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Telling True Lies

It isn’t easy telling lies and being truthful at the same time.


But when you turn a true story into a book or a movie or a play, that’s what you’ve gotta do.

I’ve read a few “true life” novels and, of course, seen some “based on real events” movies (Bonnie and Clyde, for instance, or the more recent Netflix version that looks at their stories from the perspective of the guys who hunted them down). I’ve even watched a couple of “real life” plays, such as Hamilton.


And, with NCHT, I’ve written three such plays. Two – “Honour” and “Flight” we’ve produced. The third “Bushwhackers”– is in rehearsal now and we hope you’ll come see it in June.


There’s a wide range of honesty in such stories. In some cases the writers play fast and loose with the facts – they just want a fun story, and who cares if it’s actually accurate? At the other end are the stories that are carefully researched to the finest detail.

I try to be among the latter.


But even in a play using the most painstaking research, you have to make stuff up. In a word, in storytelling, you have to lie.


Let’s look at what I face as a playwright: in Bushwhackers I have to compress five years of history into a couple of hours on stage. My lead characters – Keith and Malinda Blalock who bushwhacked for the Union cause in the North Carolina mountains throughout the Civil War, had many amazing adventures—they had plenty of stories to tell but only a few could be squeezed into the time limits of a stage (somebody, make a mini-series about this couple, please!). And so, due to time constraints, I had to ignore large portions of their lives while trying to select the events that best told their story in a way we could stage.


And what do you do regarding dialogue? Except at certain points of their life—through letters, eye-witness reminiscences, and actual transcriptions one might find, we don’t know, word for word, what they actually said. In writing dialogue I have try to match the words I give them to reflect what I know of them – what they might have said, how they might have said it. I can come comfortably close if I know their personalities well enough—and I’ve come to get a pretty good handle on who Keith and Malinda were. In our play “Honour” – about the duel between New Bern’s John Stanly and Richard Dobbs Spaight – I felt even more comfortable, for the evidence of their personality was plentiful and I had the full transcript of all letters and pamphlets they wrote back and forth that led up to the duel.


I also develop dialogue based on the region in which they live, and their education, if I know it. From letters, if any survive, or their livelihood, I can pick up more clues.


Some characters we know virtually nothing about. In Bushwhackers we have Isaac Muir, a Presbyterian minister, and while he has prominent scenes in our show, I honestly know only that he was a minister and that he married Keith and Malinda. I can take a few clues from the simple fact that he was Presbyterian, but one has to be careful in that direction: it’s easy to make broad assumptions and end up with a stereotyped cliché instead of a real person on the stage. Our antagonist of the night, Major Harvey Bigham was only slightly easier to figure than our good preacher, but what I found showed him to be a pretty hard case.


Actually, the character I gained the most insight on was the congressman-turned-general-turned governor Zebulon Vance.


Then there’s the issue of doubling up characters – taking two men from real life and staging them as one person in our show. Movies do this all the time. I’m sure writers of stage also have to do so at times… I know I did. We have only so many actors we can put out there, and even though parts are doubled and even tripled, there are times you just can’t find a way to insert one more character and have the time to explain who on earth he is. So, in Bushwhackers, you will see one or two characters – the antagonist Bingham is one – who are actually representative of a couple of historic figures.


Finally, there is the delicate balance of fact versus myth versus legend. In some cases this is pretty straightforward. In researching Mssrs. Stanly and Spaight, I got a clear picture of the men and their lives. As to the Wright Brothers and their friends (“Flight”), well there dozens of books, websites and articles about them and very few disagree.


But the Blalocks are trickier. They are virtually unknown on our side of the state, but around Grandfather Mountain they are legends. And when legends come into play you can get a lot of larger-than-life stories—stories that in all probability didn’t happen. Or did they? This couple was larger than life! Then there is the information that outright contradicts each other. Did Malinda wear a Union uniform or did she not? Did she ever personally kill someone, or was she just a cheerleader in the act? Information suggested both, but I believed the weight of “between the lines” information and a study of her personality favored the idea that she did (“She never shot anyone who didn’t deserve it,” Keith once wrote; and we know for a fact that she donned a Rebel uniform early on—why would she suddenly have had scruples when the opportunity came?


But overall, wherever we could, we used the truth, the absolute truth and mostly nothing but the truth. Bushwhackers tells the tale of two of North Carolina’s most fascinating figures, and everything you see actually happened.


Trust us. We wouldn’t lie!

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