For those of you considering a production of Soldier, Come Home, I offer the following notes about my concept of the original production of the play and suggestions for a production:
The play was conceived as a “concert.” The image of Pavarotti and Tebaldi walking onto the New York Philharmonic stage comes to mind; he in a tux, she in an evening gown. They carry a score bound in a black binder. It’s a concert version of “La Boheme.” Music. Singing begins. Little by little, they transcend the confines of the concert, establish relationships and become the characters; we see only Mimi and Rodolfo and are caught up emotionally by the music and the singing.
This is the goal I have set for Soldier, Come Home.
Music. Five actors walk onto the stage – men in tuxes and the woman in an evening gown – carrying black binders. They take their places. Music fades, lights up on first actor. Reading begins. Little by little, the actors transcend the confines of the “concert” reading, become the characters and establish relationships. The letters become the dialogue and the conflicts, humor and emotions take over.
The set, backdrop, lights, costumes, furniture and sound, along with the letters, are an integral part of the concept of the play. They work together as a unit.
The set: Black risers or platforms at two or three different levels,
from 10 inches to 3 feet high. Each actor has his or her platform or level. Five dark colored, plain wooden chairs are placed on platforms. A black curtain hangs behind the set.
Minimum lighting: Five front of house lekos – one focused on each actor and each light is on a separate dimmer. Overhead is blue backlight (fresnels) to shape actors but used mainly to give actors enough light by which to read the letters.
Costumes: Tuxes for the men. Evening gown for the woman: simple, fairly dark color, floor length.
Sound: Pre-show music. This is the place for a nod to the
Civil War era. Your choice of period music. As lights dim and play starts, segue to lively Civil War music as cast enters the stage. Fade sound as lights come up on first actor.
However: That said, it is totally up to the director to produce the play in any way he or she envisions it. For example, I just saw an extremely effective production in Kenosha, Wisconsin done simply – in an open room – small platform, no lights, actors in white shirts and black slacks/long black dress with music fading in and out throughout.
Directing the play:
Here are some general notes I find important for performing a play based on letters and creating an exciting, riveting production:
1. Pick up cues. As one letter finishes, the next should start immediately without a second’s pause. Think of it as dialogue, a conversation between characters.
2. Find new thoughts within each letter. Even the shortest letters contain many different thoughts.
3. Create a general sense of urgency throughout the play, even in quiet moments.
4. For the most part, letters are read directly to the audience. It is important that the actors make good eye contact with the audience. Knowing the letters well – even learning them – will help with this.
5. “Build” scenes from letter to letter – the idea is that each letter is more important than the last.
6. The play contains humor – I hope. Look for the humor and try to play it.
“On Friday evening, a couple hundred people gathered in the Sanctuary (of the historic First Parish Church) for the dramatic performance of Soldier, Come Home. The male players were dressed in tuxedoes, as opposed to period costumes, which kept the focus on the letters, and the emotions exuded in them. I very much enjoyed this theater project.”…..Bobby Grenier of the North Lake County Florida Civil War Round Table.
Floor plan for platforms – Soldier, Come Home
The play, directed by Phil Hendricks, opens April 14th, 2011 and runs till April 17th in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.
The play is a dramatization of the Civil War letters of Mary Luke Pringle, her husband, Philip W. Pringle, family members and friends, from 1859 to 1865, adapted for the stage by Frank W. Wicks, great-grandson of Philip and Mary. The play weaves the story of one family through the events of the Civil War.
“You don’t have to be a Civil War buff to appreciate ‘Soldier, Come Home.’ It’s about family, love, duty, and coping: universal themes for people caught in the maelstrom of war.” – Rita Bailey, Joshua Chamberlain Civil War Round Table, Brunswick, Maine
The letters are from western Pennsylvania and from several major Civil War battle sites, including Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, the siege of Petersburg, and Appomattox.
Frances Hesselbein needs no introduction to anyone working in the nonprofit sector in America. For the uninitiated, let me fill you in: For many years, Frances was the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, leading that organization into a new era of extraordinary growth – building a diverse membership with an emphasis on creating a richly diverse, cohesive, contemporary organization for girls and young women,
developing the leaders of tomorrow. When she retired from that job in 1990, she became the first founding President and CEO of the new Peter Drucker Foundation, which became the present day Leader to Leader Institute. At Leader to Leader Frances galvanized the nonprofit world, established scholarships, wrote books on leadership, and traveled extensively, speaking about leadership to nonprofits and business leaders around the world, so far 68 countries. She has co-edited 27 books in 29 languages.
Her new book, My Life In Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way, will be published in February 2011 by John Wiley & Sons. In her review of the book, Joanne Fritz writes, ”Hesselbein perhaps left her most lasting mark on the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. From 1976 to 1990, she turned that organization into a modern, diversified, and efficient national voice for girls. As a result of her vision and activism, Hesselbein was named Fortune Magazine’s “Best Nonprofit Manager in America,” and in 1998 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
I must now reveal that Frances is my first cousin – her great-grandparents are also Philip and Mary Pringle – and (in her spare time!) has been a driving force behind Soldier, Come Home. She pored through our great-grandparents’ letters, helped with revisions of the play and single-handedly produced performances. Frances organized a production at the historic Heritage Discovery Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (an area where many of the letters were written). Dozens of relatives flew into Johnstown from all over the country – and as far away as England – to attend a weekend of performances and partake in a grand family reunion.
Frances says, “Working with Soldier, Come Home has been a joy. The dramatic adaptation of our family’s Civil War letters makes a wonderful, moving story of our family. Throughout the play I keep thinking about Philip and Mary’s daughter, Sadie Pringle Wicks, our grandmother – we all called ‘Mama Wicks’. She was an extraordinary woman and has been the greatest influence in my life. I’m so honored to be a part of Soldier, Come Home. It is a treasure.”
Needless to say, I am indebted to Frances and so very proud of her many awards and accomplishments. And they keep coming! According to the Leader to Leader website, “In 2009, Mrs. Hesselbein was appointed the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership. She is the first woman, and the first non-graduate to serve in this chair. Also in 2009, the University of Pittsburgh introduced The Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement. The Academy’s aim is to produce experienced and ethical leaders who will address the most critical national and international issues and to advance positive social and economic initiatives throughout the world.
However, what most people do not know is Frances Hesselbein’s devotion to and support of her own family members all over the country. She would go to the ends of the earth to champion, help, nurture and mentor. She has been an inspiration to all of us. ‘Mama Wicks’ would have been proud!
Answer: Civil War Historian, John J. Pullen
“For people who have not heard the story of the fight at Little Round Top on the Gettysburg battlefield – and today there aren’t many of these among readers of Civil War literature – it should be stated that it was here, late on July 2, 1863, that Joshua L. Chamberlain arose from the clouds of gunsmoke into the light of fame….Some say that Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the day at Gettysburg and therefore saved the Union.”
And thus begins the John J. Pullen classic, The Twentieth Maine: A Volunteer Regiment in the Civil War, considered by Civil War historians to be one of the best regimental histories ever written.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Pullen’s 1957 book renewed interest in Union Army General Joshua Chamberlain. “The Twentieth Maine recounted Chamberlain’s heroism when he ordered the 20th Maine Regiment to fix bayonets and rout the Confederates during the Battle of Little Round Top – one of the most well-known actions at Gettysburg and in the American Civil War.”
On the final charge, knowing that his men were out of ammunition, that his numbers were being depleted, and further knowing that another charge could not be repulsed, Chamberlain ordered a maneuver that was considered unusual for the day: He ordered his left flank, which had been pulled back, to advance with bayonets. As soon as they were in line with the rest of the regiment, the remainder of the regiment charged, like a door swinging shut. This simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver halted and captured a good portion of the 15th Alabama.
Praise for The Twentieth Maine poured in. The Boston Sunday Herald wrote, “this comes as near reliving the Civil War as anyone in the twentieth century is likely to get.”
Bruce Catton, Pulitzer Prize winner and Civil War historian said, “Mr. Pullen has gone to the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the participants with the thoroughness and care of a good historian, and he has had the literary skill to let the personality of the regiment come through.”
Then in 1999, John Pullen published the definitive Chamberlain biography, Joshua Chamberlain: a Hero’s Life and Legacy.
A reviewer wrote, “Renowned historian John J. Pullen, who first introduced Joshua Chamberlain to modern readers, is again approaching the subject of this complex man. This new biographical essay explores Chamberlain’s place in history–both man and myth. John Pullen, who drew back the shroud of a forgotten hero in his excellent book “The Twentieth Maine,” has come full circle in this engaging and enlightening biography.”
Born in Amity, Maine, Pullen graduated from Colby College in 1935. A field artillery captain during World War II, he worked as a reporter for the Kennebec Journal in Augusta after the war. He later worked in advertising in Philadelphia before resigning in 1965 to move to Brunswick, Maine (where I happened to live) and focus on his writing.
I remember John Pullen as a celebrated, active contributer to the Brunswick community. He was a member of the Joshua Chamberlain Civil War Round Table and spearheaded fund-raising efforts to design, create and erect a statue of Joshua Chamberlain next to the Bowdoin College campus.
The year before he died, John Pullen attended the premiere of Soldier, Come Home in Brunswick. He wrote kindly of the play, “Excellent and unusual. It lets the audience feel the Civil War both on the field and on the home front where women and families experience its dramatic effects.”
I was so pleased that such a distinguished Civil War historian had witnessed my efforts at a Civil War story. I had rubbed shoulders with the man who had awakened interest in a forgotten hero, introducing Joshua Chamberlain to modern readers – and, without a doubt, putting Joshua Chamberlain on the map.
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