Category Archives: Killer Angels

An interview with Matt Fletcher

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Matt Fletcher, Producing Artistic Director of Sideshow Theatre Company, makes his Lifeline debut as the Troubadour in The Killer Angels.

Q: You’ve got a pretty prominent role as the Troubadour. Are you actually in every scene? How’d you tackle line memorization?

A: I think I am in every scene. I never really thought about it but I think that’s true. I remember during cue-to-cue in tech rehearsals not having much downtime because I bookend practically every scene in one form or another and cue much of the action. It’s interesting, too, that you use the word “memorization.” I typically hesitate to use that word, I prefer “learning” my lines. Semantics, it’s true. But in scene work, it’s easy to learn lines because you’re in scene, it’s conversation, there’s logical progression in dialogue, and there’s no need to drill lines and “memorize,” if that makes sense. At least for me. It’s organic. With this play, though, since I’m often just spewing facts, dates, and locations, and “narrating,” (or “troubadouring”) I found myself “memorizing” lines. How did I do it? Magic. Okay, not really. Basically the same way I studied for history tests. Read something aloud about ten times, looked off the page, said it without looking at the script, and 9 times out of 10, it was memorized. That was my grandaddy’s trick.

Q: Speaking of your grandaddy–you’re from Virgina, yes? Was the history of the Civil War a big part of your childhood?

A: I am from Virginia, born and raised, where your entire fourth grade year is spent learning Virginia (Civil War) history. So Grandaddy was from my mom’s side. A United Methodist minister and a damn fine actor. But Grandpa was from my dad’s side (again, semantics, but that was how they were differentiated for my brothers and me). He lived on a big farm across from where we lived in Port Republic, Virginia. His house was actually used as a hospital by both the North and the South during the Battle of Port Republic (which was part of Stonewall Jackson’s campaign through the Shenandoah Valley). It was not uncommon that Grandpa’s farm equipment would get messed up by running over a cannonball. There was this huge drawer in a bureau in the dining room full of artillery shells and bullets.

My great great grandfather, Abner Kilpatrick Fletcher, Sr., enlisted in the 10th Virginia Volunteer Infantry in 1861 as a Sgt. [Note: The 10th Virginia was actively engaged in the fighting around Culp’s Hill during the Battle of Gettysburg.] He was wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, and carried a Yankee musket ball in his side until he died in 1917. He didn’t own any slaves, but like most Virginians, he had that Virginia pride thing that can’t really be understood these days, even by me. And I’m very proud of where I came from, but we live in a different time.

Q: That’s incredible. I take it that most of the historical material from the play was already familiar to you, then? I grew up in Seattle, so I only found out that there WAS a Civil War when I read The Killer Angels novel in June.

A: Yes, I guess a bit of the historical material was familiar to me, but the nitty gritty of this particular battle was pretty fun to learn about. It’s fascinating stuff. And really fun to do on stage.

Q: There are a couple moments in the play when you’re standing in rockstar lighting playing your guitar and singing. Two part question: 1. What are you thinking to yourself in these moments? (What I’m looking for here is “I am a rockstar, I am a rockstar”), and 2. How long have you played the guitar?

A: Hahaha!! In moments like those, I think about my idol, and I ask myself: “What would The Boss do?” Actually, my thoughts in those moments are usually: “Don’t look like an idiot, don’t look like an idiot.” I’m trying very hard to not be That Guy Who Keeps Playing Guitar. I’ve never really played in front of people before, with a few drunk exceptions. I’ve always liked playing, though. Guitars are simple machines, but they can make such an amazing impact. I love simple things that can evoke complex reactions–I think we do that well in this play. Not just with guitar, but simple gestures that literally mean life or death. My brother Mike (who is a great musician) taught me some chords about a dozen years ago, and I’ve been playing ever since. I should probably be a lot better, having played that long, but I’ve never played as consistently as I have over the last 2 months or so, and now I’ve got some rockin calluses on my fingers, so hopefully I’ll keep it up.

Q: I’m glad to hear our play has given you finger calluses. Nobody ever said theatre was easy, right? Any last words you’d like to share? Do you have a favorite word?

A: This has been and continues to be an awesome experience. I get to play guitar and play war onstage with big guns, climb things and run around like a soldier–it’s like I’m 12 again. Matt Miller captained the ship very well, allowing a ton of input and really letting us take ownership of this piece. We always had a lot of smart minds in the room and we had a lot of time to flesh this thing out. We had some awesome creative sessions where Matt literally said: “Guys, I have no idea what to do here. You guys over there play with coats, you guys over there play with guns, and you guys see what you can do with these blankets. Let’s see what you come up with.” And that was great. And Karen was so generous with her willingness to make this the best possible play it could be, cutting and adding things literally up to opening night. She wasn’t precious or selfish about anything, and I admire that a lot. It’s been a luxurious and pleasurable process, and I give Lifeline a ton of credit. Great crew to work with.

Favorite word? This is going to sound precious, but I think Virginia is my favorite word. It’s just a pretty sounding word. V is a lovely letter. And it’s home, and there’s no place like home.

An interview with Jeff Shaara

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Jeff Shaara is a historical novelist, having penned eight New York Times bestsellers. He is the son of Michael Shaara, and he wrote the prequel and sequel to his father’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels, from which Lifeline’s production has been adapted by Karen Tarjan.

Q: First off, what’s the correct pronunciation of your last name?

A: Shaara rhymes with “Clara”, or, as in “share and SHAARA like”.

Q: Was American history a big part of your family, growing up?

A: History was not a part of my background, or my family. My father was a storyteller, first and foremost- when we visited Gettysburg, he knew a good story when he saw one. My own interest in the war came about as the kid who played with the toy soldiers. I read a little about Stonewall, maybe a few other things, but that was it.

Q: Your father was inspired to write “The Killer Angels” after a family vacation to Gettysburg. Were you on this vacation, and what do you remember about it?

A: The vacation to Gettysburg was in large part because of MY interest as the “Civil War kid”. We were there strictly as tourists, and I still have photographs of those days crawling all over cannons, which is what 12-year olds do. The obsession that hit my father to write that story was a surprise to him, certainly. I recall vividly making the long walk across the “Pickett’s Charge” field, and him telling me that story. I remember being on Little Round Top and hearing Chamberlain’s story–these were things he had read about prior to the visit, just to get some sense of what we were going to see. The power of that story completely changed him. But the trip was one part of a lengthy family vacation from Florida to relatives in New Jersey (we visited the 1964 World’s Fair in NY).

Q: Before you wrote the prequel and sequel to “The Killer Angels,” you had no experience as a writer. What was the transition from non-writer to bestselling author like?

A: The suggestion for me to tackle a prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels came from film director Ron Maxwell, who, speaking for Ted Turner, said that Turner was very excited by the success of the film “Gettysburg” and simply wanted to do more Civil War films. The idea was to take my father’s book and go in both directions, before and after, with many of the same characters. I would put the story together, based on the kinds of research my father had done–the actual voices of the characters. But- there was no fear on my part, because there were no expectations. We discussed that if whatever I came up with was lousy, it would go in the trash, and no one would ever know about it. It was ALWAYS about being a film, my story to be adapted to a screenplay by Maxwell. Since I was representing my father’s estate (as something of a business manager), I was dealing with Random House in NY, who now had this #1 bestseller in The Killer Angels, so in talking to them I mentioned I was writing the prequel. They suggested I send them the manuscript, which I did. Again, no expectations. The return call I got was “We don’t care if it’s a film- we like the book. We think you’re a writer. Here’s a contract.” THAT changed my life. When “Gods and Generals” came out, I was stunned that the book made its debut on the bestseller list, and throughout a 59 city book signing tour, I never could really be comfortable with the notion that G&G was MINE. It was my father’s book to write, and only by his early death was that opportunity even mine at all. It took me probably 4 books into my own career before I felt comfortable taking credit for being a writer.

Q: “Gods and Generals” is the prequel to “The Killer Angels.” What are a few of the most significant relationships or events that took place before the key players met at the Battle of Gettysburg?

A: One aspect of G&G is the “meeting” of the four principle characters when they come together on the same battlefield- Fredericksburg, in Dec. 1862. (Chamberlain, Hancock, Lee and Jackson). That was always intended, to show how each of the four, who are VERY different kinds of people, with four very different kinds of wives, how each evolves through the first two years of the war into the kinds of leaders they become. The tragedy of Stonewall Jackson’s death was by far the most difficult piece of writing I’ve had to do, because, to my surprise, I loved the man. Killing was extremely emotional for me. (I’ve had that same experience now with a few other primary characters in my other books). But the relationship between Lee and Jackson is huge to understanding the mistakes Lee makes later in the war, and the development of Hancock as a commander mirrors much of what happened throughout the Union command. Chamberlain is in many ways, my father. That made it very interesting (and fun) to explore that character.

Q: What’s a typical day for you currently? Do you have a ritual daily writing practice? What’s in the works for you now?

A: I’m a “10am to 4pm” writer. (My father was a midnight to 5am writer). It has to be very disciplined, and often, when the manuscript is underway (as my new one is right now) it’s a 7-days a week thing. I lose complete track of what day it is (I’ve actually gone to the bank, wondering why on earth they’re closed, only to realize it’s Sunday). I wouldn’t call it a “ritual”, no totems or good luck charms. But once I get going with a story, I liken it to a faucet turning on. Let it flow, don’t try to stop it, and when it DOES stop, there isn’t much you can do about it. On those occasional days when I’m just not in the mood, I’ll do something completely different- go fishing maybe. I never suffer through the process of just staring at the blank paper, the way my father did. If the words aren’t there, accept that, and come back later. I always start each day by re-reading what I wrote yesterday. I fix things, edit, make changes. It’s good to have that 24-hour separation. My new book is the 3rd of what will e a 4-book set. This one deals with Chattanooga, September thru November 1863. The primary characters include Sherman and Grant (again), plus Union General George Thomas- the Confederates are Braxton Bragg and Patrick Cleburne. The book is set to come out next May. The 4th book will deal with Sherman and Joe Johnston, from Atlanta through the end of the war in the Carolinas, a story most people (including Civil War buffs) just don’t know. I love that. After that, I’m planning on a book dealing with the War for Texas Independence- what most people think of as “The Alamo”. But that’s only a very small part of the story. Great characters.

Jeff-Shaara-2012

An interview with Karen Tarjan

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Continuing her 20-year involvement with Lifeline Theatre, Karen Tarjan is the adaptor of The Killer Angels. She is a founding member of the Beau Jest Moving Theatre of Boston, and Seanachai Theatre in Chicago. She’s also an Artistic Associate of Wildclaw Theatre and has served as Movement Director/Choreographer there.

Q: How did you begin adapting plays? What was your first adaptation?

A: My first adaptation was The Overcoat, the short story by Nikolai Gogol. I read and re-read the story over the course of several years and I had a bunch of ideas rattling around in my head. Finally, I decided to put them down on paper. Once I started, the whole thing came racing out and I finished in about a week. I showed it to Ann Boyd, a director/choreographer friend and she was interested in directing it. The show had a lot of puppets and opportunities for creative staging. I also showed it to Lifeline ensemble member James Sie, another director who likes to incorporate movement sequences into his plays. He brought it to the ensemble and they chose to produce it and hired Ann to direct it! I was lucky to have a smooth first at-bat.

Q: How did you come to adapt The Killer Angels?

A: I had read the book a few years before Lifeline asked director Ned Mochel what he wanted his next project to be. He selected The Killer Angels and asked me to do the adaptation. We had collaborated previously on my co-adaptation (with James Sie) of The Two Towers and my script for The Return of the King. A sprawling epic like The Killer Angels didn’t seem daunting after we had tackled Middle Earth and it was a logical next step for us. We used nine actors the same way we did for the The Lord of the Rings books and several of the Tolkien guys came along for the ride to Gettysburg.

Killer Angels 2004
The Killer Angels, Lifeline Theatre, 2004

Q: Clearly a tremendous amount of research was involved in this project. Were you a history/Civil War buff before you began?

A: No, but my father had encyclopedic knowledge of The Battle of Gettysburg so maybe it was in my genes. Dad was thrilled when I was hired to adapt Mr. Shaara’s novel even though by that time he said he was “Gettysburged out.” He gave me several books for research, along with copies of the Gettysburg movie and Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.

Q: Lifeline first staged your adaptation of The Killer Angels in 2004. What’s the process of returning to the script been like? What were the most significant changes that you made to the script?

A: In September of 2012 I went to Albuquerque to see Mother Road Theatre’s production of this adaptation. The director, Julia Thudium, had given all the narrative lines to the Troubadour character. (The previous editions had several actors taking on narration duties.) I really liked the way that worked and decided to rewrite the script even before Lifeline proposed a remount. The Troubadour (played by Matt Fletcher in this production) now has about 11 different functions, but he really ties all the elements of the show together. He can be a listener, an observer, and a guide for the audience. He sings and plays guitar, too! I also worked closely with director Matt Miller and you, Clare, on improving a scene that’s been problematic in other iterations. Now it works. Thanks, Matt! Other than that, there’s been a lot of tightening, trimming and tidying.

It’s been very rewarding to return to the script. It’s a challenging piece, to be sure, and I’m extremely grateful for all the dedication that has gone into making this whole thing sing. It’s fun to see how the new actors and the director interpret certain lines and scenes – in ways I never thought of.

TheKillerAngels_01_web
The Killer Angels, Lifeline Theatre, 2013

Q: You’ve been involved with Lifeline for 20 years! What have your other roles been?

A: I was an actor in three shows, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Overcoat, and served as Movement Director for The Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Fellowship of the Ring.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: I haven’t been inspired to adapt for a while, but who knows? Maybe this production has sparked a renewed interest in putting pen to paper…

Karen Tarjan

An interview with Hal Jespersen

Note: This is a guest posting from Clare O’Connor, production dramaturg and assistant director for our fall MainStage production of The Killer Angels.

Hal Jespersen is a freelance cartographer specializing in maps of the American Civil War. His work has been featured in books, journals, and magazines, as well as Wikipedia, for which Jespersen has written hundreds of Civil War articles, complete with 200+ maps. You can check out Mr. Jespersen’s beautiful cartography work in the lobby display of The Killer Angels, September 6-October 27, 2013. Mr. Jespersen was also kind enough to answer some questions about his profession, as well as the Battle of Gettysburg:

Q: When and how did you first become interested in the American Civil War?

A: This answer is going to seem completely contrived, but it is absolutely true. In 2003, a friend recommended The Killer Angels (the novel) and I enjoyed it enough to pursue additional books about the battle of Gettysburg. I followed this with trips to the battlefield–15 flights from California so far–and then began expanding my study and travel itineraries to most of the other major battles. I honed my interest by creating articles for Wikipedia about most of these battles, and in doing so, had to develop the skills to create maps for the articles, which led to a modest retirement hobby/business. I first saw The Killer Angels (the play) at Lifeline Theatre in 2004 and wrote up a little (and quite positive) review on my Civil War travelogue site, www.posix.com.

Q: What’s a day in the life of a professional Civil War cartographer?

A: It is a balancing act between a large pile of books and a number of computer programs, including Global Mapper, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop. I created over 200 maps for Wikipedia, which are available for free download from my site, www.cwmaps.com, but my styles have become more sophisticated since those early days and I now emphasize the accurate depiction of terrain–either shaded relief or contour lines (hypsometry). But I still consider the essence of historical cartography to be the art of rendering the complexities of the battle with only enough detail necessary to do the job. I have produced over 300 maps for commercial publication so far, working with dozens of authors. What might surprise you is that maps are often an afterthought for these scholars, imposed upon them by their publishers (at the author’s expense), and they often give me an enormous amount of discretion to show the battle action without actually reading the text of the book it will accompany!

Q: In doing my own research for our production, one issue I faced was conflicting information—sometimes one reputable author would disagree with another. How have you dealt with this in your own writing and cartography work? Are there particular authors or works that you consistently defer to?

A: Almost all of my Civil War writing has been in the context of creating Wikipedia articles, and there are specific guidelines about what to do in this case, giving equal weight to the opinions from reliable, secondary sources. If you look at my article about the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, you will see a number of footnotes and quotations that show how professional historians differ on many issues. When I work for authors as a cartographer, however, I defer to their decisions on how to evaluate primary and secondary sources.

Q: Do you consider the Battle of Gettysburg to have been the turning point of the Civil War?

A: It was a turning point, particularly in conjunction with the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. This is actually something we have argued about on Wikipedia quite a bit, usually in the context of whether it was a decisive battle. (George Meade won the battle decisively, but whether the battle decided the outcome of the war is another story.) The war changed course (turned) in the sense that it was the last significant offensive campaign of Robert E. Lee, but the Army of Northern Virginia was still a potent force and there were a number of opportunities for the Confederates to win the war as late as November 1864. I agree with historian James M. McPherson that the most important turning point was the Battle of Antietam, which allowed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and, in doing so, forestalled any option of European intervention on the southern side.

Q: Are there any common misconceptions about the Battle of Gettysburg?

A: Sure, although I am sorry to say that a number of them crop up in The Killer Angels. Two in particular come to mind. The first is that the battle started because Confederate general Henry Heth wanted to find shoes. This is an illustration of a story that emerged from postwar memoirs and has been repeated by historian after historian, regardless of other evidence (and common sense). The other is that Little Round Top was the most critical position on the battlefield, the loss of which would have doomed the Union Army and lost the war. This opinion was promoted by the master self promoter, Joshua Chamberlain, and was almost forgotten by history until the publication of The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg. Although the defensive actions of the 20th Maine were certainly heroic, the Confederates were in no position to hold Little Round Top if they had taken it. They were exhausted and out of ammunition and there were as many as 10,000 fresh Union troops within a mile of the position. And the terrain of the hill made it an unsuitable as a position to threaten the rest of the Union line anyway. It is interesting that Michael Shaara emphasized this action on the “extreme left of the Union line” because on the extreme right, Culp’s Hill, the 137th New York defended gallantly under even more extreme circumstances, and the loss of that hill would have been truly catastrophic. Unfortunately, their commander, Col. David Ireland, did not survive to tell his story.

Q: Who do you consider to be the heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg?

A:There were hundreds of heroes, but of the most famous, the ones I would cite on the Union side would be: Brig. Gen. John Buford, who essentially selected the battlefield; Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, the commander who played a decisive role on all three days of the battle; Brig. Gen. George S. Greene, the brigade commander who fortified and defended Culp’s Hill; Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, the artillery commander; Col. Strong Vincent, Joshua Chamberlain’s brigade commander, who was killed on Little Round Top; Col. William Colvill, commander of the 1st Minnesota; Lieut. Alonzo Cushing, a battery commander killed during Pickett’s Charge; Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth, who was ordered to conduct a suicidal cavalry raid on July 3. It is more difficult to designate heroes on the losing side, but of the Confederates: Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead; Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood; Col. Henry K. Burgwyn of the 26th North Carolina; Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden (who was actually heroic during the retreat from Gettysburg, leading a 17-mile train of wagons with wounded men through difficult terrain and against enemy cavalry.

jespersen photo