By Derek Liebig
A fictional character who dined with the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, sailed the seas with Christopher Columbus, witnessed the Battle of Valcour and lent Horace Greeley a helping hand is now helping local youths learn about theater and Whitehall history.
“Summer Theater with Johnny Vic” is a free children’s theater program run by the Arts and Recreation Commission of Whitehall. Participating students write and stage a historical play about Whitehall.
The program is led by Ann Duncan, author of the Johnny Vic series of novels.
“We’re using Martin Kelly’s play ‘Whither Whitehall’ and interjecting Johnny Vic into the story,” Duncan said during a recent rehearsal.
The play, titled “Johnny Vic’s Whitehall Adventure,” will be set in historic Whitehall during the 1800s.
“Johnny Vic has a magical metal detector and when he scans something the air explodes into a kaleidoscope of color and he’s transported back into time,” Duncan said.
She was reluctant to reveal too much about the plot, wanting to keep it a surprise, but did say that Whitehall had some very large and exciting fairs during the 19th century that Johnny Vic will visit during the play.
Along the way he will meet several historical figures, including New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley and famed English novelist Charles Dickens.
She is also working with the Whitehall historical society and Carol Senecal to come up with a list of Civil War veterans from Whitehall that would be integrated into the production.
“It’s a great chance for kids to learn about history. So much of what kids learn about American history today is inaccurate. I wanted to do something to teach them about our history and remind them we’re a good nation,” Duncan said.
The program has also been an opportunity for kids to learn more about the different aspects of theater.
Besides the obvious acting and singing you would expect from a staged play, the kids are given the chance to tailor the lines to their specific talents and assist in the creating the productions theatrical background.
“We’re having lots of fun with scenery. The kids are enlarging drawings and using them to create props,” Duncan said.
About ten youths, mostly from Whitehall, have meet at Cooke’s Island Recreation Center every Thursday since July 14 and rehearsed their lines, fine-tuned their singing and played out some of the stories scenes.
They are joined by Colin Thompson who will be the production’s narrator. Thompson starred in last year’s production of “Crossroads to Freedom.”
At a recent rehearsal, kids gathered on stage and received instructions from Duncan.
Hands-on, Duncan sung one of the songs she wrote for the play to the children, illustrating which notes needed to be emphasized and the tempo of the song.
She also offered words of encouragement and relayed her own experiences on stage, telling them how she was very shy as a kid and actually passed out before a performance.
“I know what it’s like to be on a stage,” she said. “You have to forget you have an audience.”
The kids seemed to heed that advice as the morning wore on showing steady improvement with every repetition of the play’s opening song.
“Theater is all about repetition,” she told the cast.
Dave Mohn, managing director of the ARCW, said he was looking to add a children’s program when Bob Gendron, who serves on the organizations board of directors, suggested Duncan.
A Poultney, Vt., resident who grew up in Ticonderoga, Duncan worked in journalism and public relations before her husband suggested she begin writing.
She based the Johnny Vic character on her treasure hunting brother, John Victor Pulling, who owns the rights to the historic Moore Creek Gold Mine in Alaska.
The stories follow the exploits of a young boy with a magical metal detector who travels through time meeting significant historical figures.
The books have received praise for their ability to get kids excited about history, Duncan said.
“Summer Theater with Johnny Vic” will stage a public performance at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26 at Cooke’s Island Recreation Center.
To make reservations, call the ARCW at 499-2435 or 499-0687.