Big top drama: ACT brings award-winning true story to local stage

The nearly 100-year-old fate of a circus elephant is at the center of a one-act drama coming to the local stage.

Altoona Community Theatre will present the “Elephant’s Graveyard” April 12 and 13 at the Things Unseen Theatre’s The Church in the Middle of the Block in?Altoona.

The drama is based on a true story, said director Steven C. Helsel, who also serves as ACT operations manager.

In 1916, in the town of Erwin, Tenn., the townspeople insisted on killing a Sparks World Famous Shows circus elephant named “Mary,” the “world’s largest living land animal” at the time, after she killed her new trainer, he said. The trainer was riding the elephant’s back and hitting her tusk, which he didn’t know was infected, with an elephant hook. The elephant then threw him from her back and stomped the man to death.

“The circus knew they weren’t going to be able to go anywhere else with a killer elephant, and so they allowed the town to make the decision about what to do with the elephant, and the town … decided that they would gain notoriety by being the first and only city in America to ever lynch an elephant. Because lynchings were very commonplace then and almost kind of entertainment,” Helsel said. People would dress in their “Sunday best” and bring a picnic to lynchings, he added.

The drama looks at “mob mentality” and is written in a narrative with the cast telling the story, he said.

“People are a little bothered by it, I think, by the subject matter, but, I think, they find the piece very interesting and very dramatic,” Helsel said. “The thing I like about it is it takes the art of theater back to the very basics of what it is, and that’s story telling.”

Nathan Rupp, 10, plays Young Townsperson in the drama.

The C.W. Longer Elementary School student started acting at age 2 and played Tiny Tim in an ACT production of the “Christmas Carol.”

His character has happy dreams of the elephant at first, but then his last line speaks of nightmares, Rupp said.

The drama is “very sad, but interesting at the same time,” he said. “It starts out all happy, and there’s this elephant coming, this big elephant, and then it goes sad at the end for the youngest townsperson to see the elephant be killed in front of him.”

Tom Liszka, 64, Altoona, plays Ring Master in the production.

“He’s a person who likes the limelight and likes the adulation and fame that a circus can bring,” Liszka said.

The drama is “a study in a lot of different personalities both from the circus and from the townsfolk side and their different reactions to it,” Liszka said. “The elephant was very dear to several people in the circus. And the townspeople, it was excitement, but then it sort of represented a criminal [act] and a blotch on their integrity, I suppose.”

Liszka, who has acted on and off since high school, gave praise.

“It’s a very, very moving play,” he said. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in.”

Tara Enedy, 40, of Hollidaysburg plays Muddy Townsperson.

“The more we do this show, the more I find this to be a beautifully written piece of theater,” she said. “It’s disturbing subject matter, for sure, but under the direction of Steve and with the way the playwright wrote the drama, it’s really beautiful and moving.”

The local production recently snagged several awards at the 2013 Pennsylvania Association of Community Theatres Festival, held in Ridley Park in March.

They won second place for Outstanding Production, which earned them a spot in the Eastern State Theatre Association’s regional competition later this month in Rome, N.Y. They will go up against theaters from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New York for a spot to compete in the American Association of Community Theatre’s national festival held in June in Carmel, Ind.

Hamilton-Gibson Productions, Wellsboro, took first in the state competition with its production of “Rounding Third.”

“Elephant’s Graveyard” also received an award for technical achievement and ensemble acting. Helsel brought home the director’s award. Actors Rupp, Susan Brandt and Michael Manfred won individual acting awards.

The judges are only required to award a first and second place and a director’s award, Helsel said. The other awards are given at the judges’ discretion, he said.

“So the fact that we won seven out of the 12 awards, two of the required ones and then the rest were discretionary, I thought was really kind of telling of how much they liked the piece,” Helsel said.

With special permission from the playwright, the production was scaled back from its original length of about 75 minutes to less than 60 minutes for the competition, Helsel said.

“It’s a very different kind of piece for us to do because it’s not the kind of thing that would normally go into our season, and that’s the good thing about participating in competitions like this, it gives you a real chance to stretch artistically,” Helsel said. “And it gives you a chance to be evaluated and to hear the judges commentary.”

Marsha L. Amato-Greenspan, vice president, festivals/treasurer, for the Pennsylvania Association of Community Theatres board of directors, said in an email the four theaters competing for the two spots in the regional competition were “adjudicated on 10 points of criteria with the primary focus being on the acting and directing” and “how well the production was fully realized.”

“From a personal view, I was moved by the total ensemble acting I saw on the stage,” she said. “ACT presented a challenging piece that moved everyone in the audience. As Vice President of Festivals, I am proud to see ‘Elephant’s Graveyard’ and ‘Rounding Third’ moving on to ESTAFest 2013.”