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Casting History

How do you put a history on stage?


How do you tell a story and not just present a pamphlet or a bare-bones article with a costume and lighting included?


There are two ways to stage history: the small and the epic. I don’t mean, by that, that the “small” means unimportant. But, in terms of presentation on a stage, it means a gloriously small cast.


It might be the story of one man’s search for a great formula or equation; it could be the intimate story of two historical figures – how Ellie met Sam and how her effect on his life led him to do some amazing thing – or vice-versa, of course. It could even be a tale told by a single character on the stage – the proverbial one-actor show like Hal Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight” or William Luce’s “Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson.


Directors love stuff like that. So does every member of his production team: fewer costumes, fewer actors with scheduling conflicts, easier rehearsals. Sets tend to be easier, too. It’s just less hassle all around.


But historical stories tend to be the other way around: even if there are only a couple of central characters, those characters interacted with a lot of people, usually over quite a stretch of time. It’s a greater challenge all around: the writing, in which you must find a way to compress several years into two or two and a half hours on stage; a slew of actors, a poor costumer who’s going to have to provide a small warehouse-full of costumes… everything just becomes more complicated. More challenging overall.

This has been the case, so far, with our summer historical musicals. NCHT began with “Honour,” the story of a duel between two men. But, to tell that story, we had to include all the other characters who somehow took part in that fatal meeting. We wound up with 24 actors on stage portraying 30 or so different characters.


“Flight,” our second musical, told of the invention of the airplane created by two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright. But, to tell that story, we had to add their friends and family—and actors in the event from Ohio, Washington DC, and the Outer Banks. We ended up, again, with a huge cast and numerous set pieces.


This year we’re telling a story that included thousands of people. We’ve trimmed our cast down to… 18.


The challenge? Those 18 actors will be portraying 30-plus people! Double-casting, even triple-casting, is the inevitable result with actors zipping in and out of whatever it takes to cue the audience that Charles-the-Soldier-named-Sam has suddenly become Charles-the-merchant-named Frank and, as often as not, Alice-the-mother-named-Lucy becoming Alice-the-colonel-named-Roberts.


It's not just a challenge of costuming and seeing how fast you can whip on or yank off a mustache or wig. The actor must become the new character – they must change voices and add nuances and habits that help make that transition, both for them and the audience.


“Bushwhackers” tells the story of two volatile lovers who are pulled, against their will, into taking sides in the Civil War in North Carolina’s mountains—taking sides that bring them into violent conflict with friends and family alike. It has a great story, a mind-sobering theme, and excellent, entirely new music from the mind and talents of James Merritt (I will be humbler and not mention the brilliant book by… ahem… Bill Hand).


As you watch this show you will see men turn into other men before you, and women turning into both other women and into other men… on occasion you may even see those actors turning into pieces of scenery. The actors playing numerous little roles are just as important as the leads – and often have just as big a challenge. When you come to the show, reward them at the curtain call! They deserve it.


Our stage will be simple with only tables and chairs representing whole houses—it not only helps focus on the story but saves cumbersome set changes that can add minutes of dead time to a show. Costumes and props will often be suggested or symbolic – costuming full military uniforms for every character can get quite expensive for a young troupe like ours. But all that simplicity helps focus to bring focus on the characters who live and tell the show.


Sure, we could save time, effort, and funds in having four or five actors who describe many of the events of the tale in third person, but the whole point of drama is to show you our tale, not to give you a lecture in costume. NCHT is only technically about telling history. Our real point is to tell you North Carolina’s story.


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