Ohio frontier times revived PDF Print E-mail
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor   
Friday, 12 July 2013 09:15
A large crowd watches as Dan Cutler takes the stage inside the tent at the Veteran's Memorial Park in Rossford to perform the part of Chief John Logan during the 15th annual tour of Ohio Chautauqua. (Photo: Shane Hughes/Sentinel-Tribune)
ROSSFORD - History came to town in full makeup this week to play among the boats and ballfields at Veterans Park.
Under the auspices of Ohio Chautauqua, five scholar actors arrived to tell stories of the Ohio Frontier.
The setting was festive. A red and white striped tent large enough for a circus was set up in the park near the marina.
Those stories had serious themes - political intrigue, war, slavery, racial conflict and continental expansion.
The event, "When Ohio Was the Western Frontier," presented by the Ohio Humanities Council in collaboration with the Rossford Convention and Visitors Bureau, continues through Saturday with workshops in the morning and afternoon in the Rossford Public Library and at night starting at 6:30 p.m. with music and the main act at 7:30. Tonight Marvin Jefferson will portray York, an enslaved African-American who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition, preceded by Wilson Lake and Rock Bass. Saturday night Jeremy Meier will portray Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie. Kerry Clark will be the musical entertainment.
Meier and Jefferson as well as Debra Conner who plays Margaret Blennerhassett and Dan Cutler who plays Chief John Logan were on hand to introduce their characters before the opening night's presentation on Tuesday, which was attended by just over 310 people.
That featured the most jocular of the lot, Hank Fincken as John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed. After Cutler announced him, Fincken emerged from the audience in character, and then commanded the stage.
Johnny Appleseed is a figure from tall tales. Fincken's job was to correct the record, and in doing so John Chapman stood taller than ever.
He was a boisterous character, quick with the corny joke, and bad puns about getting to the core of the matter and the like. He traced what was known about his character's life, careful not to step outside the lines of fact.
Born in Massachusetts in 1774, Chapman was an enterprising sort who tramped ahead of the western migration of white settlers. He would arrive in an area a few years ahead of them and plant apple trees from seeds. When the pioneers arrived he'd sell them the seedlings which they would transplant onto their 160-acre parcels. Five years later, when their first tax bills were due, those trees would be bearing fruit that could be sold dried, as apple butter or, most profitably, as apple jack that could be shipped all the way to New Orleans.
But while he was full of good humor Fincken also addressed the darker chapters of the time. Chapman got caught up in the War of 1812 and the conflicts between white settlers and the native inhabitants.
Chapman was disgusted that even those natives friendly to the settlers were displaced or killed by his fellow whites. Yet, Fincken in character explained, he had no choice but to side with his fellow pioneers, at one point inciting a panicked evacuation unnecessarily.
Chapman, a member of the Church of New Jerusalem that was based on the teachings of philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, was also a preacher. It was an open-minded faith that sought to encompass all believers.
After his dramatic presentation, Fincken answered questions first in the guise of Johnny Appleseed, teasing his questioners when they asked him about issues, such as when he died, that were outside the ken of his character.
Then dropping the facade, Fincken answered questions from a contemporary point of view.
Chapman died in Fort Wayne, Ind. in 1845 as best Fincken can determine from his research. There's a park with a headstone for Johnny Appleseed, but nobody knows where he was actually buried.
That command of what's known, unknown and speculated is a necessity for the actor scholars.
That's demonstrated as well in the workshops held earlier in the day.
On Tuesday, Debra Conner spoke of her character Margaret Blennerhassett, an aristocratic pioneer, whose family was wealthy enough to build a mansion near Marietta in the middle of the Ohio River.
But her talk focused on the 99-percent of pioneers who were not as affluent. Though, as she pointed out, poor people did not have the resources needed to join the westward migration.
The women faced lonely, hard times. At once crowded in tiny cabins with members of their family, their days filled with the chores needed to maintain a subsistence lifestyle, but also far removed from other people.
Conner, whose training is in creative writing, said she now makes most of her living as an actor scholar. She was inspired to become an actor scholar by seeing a woman portray Willa Cather in her local library back in Parkersburg, W. Va..
She was impressed with the performance, she said.
"The amazing thing was to be able to answer questions with authority."
Conner said she had done post-graduate work on Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman at Columbia University after getting her MFA in Writing from Warren Wilson College.
So she answered a call for characters and portrayed Emily Dickinson. She's since added to her repertoire which now includes Zelda Fitzgerald, Margaret Mitchell, 19th century writer Rebecca Harding Davis and Civil War surgeon and Medal of Honor winner Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.
Before starting her run as Margaret Blennerhassett for the Ohio Chautauqua, she spent a month doing Zelda Fitzgerald in Oklahoma.
She was attracted to the character of Blennerhassett because though "she's not a well known name but the story involves well known names and great intrigue... It's a riches to rags story, very heartbreaking."
Bringing a character to life requires, she said, "lots and lots of research using primary sources, letters and diaries."
That's the way to capture the character's voice, Conner said. "I bring their own words to the stage, not my words."

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