We’re used to learning about history and its many characters through classrooms and textbooks. But we can also learn about the past through radio series and podcasts, documentaries and Netflix shows, and even seeing live historical acting. Some of our Road Scholar speakers teach history through depicting history’s characters in one-person plays.
To the scholar, teaching artist, and actor Dan Haughey, all acting is storytelling. “The actor has to capture it in his or her own history,” he said. But the challenges unique to historical acting is to depict a real person’s voice, gestures, mannerisms, and personality. And often times these details are not widely recorded or documented in detail.
Haughey recently performed a one-man show in Moline as part of Illinois Humanities’ ongoing Road Scholar series. It’s a program that invites organizations throughout the state to host high-quality public events on a variety of subjects. For his event, Haughey portrayed a fellow native Ohioan: the Commanding General and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.
Despite a chest cold, Haughey said his show “went as smooth as ever.” He noted how the audience not only asked questions during the formal Q&A section but also stuck around after the show to learn more about famed Union Army leader.
For Haughey, acting and history go hand-in-hand. After all, these were his favorite subjects in school. And because his uncles served in the military — including in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — Haughey said, “history was swarming around me.”
Though he studied history in college, he didn’t take on acting until pursuing a theater arts degree in graduate school. “I really got lucky,” he said, “I worked a summer job in historical acting drama.” When the two subjects crossed over in his profession, it made sense: “it all started with my dramatic imagination of history.”
So what makes historical acting different from other acting? It’s when Haughey wears the hat of scholar and researcher. In an era before film, television, and social media, there might not be a definitive, codified voice for someone like Grant. To hurdle this obstacle, Haughey said “as an actor, I take my instrument and take what other people are saying about his voice at the time — up to 1880s or maybe 1890s — and then take the rhythm of his voice in his writing.”
Pinning down Grant’s character also requires a process of elimination. “We know he was literate, we know he doesn’t talk like somebody’s bad version of a redneck, we can rule out the New England accent, and we know he’s Ohio born and bred. You can take all of that and then boil it down.”
Although Grant was said to have a high-pitched nasal voice, Haughey sees “the weighted side of his character.” This is partly informed by Grant’s heavy-looking presence on the fifty-dollar bill. And while there’s room for uncertainty and interpretation, Haughey said “that gives me a lot of freedom.”
But why opt for a one-man show instead of reading a biography or even watching a tv series? Because a well-structured show gives you a relationship with a special character, Haughey said, and because you see the person’s public and private lives.
“The experience is designed for getting contemplation, inspiration — that this person has gone through troubles — and participation.” By bringing these stories and, in the case of Civil War soldiers, wartime songs, the viewer can participate with the history.
As for those who haven’t seen a historical actor perform a one-man show, Haughey suggests “just make belief.” He continued, “get away from technology, from a screen, and take a chance.” Even if the person doesn’t like exactly like Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, “suspend your disbelief, take a chance just for the first 5 minutes, and let them take you into their world.”
And if you suspend your disbelief? “If they did their part, they will surprise you,” Haughey concluded, “and if you do your part, you will stay in that world for anywhere between 15 minutes to 2 hours.”