Fancy some dueling lessons from Henry Clay? Want to be in the audience when the Hatfieds and McCoys square off against one another in Family Feud? A new play opening this weekend at Georgetown College allows you to do just that.
The Complete History of Kentucky: The Interesting Parts is the latest collaboration between the wife-and-husband duo of Betsy and Ed Smith. Betsy wrote the play, and Ed, who is professor and chair of the department of theatre and film at Georgetown College, is producing and directing a cast of more than 20.
The show chronicles the commonwealth's history in a series of sketch comedy vignettes that illustrate the quirkier side of the story, beginning with encounters between Native Americans and European Americans and continuing through present times. The vignettes are similar to television segments and are billed collectively as Kentucky Educational Theatre (KET).
Audiences can expect to learn more about well-known historical figures such as Daniel Boone and Belle Brezing, but they also will be introduced to lesser-known characters like state treasurer "Honest Dick" Tate, who got away with stealing a quarter of a million dollars from the treasury in 1888. The antics of frontier serial killers Big Harpe and Little Harpe are played out via sock puppets.
"We've got some of the great hits, so to speak, but then we also try to pull in information that folks might not be as familiar with," Ed Smith says.
History buffs might recognize him as Adolph Rupp or Justice John Marshall Harlan, both characters he routinely plays as part of the Kentucky Humanities Council's Chautauqua program, which supports touring re-enactments and dramatic, interactive engagement with historical figures. Betsy Smith is also a veteran of the program, regularly portraying Emilie Todd Helm, the Confederate sister-in-law to Abraham Lincoln. Two of their three sons also portray historical characters for the program.
The pair fact-checked their vignettes with acclaimed historian James Klotter, who will be making an appearance in the play. Ed Smith also makes a cameo appearance on stage. and the Smiths' three sons perform in the show as well.
With the entire family so deeply committed to both Kentucky history and theater, Ed Smith says it was only natural that an original play about Kentucky grew out of their involvement.
But there was one big difference between the Smiths' history of Kentucky and the historical portrayals in the Chautauqua program: humor, and lots of it.
This comedic twist has succeeded for the couple before. Last year, they adapted a series of Grimm's fairy tales for the stage, turning one into an episode of The Bachelor and another into a movie trailer.
"We thought, let's figure out a way to combine the history and performance thing but in more of a group setting," Ed Smith says of last year's production.
Betsy Smith also says she was inspired partly by The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), a quick-witted mashup of Shakespeare tales and phrasings by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, which also created The Complete History of America (Abridged). She hopes the play could become a touring production for educational audiences throughout the state.
She majored in history at Georgetown and says the show originally was intended to humorously explore the history of bourbon. But once Smith dove into the material, she realized the history of the state was begging to be told.
"With our Chautauqua characters, we already had a really good basis for understanding the history," says Smith, who penned a section about Boone once the premise of the play changed from bourbon to state history.
"I just began writing with Daniel Boone thinking maybe that I would center it all around Kentucky settlement," Smith says. "Then it just sort of got chronological, and then I just stopped and took a look and thought, we've got Civil War, we've got cholera, what's missing?"