Seeing may not be believing in every case, but it can be informative and enlightening, in the case of the West Virginia Humanities Council’s History Alive! program.
From pioneers and statesmen to a beloved 20th century cartoonist and a bombastic Grand Ole Opry mainstay, actors from around the state bring famous figures to life at the History Alive! first-person presentations around West Virginia.
The presenters engage in scholarly research on their selected characters and share aspects of their historical importance in the programs.
Each History Alive! program has three components: a 15- to 25-minute monologue where the character introduces the historical, social and political issues that influenced his or her life; a discussion with the actor still in character, which provides the audience opportunities to interact and inquire about the character (10 to 15 minutes); and a discussion with the presenter in which he or she can talk about his or her research at greater length.
Presentations are available for $150 to nonprofit and for-profit organizations throughout the Mountain State. Last year, more than 150 History Alive! programs were staged at schools, libraries, museums, historical societies and civic group gatherings, as well as festivals, associations, parks, businesses and other venues.
“It’s one of our longest running programs,” West Virginia Humanities Council executive director Eric Waggoner said. “The History Alive! program is a Chautauqua-style speaker series and has been offered by the West Virginia Humanities Council year-round since 1999. Some characters are connected specifically to West Virginia, while others represent broader American history.”
Waggoner said the History Alive! program has averaged more than 140 presentations in more than 50 state counties annually over the past five years.
“It is also our most mobile program,” he said, “able to easily serve both the smallest communities and largest population centers throughout the state.
“The Council holds auditions for the roster every other year, with 2020 being an audition year; we expect to send out a request for proposals before the end of 2019. Performers develop their presentations through independent research,” Waggoner said.
The West Virginia Humanities Council can also provide teachers with materials of suggested classroom activities to correspond to the History Alive! presentation.
A recent addition to the History Alive! roster of re-enactors is the late “Peanuts” comic strip creator and cartoonist Charles Schulz. Schulz is portrayed by James Froemel of Maidsville.
Along with Froemel’s Schulz, History Alive characters available for bookings include:
Gabriel Arthur, 17th century frontiersman, portrayed by Doug Wood of Hurricane
Nellie Bly, 19th century reporter, portrayed by JoAnn Peterson of Kingwood
Benjamin Franklin, founding father, portrayed by Leon Alexander of Charleston
Stonewall Jackson, Civil War general, portrayed by Doug Riley of Tunnelton
Ostenaco, Cherokee leader, portrayed by Doug Wood of Hurricane
Minnie Pearl, country comedienne, portrayed by Denise Giardina of Charleston
Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady and activist, portrayed by Patty Cooper of Vienna
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, portrayed by Gene Worthington of Fayetteville
Sacagawea, Native American guide and translator to the Lewis & Clark expedition, portrayed by Mary Dailey of Meadow Bridge
Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad leader, portrayed by Ilene Evans of Thomas
Mark Twain, American literary icon, portrayed by Doug Riley of Tunnelton
Retired Catholic priest Alexander has portrayed Benjamin Franklin for several years, starting as the Founding Father in a Charleston Light Opera Guild presentation of “1776” more than a decade ago and later reprising the role in a Morgantown production of the musical.
“That triggered my interest in Colonial history, especially about Franklin,” Alexander said in a February Metro West article. “I decided I would like to start doing a one-man presentation of Benjamin Franklin. I started out on my own, then I applied and auditioned with the West Virginia Humanities Council and got put under contract for History Alive! roughly five years ago.”
He performed as Franklin approximately 10 times in 2018, adding some background about his character he gleaned in his research that most history books have overlooked.
“Benjamin Franklin had a very interesting life. He loved to swim. In fact, he invented swim fins. Even into his later years, if he was able to find a pond or river, he would swim — and he taught himself how to swim,” Alexander said in the article.
Alexander and other History Alive! actors have presented programs over the past five summers at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in St. Albans. He also gave his Franklin program in March at the Hansford Senior Center in St. Albans and at a series of fundraisers for the Shakespeare Studio in Montgomery in March and April, which also featured Giardina as Minnie Pearl and Worthington as Teddy Roosevelt.
Waggoner said 24 more History Alive! programs are scheduled through the end of the year, with new bookings being made weekly.
Additional information on all the History Alive! characters and how to schedule a presentation can be found at wvhumanities.org or by contacting the West Virginia Humanities Council at 304-346-8500.