History Comes Alive in Chillicothe

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Tecumseh! Outdoor Drama Starts 42nd Season

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For more than 40 years, an epic battle has waged each summer in southern Ohio – much to the delight of the more than 2 million people who’ve witnessed it.

The outdoor historical drama Tecumseh! is one of this region’s cultural gems, attracting hundreds of spectactors for each performance at the Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre, just outside Chillicothe, a few miles from U.S. 23.

The 42nd season runs from June 6 through Aug. 30. Each night at 8 pm (except Sundays), the epic life story of the legendary Shawnee leader unfolds in this unique setting, complete with running horses, live cannons and elaborate battle sequences.

“The script for Tecumseh! and the design for the Sugarloaf Amphitheatre were done together back in the ‘70s. They integrated the two, which was unique for that time,” said Marion Waggoner, the production’s producer and artistic director. “The seating area thrusts down into the stage … we are playing 200 degrees around you. If you are in the front or on the sides, you are six feet away from the horses – it’s very intense.”

Waggoner has received countless reviews from Tecumseh! viewers over his three decades with the production. “At the end of the show, when Tecumseh is carried off Hamlet-style, and with this music, it creates a tremendous response. Many, many people have told me how it touches them. Kids sit on the edges of their seats. Parents tell me their children, who have a hard time paying attention normally, sit totally still during this show.”

The music Waggoner mentioned is the hauntingly beautiful Native American score, recorded by The London Symphony Orchestra. The narration sequences throughout the play were recorded by Native American actor Graham Greene. Combine those with the script, which was written by seven-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and Emmy recipient Allan W. Eckert, and you have a recipe for a mezmerizing evening.

Eckert, who died in 2011, adapted this drama from his award-winning historical narrative The Frontiersman, written in 1968. Tecumseh! began its run in Chillicothe in 1973. Every year, it ranks as the most popular outdoor historical drama in the midwestern United States, according to figures kept by The Institute of Outdoor Theatre.

The annual summer production involves more than 100 people, about 60 of whom are actors. This year, the title role is played by Stevyn Carmora, who is in his third year as Tecumseh and his eighth in the play. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the lead role is not played by a Native American – Carmora is from Trinidad – and neither are any of the other roles. “It’s extremely difficult to recruit Native American actors for this type of production. Our pay scale is not enough to recruit them when they could earn much more doing film work,” said Waggoner, who has lived and worked on reservations in the West. “Also, tribal lands are tight and close-knit, and it is hard to get anyone to leave.”

Members of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, where many of Tecumseh’s descendents now live, did help Eckert with the writing of the story, and many have come over the years to see the show. “The tribal elders have come out many times. They made fun of how we pronounced some of the Shawnee words,” Waggoner said, “and so they recorded themselves saying the words to help us.”

This year, all the actors and actresses are from outside of the region, although there have been local people in the drama in the past. “We auditioned approximately 3,000 actors from all across the country. Some are grad students and some are professionals. We have a really fine group,” the producer said.

The actors all live on the 34 acres around the amphitheatre. Rehearsals start in mid-May after Tech Week, which is the opposite of the way most rehearsal schedules are arranged. That’s because a lot of work must be done to get the stage area ready, particularly after a harsh winter like this past year’s. But Tech Week does include rehearsals for the play’s other stars – the horses. “Over the winter, they aren’t ridden a lot. We have to get them out and get them used to hearing gunfire so they don’t bolt during the show when there’s lots of gunfire very close to them.”

The horses live on a farm adjacent to the amphiteatre. All of the land, 200 acres total, is owned by The Scioto Society Inc. producers of Tecumseh! “They had the foresight to purchase the land and ensure that development would not encroach on this unique place,” Waggoner said.

The amphitheatre has seats for 1,800 people, although the average nightly attendance is around 500. Because of the special setting, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house, Waggoner said. Reservations can be made in advance, or tickets can be purchased the night of the show. Many people also opt for the pre-show buffet, available for three hours before each show and served outdoors, of course.

Tickets can be purchased to go backstage where the actors serve as tour guides and the Tecumseh! stuntmen put on a display of stage-combat and flintlock firing, as well as demonstrations of weaponry, stunts and makeup. On Saturday afternoons, a living history tour is offered, providing a glimpse into the lives of the frontier settlers and Shawnee who shaped the southern Ohio region.

Photos Compliments The Scioto Society Inc./Tecumseh!

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Amanda Gilmore

Amanda Gilmore of Wheelersburg, Ohio, is a professional editor for Wastren Advantage Inc. of Piketon, Ohio. She spent 10 years as the community relations coordinator at Boyd County Public Library (another great place featured in this magazine more than once) and another 10+ before that as a writer and editor for The Independent in Ashland. She's a part-time teacher at Ohio University Southern, and loves to travel, eat and hang out with her two awesome kids, Pierce and Kate. You can contact her at ajosephinegilmore@yahoo.com.

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