Ever heard of the Great American People Show? No, it’s not that group of fresh-faced kids who tour the country singing cornball songs. And it’s not the revue you see at Six Flags amusement park.
GAPS, as it’s sometimes called, does big outdoor dramas about historical figures, most notably Abraham Lincoln. It’s been lauded by politicians like Paul Simon and ex-governor Jim Thompson, and by foreign dignitaries from places as distant as Taiwan and Beijing. In 1980, GAPS became the first theater to receive the Governor’s Award for the Arts, and this year, for the first time, the Illinois Board of Tourism is supporting the show as the place to go to learn about Lincoln.
All right, now it sounds even worse than Up With People, right? But GAPS’s Abraham Lincoln is not a tall guy in a stovepipe hat who walks onstage and shoots a turkey. Notwithstanding its possibly unfortunate name, the Great American People Show was founded by a group of young theater upstarts who transplanted themselves to the backwoods near Petersburg, Illinois, to create a work of art based on Brechtian principles that they cared passionately about. Early on the group turned down a CETA grant because they didn’t want to be bound by the restraints that government money might impose. The work they created, Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln, has endured now for 16 seasons. In its first few years the group included such theater innovators as playwright Beth Henley, director Robert Falls, composer Tim Schirmer (for many years the resident composer at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin), and actors Gary Cole (Steppenwolf, Remains) and Greg Vinkler (last seen as Shakespeare Repertory’s King John), as well as familiar Chicago theater people such as Dale Calandra (Center Theater), Jeff Ortmann (Wisdom Bridge), and Caroline Dodge Latta and her husband James (both teachers at Columbia College).
Your Obedient Servant (they call it YOSAL for short), performed every year at GAPS since its inception in 1976, was written and created by most of these people. All were friends or students of GAPS artistic director John Ahart, a theater professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and most had worked with him on previous original collaborative efforts, including Another Macbeth, Ahart’s response to the media coverage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. In Another Macbeth Ahart set out to re-create the structure of that coverage, to show the modern ramifications of the murder of a political leader and to explore the role of the all-encompassing eye of the camera in the modern world. It was with the same idea, of using history to process and examine current events, that the group moved to Petersburg several years later.
“It was a very intense time,” recalls Falls. “We all sat in these wooden cabins where we lived, and read every word that Lincoln wrote. We wanted to do something completely original and completely unusual. Yeah, it’s the story of Lincoln, but hipper. It’s a very Brechtian production, and we were really working with him in mind.”
Ahart admits to being strongly influenced by both Brecht and the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. The process of creating the show was based heavily on FTP’s methods.
“John went out with the outline, and I came out with another, and we combined them,” says Caroline Latta, who was Ahart’s assistant for both YOSAL and Another Macbeth. “We’d get together in the mornings and assign committees to various aspects of the work. Then they’d go off and read and find what interested them about it and create dramatic vignettes based on the readings to present in the afternoons.”
“I remember we spent a couple of days on letters written during the Civil War,” says Falls. “The women looked at the women’s letters and we looked at the soldiers’. It was amazing what we found.”
The letters that ended up in the show are poignant indications of the harsh effect of the war on individuals. One is from a young woman to her husband, expressing her pride in his military service and her despair over her inability to feed the family. She ends with “If you do not come home, we will surely die.” From there the show jumps to Lincoln’s thoughts and actions regarding the incredible desertion rate of Union soldiers.
“The process and product was much the way they put together The Civil War,” asserts Falls, referring to the recent highly acclaimed PBS special. “But we were doing that 15 or 16 years ago.”
The comparison with the PBS special was brought up by every person I talked with about GAPS. “There’s been a lot of publicity about the PBS special on the Civil War. But the truth is, John has been doing that kind of thing for a long time and doing it very well and without the fanfare,” says Latta.
Because of this method of working, YOSAL is composed of hundreds of short scenes, ranging from intimate two-person scenes and monologues to grand group mayhem such as battles and conventions. Scene changes are instantaneous, often heralded by an actor bellowing headline-style titles.
The founding company broke up within a couple of years, much to Ahart’s dismay. His intention had been to gather together a group of people and to keep them coming back every summer in “this great and lasting partnership.” But people began drifting away, some with a great deal of bitterness.
“There was a lot of anger on some people’s parts,” recalls Falls, “because John seemed to be taking credit for the creation of the piece, when actually it was company-created under the direction of John Ahart–under his really quite brilliant direction.” (Last year’s program, for example, calls YOSAL “an original script by John Ahart in collaboration with the ’76 Acting Company.”) “But,” Falls continues, “Ahart once told me there were groups who performed the piece better than we did, but no other group could have created it.”
Ahart continued to return each summer, and found new energy in 1981 when he married actress Rose Buckner, who’s now codirector of GAPS. They added two more original pieces to the regular season repertoire, forming a trilogy that spanned 160 years of American history from Lincoln’s birth to the moon walk. Later they added a piece for chamber orchestra and three narrators, which they performed at the old State Capitol in Springfield, as well as numerous one-person shows.
This summer, due to a lack of funds, GAPS will be performing only YOSAL. “We’ve felt really badly over the past five years,” admits Ahart, “that we’ve had to shrink back the number of pieces we offer because money is extremely difficult. So we are back to one play this summer, the piece about Lincoln, and that’s tough.”
YOSAL, however, is probably the best fulfillment of the company’s idealistic goals–“To celebrate voices and events from the American past which have played significant roles in our struggle to be free and to see our fellow human beings as truly brothers and sisters”–as well as the best example of the group’s ability to use history to examine today’s problems.
“I find that every year I go there with a different set of current events that I am concerned about that somehow reverberate with the work we’re doing,” explains Ahart. “This spring, I was so disturbed by all those goddamn yellow ribbons. There’s no doubt in my mind that for me, and Rose, and for many of us, one of the principal values of going there is it will give us a chance to think about the Middle East, and relate it to the Civil War. . . . That’s, to me, the exciting part about it.”
The Great American People Show is located at Lincoln’s New Salem State Park, a reconstruction of the village where the Great Emancipator served as postmaster and deputy surveyor. It’s about 20 miles northwest of Springfield on Route 97. Tickets for Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln are $8 for adults, $6.50 for students and seniors, and $22.50 for families. Group rates are also available. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday, June 22 through August 24. Call 217-632-7755.