Published On: Tue, Jul 21st, 2015

65 years of theater: Unto These Hills cast and crew share perspectives on long-running play

Actors Kara Morrison (left) and Dori Reed (right) speak with VIP audience members before a recent performance of Unto These Hills.  (CARSON LAMBERT/One Feather photos)

Actors Kara Morrison (left) and Dori Reed (right) speak with VIP audience members before a recent performance of Unto These Hills. (CARSON LAMBERT/One Feather photos)

 

CARSON LAMBERT

ONE FEATHER INTERN

 

In the year 1950, just before the inaugural season of Unto These Hills was set to open, preparations for the fledgling outdoor drama were wrapping up.  The 2,800 seat Mountainside Theater had been built, the actors chosen, and the costumes sewn.  Everything seemed to be in order until the manufacturer of the lighting control switchboard informed Director Harry Davis that the equipment could not be delivered as promised.  Undeterred, Davis vowed to do what was needed in order for the show to open on time.  Against the odds, he and his team built a switchboard on location and on the night of July 1, Unto These Hills opened for a full house; catalyzing the Qualla Boundary’s tourism industry.

Now in its 65th consecutive season, the show stands as the second longest running outdoor drama in the nation and tops all others in total attendance clocking in at just under six million.  Since that first performance the drama has seen many facelifts. Actors come and go, sets change, but still the show annually attracts audiences in the thousands who want to hear the story of the Cherokee.

“I think it goes to prove how solid the show is; how solid the organization is to have that type of longevity,” said Artistic Director Marina Hunley-Graham.

Assistant Director Philenia Walkingstick, who has been involved with the show in various capacities for 30 years, commented, “After the change from the old show, the script has had many adjustments and rewrites and is moving in a good direction with help from our audience feedback and historical research.”

Sound Technician Josh Fronk places a microphone on Actor Kyle Streets.

Sound Technician Josh Fronk places a microphone on Actor Kyle Streets.

“I have enjoyed watching the cast and crew immerse themselves in the culture and take their roles seriously.  I work to bring a realization to our actors that they are portraying real historic figures and that it is important to our people to give these pivotal individuals the respect they deserve.”

One such individual is John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1828-66, who is played this season by Dustin Wolfe, an eight year veteran of the drama.

“It means being a part of something that is significantly larger than yourself. It ceases being ‘just a job’ and becomes something much deeper. Every night we are telling the story of Tsali and the events that led to the Trail of Tears, and we are gifted with the opportunity to tell that story in the homeland of the Cherokee,” said Wolfe.

“It is a story that needs to be told and should never be forgotten, and I am honored to have been a part of that.”

Though the script has remained mostly unchanged for the past few seasons, the performance still varies year to year.

Pyro Master/Actor Wes Milton loads the cannon used during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend scene.

Pyro Master/Actor Wes Milton loads the cannon used during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend scene.

“With each new actor or different actor or perhaps an actor that’s done the role before but is growing in that characterization, I think that brings a whole new light a lot of times to the show,” said Hunley-Graham.

New to this year’s production are changes to the perks that patrons receive as part of the VIP package deal and the addition of music that plays along the pathway to the Mountainside Theater creating a more immersive experience for members of the audience.  The Cherokee Historical Association is also developing partnerships with certain outside organizations which will remain undisclosed until the deals are solidified.

“Even though we may have things on the sidelines and other exciting things that are perhaps going to happen, or that we’re planning to have happen, or that we hope to have happen, I think we can’t lose sight that we have been put in positions of telling this story,” said Hunley-Graham.  “Whether as an actor, [or] as a technician, we all work together for the same goal.”

The drama performs every night with the exception of Sundays and runs through Aug. 15.

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