Actress says portraying real people brings history to life

Reading a textbook on U.S. history is one way to learn, but watching actors addressing that same sub

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Reading a textbook on U.S. history is one way to learn, but watching actors addressing that same subject matter in a live stage performance can be just as informative and usually much more enjoyable.

“I think my first goal is to be entertaining, but being educational is a very close second,” said Claire Nolan, who plays labor and community organizer Mother Jones in the Great Minds Series of the Schenectady Theater for Children.

“To me they go hand in hand, and I’ve always felt that if you are entertained you will learn so much more. If you experience the emotions of fear, humor and sadness in the theater, then the messages you learn stay with you. You will remember them.”

Bringing historical figures to life has been part of the program at the Schenectady Theater for Children since 1992. The group, which was created in 1975, got an inquiry from the Schenectady Museum more than 20 years ago wondering if they’d like to put together some sort of theatrical production to help celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in America.

“I thought quickly, ‘How about Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella?’ ” said Dee Mulford, who was president of the troupe at that time.

“They were the first two ‘Great Minds.’ Melanie Anchukaitis was head of the Spanish department at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons, and Ken Smith was a fourth-grade teacher at Rosendale Elementary. I asked them to do it and they did such a good job the museum wanted us back with something different the following year. That’s how we got started.”

A show featuring first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Dolly Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln and Edith Wilson was produced in 1993. In 1994, Schenectady County Historical Society president Wayne Harvey played Thomas Edison.

“From then on we started going to schools, and we’ve also done performances for different groups or for corporate parties,” said Mulford, who recently moved from Schenectady to Washington D.C.

“I began auditioning people for roles, and there were some who came in as characters with their dialogue already written by them. I would help them and critique them, but most of the time they had already been developing their own stuff.”

Nolan has been performing as Mother Jones for nearly 10 years, and is also planning to create another character in American artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

Historical characters

Jeff Stein of the University at Albany music department has been performing as either George Gershwin, Mozart or Beethoven for years with the group, while also in the mix are David Legg as Albert Einstein; Judy Lott as Rachel Carson; Jane Ainslee as Madame Curie; Paul Stillman as Teddy Roosevelt; Benjamin Franklin and Galileo; and Bill Hickman and Rita Russell as John and Abigail Adams.

“Most of our programs are performed in front of middle-school kids and up,” said Kathy Friscic, who has replaced Mulford as coordinator of the Great Minds Series. “We have some very talented people, and working with them is a lot of fun. They are so creative, and even though Dee is gone I still contact her and rely on her expertise greatly.”

Nolan did all of her own research and much of the writing for her portrayal of Mother Jones, whose real name was Mary Harris Jones. She came to prominence late in the 19th century when the injustices of the Industrial Revolution created havoc on the poor working class.

“The schools were asking for women because we really didn’t have that many, and I had always been an admirer of Mother Jones,” said Nolan, aN Albany native and University at Albany grad who now teaches English as a second language there.

“The more homework I did on her, the more I became interested in her. She helped organize the coal miners in West Virginia, and she worked for them and women and children to get better pay and better working conditions.”

Part of Nolan’s research on Mother Jones included reading her autobiography.

“Others have suggested that she exaggerated a few things here and there, and misrepresented a few things, but I felt like the way she wrote was truly her voice, and that became my voice for her,” said Nolan. “She was a little bit over the top sometimes and very theatrical, but I liken it to scripture. Jesus was trying to organize the multitudes with what he did, and Mother Jones was putting out that same kind of message.”

Hickman and Russell are newcomers to the Great MindS Series, but are veteran performers in the Capital Region theater community, and have performed Martin Kelly’s show about John and Abigail Adams, “A Marriage of True Minds,” since 2004. For the Great Minds Series, Hickman and Russell have pared down their stage production from two hours to less than an hour.

“Over the past several years, it has been tremendously exciting playing the character John Adams, whom I’ve long admired for his almost single-minded devotion to the American Revolutionary cause,” said Hickman, who has also impersonated Benjamin Franklin in his career.

“The Great Minds Series plays mainly to junior-high, high-school and outside adult groups, and the play’s material has proved appropriate and of interest to that type of audience over the past several years. We’re going to perform in the same manner as we did doing the play, but we have edited it down to 45 minutes.”

Like Nolan, Hickman believes a theatrical production is both educational and entertaining.

Actual words

“It’s certainly educational, reflecting at least 95 percent of the actual words of their letters excerpted and woven into the back-and-forth, give-and-take of John and Abigail, exchanging views on the activities and people of the times as the nation moves toward and through the Declaration of Independence,” said Hickman. “And, certainly it’s entertaining, enlightening and often humorous as they parry back and forth.”

In some cases, says Nolan, the impact can go beyond education and entertainment.

“We’re performing for kids most of the time, but those kids grow up, and one of them could be a CEO of a major company,” said Nolan. “Maybe he or she will remember about Mother Jones and how she fought for a good living wage. Maybe they’d remember what Mother Jones would have said or done. Her message is timeless.”

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