vacation continue to show renewed interest in the nation’s heritage, he said. “After all, these outdoor historical dramas bear witness to the great things we’ve accomplished as a people.”

The larger-than-life quality of these plays appeals to all ages, even those who are not history buffs. Parents with fond memories of seeing the shows on family vacations make a point of sharing the same experiences with their own children.

More than 2.5 million persons annually attend outdoor dramas at 122 theaters around the country. But outdoor doesn’t mean amateur. Many of the casts and crews employ seasoned professionals, some with Broadway credits and even Tony Awards. State-of-the-art sound and lighting systems enhance the, tales and tunes that ring out in the night air. Adult tickets generally cost $10 to, $20.

The magic of outdoor historical drama in America was born off North Carolina’s coast with the 1937 premier of “The Lost Colony.” Written by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, the production was intended to run just one season, but it’s still going strong.

Staged at the Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island, at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the play is based on the true story of the “lost colony” of men. women and children who in 1587 sailed from England to the New World. Alter establishing America’s first English settlement, the 117 colonists, dispatched by Sir Walter Raleigh, disappeared from Roanoke Island with hardly a trace, leaving historians and archaeologists with a mystery that has never been solved.

To tell the story, Green, a North Carolinian who is considered the father of outdoor historical drama, envisioned a blend of music, dance, dialogue, lighting and special effects “all working together like the cooperative sections of a sym phony orchestrain moving the characterization and story of the piece.” He called the new art form “symphonic drama.”

Just a short walk from the Waterside Theatre are exhibits and a film at Fort Raleigh’s visitor center, plus the horticultural splendor of Elizabethan Gardens. Roanoke Island Festival Park, on a tiny island across the bridge from historic downtown Manteo, has a museum, living history interpreters and a wooden sailing ship to climb aboard, all providing further context for the nighttime drama.

Described as a cross between Nantucket and Mayberry, 13-mile-long Roanoke Island is the year-round home of actor Andy Griffith, who began his career in “The Lost Colony.” Other stars who have worked in outdoor historical dramas include Glenn Close, Kathleen Turner, Raquel Welch and Denzel Washington.

Green’s “Trumpet in the Land,” in New Philadelphia, Ohio, is a stirring saga about a Moravian missionary in the state’s first. settlement and his conflicts with competing British and American forces. One scene depicts the brutal massacre of Christian Indians by American soldiers.

“Tecumseh!” is the story of the great Shawnee leader’s fight to defend his sacred homelands in the kale 170Os, with dazzling battle sequences at the 1,800-seat Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre in Chillicothe, Ohio. The audience is surrounded on three sides by eight stages that blend into the forested slopes.

As “Tecumseh!” unfolds at twilight, spectators witness canoes and boats gliding through placid waters, Indians and whites riding horses through the woods, and vicious combat as artillery shells explode, gunfire crackles, arrows fly and screams pierce the darkness. A special element is the hauntingly beautiful music score written by a Native American composer and recorded exclusively by the London Symphony Orchestra.

A scene-stealing gorge in the Texas Panhandle brings some 80,000 visitors a year to the Pioneer Amphitheatre in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, about 25 miles southeast of Amarillo. The brand new “TEXAS Legacies” production this summer replaces “TEXAS” a Paul Green spellbinder that lasted 37 years and usually was the nation’s second best-attended outdoor historical play.

Focusing on the 1850s to 1890s, the “TEXAS Legacies” script calls for galloping horses, a Civil War battle, Texas-sized thunderstorm, snowfall, and blazing fireworks finale, plus live music.

The physical setting for “TEXAS Legacies” is the envy of other outdoor dramas, said Scott Parker of the Institute of Outdoor Drama. “They certainly take advantage of the canyon. It’s really a character in the play.”

Tops in total ticket sales for historical dramas is “The Shepherd of the Hills” which last year played to 93,975 persons in Branson, Missouri, the booming Ozarks tourist mecca better known for its indoor music theaters. A local fixture since 1960, the play (performed six days a week every April-October) is based on the 1908 novel of the same name. It’s a tale by Harold Bell Wright, a traveling Christian minister who based his hill country characters on Ozark folks he met over eight summers.

The Shepherd of the Hills complex includes the cabin on the homestead Wright visited every year, plus a Wright museum, horse wagon and trail rides, gift shops, and an observation tower atop the second highest point in Missouri.

An hour’s drive from Branson, the most attended of the nation’s 11′ religious dramas–or of any outdoor drama, for that matter–inspires audiences in the Ozarks resort town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, From late April to late October, more than 130,000 people witness Christ’s last week on earth in “The Great Passion Play,” an elaborate production with more than 250 actors, Roman chariots and a menagerie of donkeys, horses, camels and sheep.

On the grounds of the 4,100-seat amphitheater are the Bible Museum, Sacred Arts Center and the huge Christ of the Ozarks statue. A tram tour showcases a variety of Holy Land settings.

Toe “Black Hills Passion Play” in Spearfish, South Dakota, is America’s oldest outdoor drama about the final days of Jesus. First performed in 1938 in view of Lookout Mountain, this version of the “Greatest Story Ever Told” takes place on what reputedly is the longest stage in the country.

Two outdoor dramas in central Kentucky, southwest of Lexington, spotlight celebrated Americans. In Bardstown, “Stephen Foster: The Musical” takes audiences back to the 1850s, featuring lavish costumes and some 50 melodies created by composer Stephen Collins Foster, including “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The 1,450-seat amphitheater occupies a leafy setting at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, which has picnic and camping facilities, tennis courts and an 18-hole golf course, plus the mansion that inspired “My Old Kentucky Home” the official state song.

At Old Fort Harrod State Park in Harrodsburg, the oldest town in Kentucky, “Daniel Boone: The Man & The Legend” portrays the frontiersman’s expedition into the wilderness known as “Kanta-ke” a land where white settlers were not welcome. During the day, costumed interpreters demonstrate pioneer crofts at the 1774 replica fort in front of the theater.

On wooded land where Abraham Lincoln lived between the ages of 7 and 21, the University of Southern Indiana presents “Young Abe Lincoln” at the country’s only completely covered amphitheater (for outdoor historical drama) at Lincoln State Park, Lincoln City. A park trail highlights Lincoln-era sites like a gristmill and the grave of Lincoln’s mother. The area’s Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial features a living history farm, museum and film.

For six weekends every June and July at the Helen Keller Birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, “The Miracle Worker” now in its 42nd season, tells the story of the blind and deaf child who became an author, lecturer and inspiration to millions. In the backyard where Helen played, just a stone’s throw from the water pump, audiences watch teacher Anne Sullivan spell the word “w-a-t-e-r” into the palm of Helen’s hand and the magical moment when Helen understands its meaning.

In the West Virginia mountains near Beckley, Theatre West Virginia stages two long-running productions at Cliffside Amphitheater at Grandview, a national park perched on the edge of the New River Gorge National River. The older play, going back to 1961, is “Honey in the Rock,” a tale of how the state was born out of the Civil War. Since 1970, “Hatfields & McCoys” has portrayed the famous feud between the Hatfield clan of West Virginia and McCoys of Kentucky.

On the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, “Unto These Hills,’ in its 54th season, dramatizes the plight of the Cherokees from the arrival of Spanish explorers to their forced removal to Oklahoma on the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

At the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the outdoor drama “Trail of Tears” depicts the Cherokees as they build a new homeland.

Some 60 outdoor Shakespeare festivals provide the best way to experience the works of the greatest English playwright. Larger festivals present several of the Bard’s works in rotating repertory with plays by classic and contemporary playwrights.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, dating back to 1935, is the largest Shakespeare festival in terms of attendance, budget and number of performances. From late. February to early November, Shakespeare and other plays are performed at Ashland’s two. indoor theaters and the outdoor Elizabethan Stage (June to mid-October). This year’s Shakespeare dramas are “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Romeo and Juliet” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Richard II.”

The Utah Shakespearean Festival, in its 42nd season, brings Bard fans to Cedar City, a town of 25,000 in southwestern Utah’s red-rock country, which boasts the country’s largest concentration of national parks, monuments and forests.

A beloved summer tradition in New York City is “Shakespeare in the Park” at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Admission is free.


FOR DETAILS ON 2003 OUTDOOR PROductions around the country, log on to the Institute of Outdoor Drama’s website, There is a link to each of the 122 theaters. Phone: (919) 962-1328. The institute’s annual printed directory has been discounted.

Contact the following outdoor dramas:

* Black Hills Passion Play, Spearfish, South Dakota; (800) 457-0160;

* Daniel Boone: The Man & The Legend, Harrodsburg, Kentucky, (800) 85-BOONE;

* The Great Passion Play, Eureka Springs, Arkansas; (800) 882-7529;

* Hatfields & McCoys and Honey in the Rock, Beckley, West Virginia; (800) 666-9142;

* The Lost Colony, Manteo, North Carolina; (800) 488-5012;

* The Miracle Worker, Tuscumbia, Alabama; (888) 329-2124;

“Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; (541) 482-4331;

* Shakespeare in the Park, New York City, (212) 539-8525;

* The Shepherd of the Hills, Branson, Missouri; (800) OLD-MATT;

Stephen Foster: The Musical, Bardstown, Kentucky; (800) 626-1563;

Tecumseh!, Chillicothe, Ohio; (866) 775-0700;

“TEXAS Legacies, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas; (877) 58-TEXAS;

Trail of Tears, Tahlequah, Oklahoma; (918) 456-6007;

Trumpet in the Land. New Philadelphia. Ohio; (330) 339-1132;

Unto These Hills, Cherokee. North Carolina; (866) 554-4557:

Utah Shakespearean Festival, Cedar City; (800) PLAYTIX;

Young Abe Lincoln, Lincoln City, Indiana; (800) 264-4ABE;

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