Telling the Tale from the Stage

Photo by Kevin Shirley

The Alternate and Historical Fiction track hosted a panel organized by a new group at Dragon Con, The Theater and Performing Arts Lovers Group, in the Courtland Grand Macon at 10AM on a quiet Sunday morning. Byrne Harrison, Heather Stringfellow, Max Caracappa, and Courtney Bliss joined moderator Gary Mitchel in a consideration of American history as told from the stage.

Mitchel began by asking the panelists to consider how the stage and performance contributes to our understanding of American History. Bliss, a graduate student in cultural studies and theater history, offered Hamilton as a musical that educates. The musical, as well as the educational organization tied to it, introduces audiences to an Alexander Hamilton that is more than the face on the $10 bill. Based upon Ron Chernow’s biography of the same name, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical takes audiences beyond their “seventh grade history” level of knowledge about the man and his impact. Caracappa spoke of the power of music to engage the brain and actually make it easier to remember information. Musicals in particular bring historical figures and events to life in ways that are impossible for the text. Song, she declared, makes history more accessible and sparks curiosity. Stringfellow also noted the way in which theater can spark curiosity in the audience. After seeing Hamilton many go to the source material, seeking out Chernow’s biography so they can learn more. Theater is, in her words, “the gateway drug” to history!

Theater can also perpetuate myths and biased perceptions. Mitchel asked his panelists how can that be corrected. Caracappa pointed to 1776, the musical written by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone. 1776 is a portrayal of the heroes of the American Revolution, the founding fathers, but those heroes were also slave owners. The way to demythologize the characters is to look for ways to change the perception without necessarily changing the text. In Hamilton Miranda puts the founding fathers’ words and deeds into black voices and bodies. The text doesn’t change but the manner of presentation, and the actors presenting it, does. Stringfellow, who is an actor, emphasized the importance of research to demythologize characters. The more an actor knows of the history of the lines the better. That knowledge will impact the performance. Harrison argued that when addressing the presence of myth, propaganda, or an agenda, the first essential is to recognize its presence and then make new art from it. Trying to “fix it” in a specific play or musical won’t work. Those pieces of art carry too much cultural weight. What’s essential is to build new art off it so that you can address the myths there.

An interesting example of this reimagining of a piece in order to demythologize its subject is the 2022 production of 1776. Its cast was composed of actors who identified as female, nonbinary, and trans. The text was not changed but it received a new interpretation. So too, with Hamilton, Bliss argued. Miranda used rap so he needed a non-White cast.

Beyond Broadway is where you can find the most innovative work being done. Harrison encouraged the audience to seek out completely different theatrical experiences and to use them as an opportunity to see events through the eyes of others. Mitchel flatly stated that Broadway won’t be “edgy.” It is controlled by monied interests whose primary goal is to make money. So to find innovative theater (beyond the rare exception) you have to look for it elsewhere.

Mitchel then asked at what point a historical play or musical theater becomes historic itself? Stringfellow argued that a piece becomes historic when enough time has passed that through continued performance, it comes to be understood as embodying the “zeitgeist” of an age. A classic example of this is the musical Hair, which has come to embody the era of the 1960s. Shows that become historic have persisted and remain in society’s collective conscience. When that occurs, you have a piece that has become historic.

In a similar vein, Caracappa pointed to theater’s ability to identify moments of social change. In particular it can mark a point at which a society is ready to look at the past in a new and more critical way. Illustrative of this is the musical Miss Saigon. It is often the case that the stage is the first place consensus (historical and otherwise) can and is challenged. A contemporary example is George Takei’s Allegiance, which directly discusses the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Both Mitchel and Bliss pointed out that the history they learned in school was whitewashed and did not address this in any real or meaningful way. Bliss had to go and find out about it on her own. Theater often leads the way in tackling these issues and often doing so marks a moment of real change.

Historical theater not only shines light on events of the past but allows silenced and forgotten voices to be heard. Caracappa pointed to Rent as the perfect example of this phenomenon. As a senior in high school she saw the musical. For the first time she saw the “misfits” being given a place at the center of the stage. It was, for her, a hopeful and powerful moment.

Thought-provoking and stimulating does not do justice to this panel. It was an outstanding start to Sunday at Dragon Con 2023.

Author of the article