Historians Get Into Character, Teach History Around Arizona
If you could meet someone - anyone - from the past, who would you choose? Maybe you’d pick the brain of a great politician, or get to know a favorite author. Or, how about a nice chat with the first woman to hold the title of Territorial Historian of Arizona?
Her name was Sharlot Mabridth Hall. She was born October the 27th in 1870. Today, she’s portrayed by Jody Drake, who lives in Prescott. Drake has spent the past 20 years studying and portraying Sharlot Hall, an Arizona icon who lived in Prescott when it was the territory’s capital.
I went up there to meet with her at the courthouse square, just down the street from the Sharlot Hall Museum. It’s a busy intersection, full of cars and bikes, but Drake looked like she just arrived in a covered wagon. She dressed in character, with a long skirt and brown, brimmed hat. She’s full of knowledge about Hall’s life. She said she owes that to Hall herself.
“No other historical character in Arizona, particularly Yavapai County, left the volumes that Sharlot left,” Drake said.
Sharlot Hall was a writer and a collector. She’s well-known for her efforts to preserve Arizona’s early history. But Drake wants her audiences to understand that Hall was also a frontier woman, in the most rugged sense.
“Me and Pa, we’re men, you bet. And we can cuss and chew and spit. I can spit as far as Pa, roll a wad ‘round in my jaw, ‘til it was the mumps you’d think I had,” Drake recited.
At the same time, Hall was a well-spoken poet. Drake recited one of her favorite lines from the poem “Arizona.”
“Arizona is a fair, browned, queenly woman, strong to create, or destroy.”
Drake aims to deliver the character, and let the historical context fill in the space around her, but she said when she first started it was a hard thing to do.
“Oh it was terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible,” she said. “I was trying to pack so much into it, that it had become fact-ridden.”
Drake was wearing the right clothes, but she wasn’t Sharlot Hall. Not yet. Then she had a realization.
“Oh my gosh, I have been hiding the woman with all of the facts that I was so desperate to get in. And I just dropped back and came out as the woman, and it was a real turning point,” Drake said. “You don’t know history when it’s just dates and places. You know history when you get to know the people who made history.”
Jody Drake is a participant in the Arizona Humanities History Alive! program, which is introducing audiences to the people who made history in Arizona. Program manager Ellie Hutchison said the point is to reach new people.
“The way to engage communities has been to bring it alive,” Hutchison said. “We have that presentation format, you have the panel discussion format, you have the whatever. But who’s being left out of that are the people who don’t normally come to the table for those things.”
History Alive! actors travel around the state in character. Right now the cohort is small; about four people do it regularly. Hutchison said they’re working this year to expand it, and she wants to see applications from younger actors, too.
“College and high-school-aged individuals who can be molded and guided by a humanities scholar and/or their history teacher and give them an opportunity to portray one of these historical figures. So that way we’re reaching younger audiences and including them as opposed to just presenting to them,” Hutchison said.
History Alive! will be in downtown Phoenix tomorrow at the historic Ellis-Shackelford House. There, you can meet Hugh Grinnell portraying his distant cousin, George Bird Grinnell, a conservationist who founded the first Audubon Society. You can see Jody Drake as Sharlot Hall next Tuesday.