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What is Symphonic Drama?

A look at the alternative American Musical

It has been said that America has contributed two important new dramatic forms to the eyes and ears of the world. One is the musical, and the other is symphonic drama. Yet these two traditions are not as separate as one might think. Indeed, they are close relatives, if not siblings, on the same dramatic family tree. Both had their roots in the late 1920’s, and both matured rapidly with the help of the Federal Government and the can-do attitude of actors during the Great Depression, and both have continued their march to the present day, embracing the commercial marketplace to create even bigger and more dazzling spectacles. Indeed, The Symphonic Outdoor Drama is a unique product of the American Landscape, and an extension of the principles that guided the American musical to an audience far outside the realm of Broadway. But what is the Symphonic Outdoor Drama? To that, we need to ask, who is Paul Green?

Among North Carolina’s most revered writers, Paul Green was born in 1894 and raised on a cotton farm at the dawn of the 20th century. It was there where Green first learned music and literature, reading books in the field as he followed a mule-drawn plow, and teaching himself to play the violin in order to compose the music for his own early dramas. After beginning school at the University of North Carolina in 1916, World War I interrupted his education, and he departed for France. After serving several months in the trenches, Green returned to Chapel Hill where he quickly became active in the newly formed (and seminally important) Carolina Playmakers, writing one of the first plays performed by the group. It was under Frederick Koch, the Playmakers’ Artistic Director, that Green first became interested in the notion of “folk drama,” plays which concerned ordinary people and their experience in every day American life. These concerns would appear time and time again, becoming the bedrock of his later enormous, panoramic Symphonic Dramas.

Before turning his dramatic talents to the great outdoors, Green found success on the New York stage, winning a Pulitzer prize for his play “In Abraham’s Bosom,” the story of a black man whose attempt to found a school for black children ends in his violent death. After this success, Green quickly began to experiment with emerging artistic forms, including the emergent Expressionist dramatic techniques from Germany and the Yiddish theatre. By coupling extensive music and dance numbers to tell a story beyond just language within a dramatic script, Green began to develop what he called a “symphonic drama,” though his early attempts were recognized as musicals, including ''Johnny Johnson'' (1936), an antiwar work put on by the Group Theater for which Kurt Weill, newly arrived from Hitler's Germany, wrote his first music for the American theater. While Green continued to write for Broadway, he quickly became dissatisfied with the commercial environment of New York City. Nevertheless, Green persisted in asserting that that the development of the musical, a uniquely American form, was a progression of American society. However, New York proved to be stifling to Green, and he decided to take his talent, and his shows on the road, even going so far as to say ''The narrow confines of the usual Broadway play and stage are not fitted to the dramatic needs of the American people. They cannot contain the richness of our tradition, folkways, singing, dancing and poetry.” With the depression in full swing, theatrical entertainers all over the country began to find it exceedingly difficult to put on any work, let alone the kind of massive, arena like productions Green envisioned. However, this didn’t stop Roanoke Island residents from commissioning Green to write a play to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. Taking advantage of various New Deal Programs, such as the local Civilian Conservation Corps labor and Works Progress Administration funding, Roanoke Island managed to build a new outdoor theatre for Green, specifically designed to house the massive spectacle he envisioned, which would blend music, dance, pantomime, and poetic dialogue into one larger than life production, typically historical in nature.

In 1937, the play, entitled the Lost Colony, debuted at Waterside Theatre in Manteo, North Carolina. While the play was originally intended to last for only one summer, public demand and the attendance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself ensured the drama would become a yearly production. The success of the Lost Colony quickly garnered further commissions for Green from all over the southern United States, where specialty amphitheaters would be built specifically for his shows. Other Symphonic dramas by Green include The Common Glory (telling the story of American Revolution), The Founders (concerning the struggles of the Jamestown settlers) at Lake Matoaka, Virginia, Cross and Sword, (the official State Play of Florida, depicting the 400 year history of Florida from its colonization to the present day) at the St. Augustine’s Amphitheatre, and TEXAS, a massive pageant held at the Palo Duro Canyon Pioneer Amphitheatre in Canyon, Texas. Green is widely acknowledge as the father of this movement, though there have been many others, including authors like Kermit Hunter (author of Horn in the West and Unto These Hills, two long running Symphonic Dramas in North Carolina) and Randolph Umberge, who have taken up Green's mantle to contribute multiple outdoor dramas to their states. In the present day, more than fifty of these historically based plays, including five of Green’s original seventeen, are performed annually across the United States in outdoor amphitheaters near where their actual events took place.

But what do these dramas actually look like? While there are thousands of outdoor performances across the United States each year, only those that follow a unique set of principles get to qualify as Symphonic Outdoor Dramas. In their conception, they are something of a mixture of the pageants of Europe in the Middle Ages, such as the passion play at Oberammergau, Germany, and the pageants of the the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These pageants were not exactly plays, but they showed a series of scenes and tableaus in which historical events followed one another. Yet, size and being performed in the outdoors do not alone make a symphonic drama. To begin with, Symphonic Dramas focus primarily on historical events that happened near their place of performance, and as a result most Symphonic Drama theaters are built near the point of history, with a specific show in mind. This is to connect the audience on a more intimate level with the play, story, stage, and actors. This is an important part of the story telling, as different productions showcase the rich history of the area to both tourists and locals alike. Indeed, the real advantage of the outdoor drama is the element of nature, as most shows occur under an open sky in the summer, and are often attended by thousands of people.

As many of the spaces built for Symphonic Drama are designed to house vast multitudes, the need for crowd-pleasing spectacle is exceptionally important. Indeed, many of these unique spectacles are only possible in the outdoor setting Symphonic Drama provides. A prime example of the lengths to which Symphonic Drama can outpace Broadway is in The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, in which over 90 actors and actresses, horses, sheep, mules and donkey’s perform on a stage the size of a football field, culminating in a shoot-out and the actual burning of a log cabin.

Another key, and distinctly American, element of the Symphonic drama is the use of music and dance. Large casts often fill the stage for not only crowd scenes but also song and dance numbers. Most of these dramas have at least one “settler” dance in which white characters celebrate together through reels, jigs, and/or square dances, as well as a “native” dance in which the Indian characters perform a variation on “ritualistic-esque” choreography. These numbers usually involve fire, either with characters dancing around a fire or through the use of fire batons. However, what makes the Symphonic Drama unique from say, your average Broadway musical, is the prospect of participation amongst audience members, which is heartily encouraged at every step of the Symphonic Drama production process. From the sewing of the costumes to intermissions, where guests are encouraged onto the set to take part in a square dance with the cast and to visit with the characters, inclusivity and the elements of the local community make Symphonic Drama a true community theatre.

Because of its similarity to more superficial pageants, symphonic outdoor drama has never received much critical recognition; this is one reason Green’s reputation as a dramatist is not high. Scholars of Broadway, due to its removal from the New York and even regional theatre circuit, often ignore the impact and resilience of Symphonic Drama. However, the Symphonic Drama is just as musical and American as any other commercial production. Indeed, some scholars, such as Philip G. Hill, say it is an American branch of epic drama still in its formative period, and its true impact has yet to be measured. No one can argue that these shows are not impactful, as many of them run for thousands of tourists every summer, and have been going on for upwards of 30 to 40 years, more than can be said for most Broadway shows. Indeed, in 2013, The Lost Colony, Green’s original symphonic drama, was awarded the Special Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theater. But perhaps the best statements attesting to the lasting power of the symphonic drama are the words of Green himself:

“This type of drama which I have elected to call symphonic seems to be fitted to the needs and dramatic genius of the American people. Our richness of tradition, our imaginative folk life, our boundless enthusiasm and health, our singing and dancing and poetry, our lifted hearts and active feet and hands, even our multitudinous mechanical and machine means for self-expression-all are too outpouring for the narrow confines of the usual professional and killingly expensive Broadway play and stage. But they can be put to use in the symphonic drama and its theater. It is wide enough, free enough, and among the people cheap enough for their joy and popular use.”

In conclusion, Symphonic Drama isn’t going anywhere…quite literally because it can’t be moved.

Bibliography:

King, Kimball. Western drama through the ages: a student reference guide. Greenwood Press, 2007.

Watson, Charles S. History of Southern Drama. University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Green, Paul, and Laurence G. Avery. A Paul Green reader. Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998.

“Bringing the Outdoor "Indoors".” Bringing the Outdoor Indoors, blog.ecu.edu/sites/outdoortheatre/.

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