Tales from the prairie

Stories of settlers drive KU professor's plays

Marianne Kubik didn't know much about the prairie before signing on to direct and choreograph "Prairie Fire," a pair of new plays for Kansas Summer Theatre.

The plays, written by KU theater professor John Gronbeck-Tedesco, are based on reminiscences and oral histories about early Kansas history. Kubik, who grew up on the East Coast, was especially surprised by the spaciousness of the Kansas landscape and the struggle of immigrants who settled here.


Aaron Lindberg/Journal World Photo

From Left, Hannah Ballou, Sara Armstrong and Aaron Champion run through a scene from John Gronbeck-Tedesco's play "Prairie Fire," which is based on stories about immigrants who settled in Kansas.

"I didn't grow up faced with such vastness, such a sense of infinity, that the landscape here evokes," said Kubik, KU assistant professor of theater. "It feels like miles of freedom and serenity.

"I can imagine how, 150 years ago, this landscape might appear overwhelming, even daunting, to the immigrants traveling west in search of fertile land and greater hope. Life then was mostly a struggle � with the elements, with the land, and with one's own fear of this struggle. But they managed to survive, and their determination has now become the foundation for the culture and tradition that exists in this part of the country today."

Set on the tallgrass prairie of northeast Kansas, the plays tell the story of the Fultons, a family of Irish immigrants who comes to the territory in 1854 and lives in a sod house.

As part of his research, Gronbeck-Tedesco interviewed people in Topeka, Holton, Easton, Oskaloosa, Wichita, Valley Falls, Humboldt, Winchester, Leavenworth, Oberlin, Sharon Springs, Lawrence and other towns about their families and communities.

But Gronbeck-Tedesco's works are not your usual historical sagas. A contemporary astronaut appears in both plays and chides the family to get over their struggles and get on with their lives so he can be born in the future.

"The astronaut is on a mission but he can't do it unless (the immigrants) survive," Kubik said. "He comes back (in time) not to take them by the hand but to say, 'Get on with it and get through it.' It's a way of saying to the audience to look back and see how the insignificant things in life are responsible for the major things in our history."

In the first play, "Lift Off," the Fultons learn to survive by hiring themselves out, by bartering with neighbors and by using new methods of farming. They meet an eclectic mix of immigrants of various ethnic and religious backgrounds. The family has to separate for the summer to earn money elsewhere but reunite knowing they made it through their first winter. Also, a chorus of pioneers tells stories about living on the prairie.

The second play, "Flight & Denouement," takes place six years later and the Fulton family is better off, but in debt. Their son joins the Pony Express to earn money. A chorus of riders and ponies tell about the experiences and fearlessness of the riders.

Kubik said Gronbeck-Tedesco's plays are also a thank-you to the immigrants who created the culture and traditions of Kansas.

"Prairie Fire" will be staged as part of Kansas Summer Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday-July 14 and July 19-21 in Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall at Kansas University.Talkbacks with playwright John Gronbeck-Tedesco, director Marianne Kubik, Lawrence historian Steve Jansen and the cast will be offered after the two Saturday performances.Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for students and $9 for senior citizens.Tickets are available at the Murphy Hall Box Office, 864-3982; Lied Center Box Office, 864-ARTS; Student Union Activities Box Office, 864-3477; and online at www.kutheatre.com.

"It's a tender way of looking at them," she said. "The visual imagery is beautiful, and the dialogue is musical. It's heart-wrenching and it's funny."

The final two plays in the "Prairie Fire" series take the Fulton family into the 20th century and may be staged at KU.

Music for "Prairie Fire" will be provided on-stage by the Euphoria Stringband, a Lawrence-based quartet.


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