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Wednesday, 06 September 2006 00:00

Scene changes: Revised ‘Unto These Hills’ garners bigger audiences and mixed reviews

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By Michael Beadle

Ticket sales and attendance were both up this season for Cherokee’s long-running outdoor drama “Unto These Hills,” which saw major changes to its cast, crew and storyline.

The retooled production also found its share of detractors, who liked the old show better, according to James Bradley, executive director of the Cherokee Historical Association, which oversees the show.

“That’s been the overall reaction — people either love it or hate it,” said Bradley, who once performed as the Eagle Dancer in the drama.

A few weeks after the show closed its season on Aug. 19, Bradley and others involved with the show continue to sort through public comments, email surveys and revenue figures to get a sense of how the season went and what additional improvements will need to be made.

With an average nightly attendance of 1,035 people, the show brought in more box office sales this year than in the past two years, topping the $1 million mark, according to John Tissue, general manager for “Unto These Hills.” The 2005 season, by comparison, earned at total of $894,000 in ticket sales and had an average nightly attendance of 870 people, Tissue said.

While this summer’s 63 shows topped an average attendance of 1,000 a night, the season’s overall attendance was still half of what it was back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

Spending about the same on theatre staff, the drama brought in more money this season than last year in concessions and gift shop sales. That seemed especially welcome news, considering this season had four rained out performances and one cancellation due to an electrical blackout following a thunderstorm. By comparison, 2005 had no rain-outs.

Tissue and the drama’s staff set up some new procedures this year to help boost sales and speed up transactions. For example, one person was posted at a cash register instead of having multiple clerks serving and handling the register. Other improvements included increasing ticket sales over the Internet and pouring more money into advertising with billboards, TV and radio spots, and even a movie trailer.

This year is just the start of a five-year plan to overhaul the 56-year-old drama, according to Bradley. Now that the stage has been remodeled and new SurroundSound speakers and more modern lighting equipment have been installed, more upgrades are on the way, including newer seating and handrails and a wider, renovated rain shelter. Eventually, the stage will be raised to the height of the lower level seats, and new costume and dressing rooms will be built underneath the stage, Bradley explained. The two side stages will be converted into storage spaces for props and set pieces. A crane system will also be installed to move around large set pieces.

Beyond that, water and sewer lines will have to be replaced before the road up to the Mountainside Theatre can be widened to allow access for larger vehicles such as 18-wheelers and tour buses. The estimated expense of the road improvements is about $2 million, according to Tissue.

“It’s absolutely crucial to our operation,” he said.

Tissue and Bradley will be meeting with a consultant to look at how to raise the money over the next few years. The goal, Bradley explained, is to make the stage available for concerts from mid-March through mid-October.

“Unto These Hills” underwent major changes before this season with a totally new cast, new script, new choreography, new designers and costume directors, new sets and costumes, and more opportunities for local Cherokees to play an integral role in the show. In the past, local criticism for the show was that not enough Cherokees were involved.

The play’s new script, written by Hanay Geiogamah, a Kiowa Indian and UCLA theatre professor, offered roles for 86 cast members, which included 71 Cherokees, eight Native Americans from various tribes, and seven non-Native Americans. In contrast, the original show had about 120 cast members with about 35 to 40 Cherokees. The new cast earned regular standing ovations and praise every night, according to Bradley.

However, Bradley and others connected to the show also heard audience members complain that they liked the older show better. People who came to see the show as kids and now bring their children and grandchildren have a certain nostalgia when it comes to the old show, Bradley explained.

“And now we’ve changed that experience,” he said.

Some simply complained, “I don’t get it” after seeing the revised drama. Imagine devoted Star Wars fans viewing their galactic saga with new actors in a vastly different plot.

While the old “Unto These Hills” had a voice-over narrator, the newer show uses Cherokee corn maiden Selu and Cherokee hunter Kanati as interactive narrators and leaves out the character of Tsali, who was seen as a martyr who gave up his life in order to save other Cherokees during the forced removal of Cherokees to the Trail of Tears. However, Bradley and other Cherokees see this role of Tsali as overemphasized, portraying him as a helpless victim. Instead, the new show involves stronger, independent Cherokee roles that go beyond the Euro-American conception of what Native Americans do and say, and that takes some getting used to.

“This show is pretty Cherokee-centric,” Bradley said.

And beyond the thematic criticisms, other audience members said the blocking and staging needed to be livelier, more interactive. Some new to the cast this year had never before acted in the drama or had never acted in such a large role.

One improvement Bradley already sees for next year is to bump up the timetable for auditions and rehearsals. This year, the show wasn’t completely cast until mid-May, and the show opened June 8. Next season, auditions could begin in February with rehearsals starting early to mid-April.

In the off-season, the drama’s administrators will be looking over email surveys to get feedback and demographical information about who came to see the show and what brought them to Cherokee. Bradley also said that a community advisory committee made up of Cherokee elders, Cherokee museum leaders, and cultural resources and historic preservation specialists will be looking over the show to see how it might be improved. Other input will come from the Cherokee Historical Association and community focus groups, Bradley said.

“There’s always education that needs to be done,” Bradley said, adding that he welcomed constructive criticism about the show. “It helps us if they pinpoint what it is. I’m glad at least that people are talking about it.”

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