Hello again, Readers!
Thank you for joining me for another week of our Behind the Scenes Blog! As most of you know, I have worked as a company member with Unto These Hills for the last six seasons. Today I am bringing you the story of how I came to work with this wonderful organization!
Since I was very young I had always been curious about working in theatre as a playwright and actor. Summer afternoons and evenings were spent in the backyard with my sister Kaley*. Together we performed original plays for an audience of our supportive parents. We spent hours carefully piecing together costumes, creating plot points, and scrawling out pieces of dialogue from the moment that we first learned to write. I would like to think that our production quality was quite strong given our limited resources and the fact that we were only 5 years old. There was nothing I liked better than performing under the open sky as the sun set behind the trees each summer night. Kaley and I had no other family members that worked in theater or any other fields involving the arts, but the two of us always knew that we loved telling stories.
My first exposure to Unto These Hills came when I was in the fourth grade. I remember studying about North Carolina history including some of its most notable residents and landmarks. From my studies in school, I learned that the state was home to several historical outdoor dramas. At age 9 I wrote a letter to the Cherokee Historical Association asking for copies of their brochures to include in my school project about the state of North Carolina. I remember how proud I was to place brochures for both Unto These Hills and the Oconaluftee Indian Village in the binder that housed my school project. I stood before my fourth grade class and showed off the information I had collected about the Drama and Village, reciting the details as though I had visited each of them a thousand times. After I discovered the existence of Unto These Hills, I tried repeatedly to convince my parents to take us to Cherokee to see the show! Cherokee, NC was a long way from my central North Carolina home and before we knew it, the summers of my childhood slipped away so we never made it out to see the show. Perhaps the largest part of my interest in seeing the show stemmed from the fact that I am Native American*. Even at such a young age, it was incredible to me that an entire play existed that was dedicated to telling the story of the Cherokee. As I grew up (especially as I began working in theatre) I began to grow somewhat disheartened at the realization that there were so few movies, television shows or plays that presented real Native American stories or featured Native Americans as highlighted characters.
When it came time to go to college, I made the easy decision to major in Acting and Theatre Arts. My love for working in theatre, film and television only grew stronger the more I learned various aspects of what it took to create productions. My fascination with outdoor theatre flourished as we began to cover the subject of Symphonic Dramas in our theatre history classes. The Symphonic Drama is a play written about true historic events and is performed at the actual site or area in which that same historic event took place. I attended Campbell University which also happened to be the alma mater of notable playwright, Paul Green. Mr. Green penned a number of famed historical outdoor dramas including The Lost Colony (Manteo, NC) and The Stephen Foster Story (Bardstown, KY). Paul Green has been credited with inventing the genre of Symphonic Drama and is known as the father to this special genre of outdoor theatre. I had only one outdoor theater credit under my belt when I decided to audition at the annual Institute of Outdoor Theatre* auditions after I graduated from CU. This audition was an opportunity to be considered by a number of reputable outdoor theatre companies…and much to my delight, this included a shot at being considered for a role in Unto These Hills!
The day of the audition finally came. Kaley was auditionee number 109 and I followed directly after her as number 110 out of hundreds of others. I was nervous but mostly excited at the thought that I would perhaps be spending my summer working for an outdoor theatre company. Just before I delivered my monologue, I tapped into a place of extreme focus and calm. I closed my eyes and whispered to myself “Go for it.” You can imagine the joy that Kaley and I felt later that day when we spotted both of our audition numbers listed underneath the Unto These Hills call back list! We found ourselves sitting in the show’s call back room filled with a number of other actors as well as several representatives from the company. I had a knowing feeling in the pit of my stomach: I was going to get this job.
Just a few days later, both Kaley and I received job offers from Artistic Director Marina Hunley-Graham* for the 2013 season of Unto These Hills. We were thrilled! I couldn’t wait for our rehearsals to begin that May! Our first day arrived in a flash. We packed our car and headed to Cherokee, chatting the entire time about all the possibilities that the summer would have in store for us. As we opened the show that summer, I made a connection that I was doing what I had done so many times as a young child. I was playing and telling stories under the beautiful, open night sky once again. I made so many terrific friends that first summer. The impact of performing in the show made a lasting impression on me. I loved meeting so many children that were seeing Unto These Hills for the first time, just like I had wanted to do all those years ago. Six seasons later, I’ve continued to work with other theater companies and film productions, but my summers have been spent sharing the all-important story of Unto These Hills. I am hoping that those of you reading my story have seen the show in recent years or plan to see a performance soon. I have always known that my biggest passion in life is storytelling. Thank you for allowing me to share my own story with you today.
*Kara Morrison is a stage/screen actress, writer and artist. Kara also works as part of Cherokee Historical Association’s office staff. Kara's new, original play, The Dinner Hour was recently produced by Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh, NC as part of their Oakwood Cemetery Series. Please join us again soon for Kara’s latest blog post!
*Kaley Morrison performed in Unto These Hills during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Kaley is a stage and screen actress, educator and is the Director of Education for Burning Coal Theatre Company
*Kara is an Enrolled member of the Waccamaw Siouan Tribe.
*The Institute of Outdoor Theatre was founded in 1963 and hosts annual auditions in the month of January. To learn more please visit www.outdoor-theatre.org
*Marina Hunley-Graham first joined Unto These Hills as artistic director in 2012. Marina is originally from West Virginia where she served as artistic director of Theatre West Virginia for over 20 years. She is also an active director, performance teacher and is founder of the Mountainside Theatre Performing Arts School in Cherokee, NC.
Spotlight: DJ Williams
Welcome Back, Readers!
Since I last posted to the blog so many great things have happened! After three strenuous weeks of rehearsal for Unto These Hills we finally opened to the public on Saturday, June 2nd! Our audiences are gracious, engaged and we’ve been so full of excitement to perform each night! Now that the show is open, I am very proud and pleased to present some new content for all of you awesome readers! This week begins the first of many Company Member Featurettes in which I share an exclusive glimpse into the duties, talents and lives of some of my wonderful teammates. I hope that you have made plans to get your tickets for the 2018 Season*! My first Featurette is all about a dedicated Unto These Hills veteran, DJ Williams.
I’ve made many, many friends throughout my years spent with Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama and I often reflect on the memories I have made with each of them. One of those dear friends is a gifted actor and dancer, DJ Williams. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with DJ since he first joined the cast in 2015. Over the years I have watched him evolve and take on several new challenges. He began with UTH as an actor/dancer/combatant. In 2017 he became the show’s iconic lead eagle dancer and beginning this season he adds Dance Captain to his list of credits. DJ graduated earlier this year from nearby Western Carolina University where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre and minored in Dance. DJ is a warmhearted young man and we’re so lucky that he calls Unto These Hills home.
Q: DJ, will you please tell us a little about yourself?
A: I am from Indian Trail, NC. Outside of the Performing Arts, I enjoy playing soccer, volleyball, cheerleading, and swimming. I love the outdoors which makes working in Cherokee that much better. There are so many places to hike, tube, and whitewater raft. The beauty of Cherokee, NC brings me back every summer.
Q: How long have you been with the show?
A: This will be my fourth season with Unto These Hills. This show has given me another family to look forward to seeing every summer. I have made so many lifelong friends because of this company.
Q: This year you are acting as both the Lead Eagle Dancer and the Dance Captain. What are some of your responsibilities? What does a typical day look like for you?
A: I am so excited to be reappearing as the Lead Eagle this summer. From the very first time I saw the Lead Eagle dance I knew that one day I wanted to play that part. As the dance captain this season I will work closely with the choreographer, Karyn Tomzack. I will be her second set of eyes and assist her with any choreography needs. Once the rehearsal process is over, the choreographer leaves the company, and then I pretty much take over her responsibilities. I will be in charge of making sure the dancers know their choreography, are warmed up before every show, if there are understudies that have to go in, I make sure that they are ready and comfortable, and making sure the dancers are always safe.
Q: How did you first find out about Unto These Hills? How did you become involved?
A: When I get a chance to take some time off from my busy life with Cherokee Historical Association, I love to visit Gatlinburg, TN where I can eat great food, ride some awesome coasters at Dollywood, or lounge by the pool at Splash Country. One of my favorite places to visit is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. Every time I go I have a different experience and I’m always eager to go on a new adventure. This summer I would love to go whitewater rafting in Nantahala with some of my cast mates.
Q: Will you tell me about a great experience you’ve had with an audience member at Unto These Hills?
A: I have had several great experiences with audience members since I started with the company, but one experience has stuck with me for quite some time: It was my week to go up for meet and greet (“Meet and Greet” allows audience members to meet members of the cast as they leave the theater for the evening) and I decided to wear my Lead Eagle costume. I had a young boy maybe five or six years old run over to me, give me the biggest hug, and said, “you were my favorite part of the show”. That moment made me smile so much. I always think about that moment before I do any type of performance because no matter how tired I am there is someone out here who is expecting a great performance, and that is exactly what they will get with Unto These Hills.
Q: What does this show mean to you? What do you hope audience members take away from the experience?
A: This show means so many different things to me. First off, this is such a powerful show with an even powerful message. Every summer I learn something new about Cherokee history and Cherokee culture and how beautiful it truly is. This show has helped me helped me open not only my heart, but also my mind to new experiences, new cultures, and new ideas. That is exactly what I would love for the audience to walk away with after seeing this show.
Q: What excites you most about being in the cast again this year?
A: I am so thrilled to get back to the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains. Dancing at the Mountainside Theatre is one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of performing. I am also happy to see the youth company this summer. Seeing the kids be so excited about performing brings me so much joy. I love being a role model for the younger company.
Q: What do you most appreciate about working in Cherokee?
A: There are so many things that I appreciate about working in Cherokee, but the thing that I appreciate the most is that the Cherokee stay very true to their culture. I feel that so many people in this country are afraid to hold onto their roots and beliefs, but I love how strong the Cherokee Nation is as a whole.
Q: Do you have any fun creative or performance projects coming up?
A: On April 28 I will be competing at the 2018 Cheerleading Worlds with my International Level 5 team, Charlotte Allstars Teal. We are hoping to bring home a globe and rings this year.
Many thanks go to DJ Williams for being our first featured company member of the season! Thanks also to Anne Wilson our 2018 Summer Social Media Intern for providing photos for this week's post! Season dates for "Unto These Hills" are June 2 - August 18, 2018. Need Tickets? Visit www.cherokeehistorical.org or call our box office at 828-497-2111 for tickets and show information.
Kara Morrison is a stage and screen actress, an artist and writer. Kara also works as part of Cherokee Historical Association's Office Staff. Please join us again soon for Kara's latest blog post!
Our Work is Not for the Faint of Heart...
Why is it that the hours that form a Sunday seem to slip by faster than any other day of the week? Sundays are the single day off for the actors and technicians of Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama. I spent the first two Sundays of the season just having lunch with a few of my fellow castmates in the nearby city of Sylva. A meal with friends can be so relaxing after a heavy work load. Monday May 21 marked the beginning of the second week of rehearsals. With the first section of rehearsals under our belt, my mind drifted to the thought of our opening night which seems to be approaching ever faster. We may feel a great deal of fatigue right now but we continue to push through each day with our aching muscles and faded voices. Knowing that our first audiences will soon fill our theater only builds excitement and revitalizes our energy. However, by Monday night’s end, the entire company had grown eerily quiet as we exited the theatre for the evening.
I made my way home that night and began to reflect on that day’s events. I thought about how diligently my fellow company members had been working on the show. As I walked I watched the light from our rehearsal hall pour from the building’s tall windows. Inside several moving figures created shadows that spilled across the pavement. Our dancers had assembled to practice their choreography immediately after they were released for the evening. I smiled and looked on with pride at their drive and initiative. Next I paused to think about our team of talented and devoted technicians and directors that were undoubtedly still at the theater working late into the night.
To work with any theatre company can be challenging and it is often said that working in outdoor theater is not for the faint of heart. We work under the heat of the sun, in the rain and we go long days in order to make sure that each unique element is coming together to create the best production possible. We always press on for the sake of the story – performing Unto These Hills not only presents the opportunity to entertain all who attend, but it also allows us the opportunity to educate audiences about a tragic time that changed this place and its people forever. To say that the telling of this story is important is a vast understatement, and all people that work on Unto These Hills are carrying the weight and duty of teaching this crucial part of history. When the going gets tough, we at Unto These Hills have to get tougher – we have more great work to do.
*Kara Morrison is a stage/screen actress, artist and writer. Kara also serves as Cherokee Historical Association's Group Sales & Box Office Manager, and is a part of CHA's social media team. Please join us again next weekend for Kara's latest blog post!
"Before you know it, the Summer will be gone..."
It was strange to think of how quickly the next several months would flash by for the company members of Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama. The 2018 cast, crew and creative team gathered together as a whole for the first time recently at Mountainside Theatre on a warm, beautiful May evening. This year would mark my 6th season with the production so I knew that Marion's words about our Summer were all too true. Each Summer I've spent in Cherokee, NC seemed to slip through my fingers - each Summer seemed to drift past me even faster than the last. Like myself, Marion Waggoner began his work as Director of Unto These Hills in the Summer of 2013. Whether you meet Marion in passing or you work with him for 6 seasons, you find that the memory of him stays with you always. As Marion says, "the devil is in the details", this applies to every moment within every scene of the show. It is Marion's vision, concept and the power behind his carefully selected words that unite the entire team and helps us to bring forth our best work for our audiences.
Each season the cast and crew of Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama only have 3 weeks to run and rehearse the show. A short rehearsal period calls for full and intensive rehearsals that begin early in the day and stretch on into the night. New company members must learn to adapt to their duties very quickly, but with the fast-paced nature of our work days and the long hours spent at theatre and rehearsal halls, new friendships begin to form in the blink of an eye. At the first company meeting, I took a moment to look at all of the new and familiar faces. Many company members are joining us for the first time, while others like our beloved Miss Lizzie have been here for decades, (46 years in Miss Lizzie's case!) I pictured all of the laughs, bonds, and memories that we would gather over the course of our Summer in Cherokee. At the conclusion of our first week of rehearsals, we were tired but pleased with the progress of the show and we are looking forward to adding more elements such as costumes and props. While working on the show is thrilling and a lot of fun, we are united in our cause to share the story of the Cherokee People with audiences. We must remember to play each scene directly from the heart as Marion has taught me before, many times over.
My name is Kara* and I play Nukwadeye in the 2018 production of Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama. Please join me each week as I bring you stories from behind the scenes including features on some of our awesome cast and crew! Unto These Hills has been in production since 1950 and I feel so honored to have been asked to offer our readers this first exclusive glimpse into what it takes to share the story of the Cherokee with audiences each Summer. Visit our company blog again next weekend for new content!
Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama runs June 2 - August 18, 2018 nightly except Sundays. General, Reserved, VIP and Package tickets are available at www.cherokeehistorical.org or 828-497-2111. Package tickets offer entrance to multiple cultural attractions located in beautiful and historic Cherokee, NC.
*Marion Waggoner is a renowned theatrical director and writer and has worked with many other respected outdoor dramas. Other directing credits include The Legend of Daniel Boone (Blue Licks, KY), Tecumseh (Chillicothe, OH), Beyond the Sundown (Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation; Livingston, TX), Blue Jacket (Xenia, OH) and Hatfields and McCoys (Beckley, WV).
*Kara Morrison is a stage/screen actress, artist and writer. Kara also serves as Cherokee Historical Association's Group Sales & Box Office Manager, the Executive Assistant and is a part of CHA's social media team. Kara invites you to join us again next weekend for her latest blog post!