Re-enactors' enthusiasm for the past enlivens first-person portrayals

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For many, the craft of historical re-enactment begins with simple curiosity and becomes an all-consuming passion.

"It's probably like getting into drugs," said Bryan Cunning, known for his portrayals of George Washington. "You say, 'I'll try just a little of this,' and it becomes an obsession."

As the home of many historic forts and battles, Western Pennsylvania has an abundance of people like Mr. Cunning who become immersed in stories of the past and spend countless hours and dollars to re-enact them.

A popular place to see re-enactors are public events such as Fort Ligonier Days, the three-day festival last weekend to commemorate the Battle of Fort Ligonier, fought on Oct. 12, 1758, during the French and Indian War. The battle was re-enacted Saturday and Sunday.

Mr. Cunning, a native of Washington, Pa., was attracted to the world of historical re-enactments 15 years ago when he came across a group of men at a gun show who were donning colonial garb and shooting black powder from flintlock rifles.

It looked like fun, so he bought a shirt that a man from Revolutionary times might wear -- the first purchase of the thousands of dollars he has spent on his craft -- and joined them.

The rest is history.

"Unfortunately, when you learn history in school, it's very dry," he said. "There isn't much excitement in it. People tend to have you remember more dates than what is happening or really going on.

"The re-enactments are great because the people who are participating are reading up on it all the time. They become historians, in some cases, experts."

Standing 6 feet tall with red hair, his resemblance to Washington, who also had red hair, landed him the leading role in a trilogy of films on the first president produced by Paladin Communications, a company based here.

His first film, "George Washington's First War: the Battles for Fort Duquesne," premiered in 2003. Shortly after, schools, museums, community groups and festivals began asking him to re-enact the character.

"There is some artistic license taken to it. If I were to portray Washington as he was, people would think I was very standoffish," he said. "I kind of have to let some of his true traits go so I can interact with the people I'm talking with."

Mr. Cunning has dozens of books on Washington, but pretending to be a man who fills chapters in thousands of American history textbooks is a challenge. He often relies on primary sources, such as the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, and only portrays Washington during the French and Indian War. He hopes to be able to age with his character.

For other re-enactors, finding first-person accounts of the historical figures they portray is difficult because some of those figures made it nearly impossible.

Ann Traegar, who portrays Bess Truman in a performance called "Tea With the First Ladies," said the first lady was disenchanted with the media after she was offended by newspaper coverage of her father's suicide. The wife of the country's 33rd president, Harry Truman, held only one press conference in her tenure in the White House and, in an attempt to protect her privacy, she was careful to burn every letter she wrote to her husband before she died.

Nonetheless, Ms. Traegar has found enough material on her character, and in the process of reading books and articles, the Trumans' love story enchanted her.

"I fell madly in love with Harry Truman," Ms. Traegar said with a laugh. The president said he fell in love with his wife when he first met her in Sunday school.

The program is the brainchild of Phyllis Gerber, a North Huntingdon resident and teacher. She said it began when a male friend asked who she was voting for in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

"I said, 'For God's sakes, I'm a feminist, who do you think I'm going to vote for?'" Ms. Gerber recalled, referring to Hillary Clinton. "Then he said, 'She was only a first lady, what could she know about running a country?' "

The question not only irritated her, it put her creative mind into overdrive, and she came up with an idea of bringing the first ladies back to life to educate people like her friend.

"What would three first ladies talk about if they met for tea?" she wondered. "What would happen if they met for a formal discussion without being bound to their offices?"

Without hesitation, Ms. Gerber, also known as Mary Todd Lincoln, said she reached out to her friends from the McKeesport Little Theater. Ms. Traegar of Mt. Lebanon would play Bess Truman, and Janet Robb of Port Vue would become Eleanor Roosevelt.

"They are such talented ladies and I knew the quality of their work and they would do anything to find the essence of our women," she said.

Ms. Traeger said her husband was very ill at the time and an opportunity to get back into theater took her mind off her troubles.

Ms. Robb, a retired teacher, looked forward to the challenge of playing Eleanor Roosevelt and portraying the "ugly duckling" turned adept and deeply admired politician, including her voice, which at times was nervous and strained.

The women researched their own characters for nearly six months before they began to craft a script with opening monologues by each first lady followed by an often light-hearted discussion.

"I thought I would have to open my brain and stick it in there," Ms. Robb said of her studies on Roosevelt. "But because it was fascinating and you become so passionate, it stuck to you."

The most difficult aspect of the role for Ms. Gerber was boiling down all of the written materials on Lincoln and determining what would best fit into the context on their hour-long show.

For Ms. Robb and Ms. Traegar, their more modern characters posed the challenge of balancing public perception with reality.

"It was scary because people knew her and I was worried about the comparisons," Ms. Robb said of Roosevelt. "I didn't want to disappoint anyone."

Thus far, it doesn't appear that they have.

When invited to the tea outing by Roosevelt, Truman responds: "I shall be delighted to attend," before turning and saying to herself, "and as comfortable as a prostitute in church." The line always garners laughs from the crowd.

Not only have the women become experts on their characters, they also are fans.

When Ms. Gerber went to the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Ky., she sat in the garden and walked through the house in awe.

"I had goose bumps because I knew I was walking where Mary Todd Lincoln walked," she said.

The women, who perform almost anywhere they are invited, including community centers, local theaters and colleges, have fun with the act and hope to expand it in the future.

"It's been a passionate journey for us that's made us grow as friends and actresses, too," Ms. Gerber said.

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Taryn Luna: or 412-263-1985. First Published October 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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