At Stone Hill…The Play’s the Thing

Every fall Flint Hill’s John Henry invites Rappahannock residents and visitors to a Halloween-like “spectacle” at his Stone Hill Amphitheater. In the spring, the same setting brings to life brand-new, history-based dramas. So readers can be up-to-date on the latest Stone Hill happenings, the newspaper’s Walter Nicklin asks John Henry a few questions:

On May 28, your new play Republic For Which We Stand” will have its premiere at your Stone Hill Amphitheater. It will be the fourth play you’ve put on, as well as a number of so-called “spectacles.” Tell us a bit about the Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation.

Photo by Ray Boc
Flint Hill’s Stone Hill Amphitheater.

The Foundation sponsors plays and spectacles at Stone Hill in Flint Hill. Spectacles are one of the least appreciated forms of art. We have been refining ours for the last seven years. Our eighth spectacle will be held October 28. It’s always the last Saturday before Halloween. Suiting up in a different costume every year is a lot of fun. I marched as a Moor in Spain’s spectacle city of Alcoy last month, and I can’t wait to wear my outfit again this October. Spectacles require a multitude and ours are free and open to the public and bring a wide range of individuals together once a year.

We hosted two plays by James Reston (on Sherman and Galileo), and my second play premieres on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I don’t know how many plays are in me. I only had one amphitheater in me but that took seven years to build. It takes a year to produce a new play. Plays aren’t written – they’re rewritten. A lot of time and energy is then spent rolling out multiple performances. We did four performances of my “Arguing with God” last year – one at Stone Hill Amphitheater, one at the Hylton Center in Manassas and two in Washington.

We’ve made a big investment in “Republic For Which We Stand” and plan to give every Senator and Congressman the opportunity to see it. We dramatize the debates the founders underwent to make the United States a Republic. The founders defined American exceptionalism as Congressional exceptionalism. America can’t be great again until Congress is great again.

Yes, all of the Stone Hill plays seem to use history to illuminate the present. Is that the ultimate goal: through exploring the past to make us better informed, more responsible citizens?

Patrick Henry said it best: “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” History is the collective experience of those who went before us. If we don’t take advantage of learning from their mistakes, we forgo the opportunity to reflect on how we might do things differently. The founders were exceptional because they learned from history. They didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of Britain and other empires.

The hard drive of history is repetition. The choreography changes, but people rhyme over time. As the French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same. When the Bible says “There is nothing new under the sun,” it means people don’t change. The five horsemen of what I call “the lower self” – the drive for power, riches, fame, sex and certainty – overrun “the higher self” – the better angels of our nature – most of the time. That’s what history teaches. It would be impossible to develop this general theory of man without the study of history.

The founders studied history carefully and built the American constitutional republic around this general theory of man. That’s why, in my opinion, they were the greatest generation in history. We’re living off their monumental legacy bequeathed to us more than two centuries ago.

Your performers are for the most part amateurs — what you call citizen-actors.

When theater was invented in Fifth Century B.C. Greece, all they had were citizen actors. It took a century before professional actors replaced citizen actors on the stage. Our actors live and breathe in that great tradition.

Rick Davis, a true professional, takes time off to help us from his day job as George Mason’s Dean of the Performing Arts because he gets really excited about the challenges of citizen theater. Rick does a fabulous job of whipping our amateurs into shape and making them punch above their body weight.

I love the process of figuring out how to write a play through iterative workshops with our citizen actors. A steady stream of questions and reactions from a very bright group of people give me a roadmap for the obstacles I must overcome to craft a successful drama. Because we don’t pay our actors, I can create a cast of three dozen actors with two dozen important roles and many chorus roles. This gives more people the opportunity to participate and widens the circle exposed to the ideas behind the plays.

Your new play contains three plays within a play, using the bloody history of Medieval kings as the foundational impulse for the U.S. Constitution. The founders, all well-educated, were familiar with that history. How much literary license have you taken?

The founders frequented Philadelphia theaters during their spring and summer at the Constitutional Convention. George Washington loved the play “Cato” so much he had his soldiers perform it at Valley Forge. So I thought it would be in character for him to commission three history plays which would be performed by citizen actors. I chose the three greatest English warrior kings – William the Conqueror, Edward III and Henry V — because their imperial ambitions best represented what the founders wished to avoid in establishing an American Republic.

The key lesson the founders drew from the War of Independence was to reject the English system of government. They didn’t want a monarchy. They wanted a Republic. Monarchs take countries to war and create empires. Republics avoid wars. The Founders rejected an elective monarchy because it has the same incentive to go to war as a hereditary monarchy.

For our first century, we had the strongest republic in the history of the world. Since World War II, however, the accelerating erosion of our separation of powers has left us with a monarchial democracy. My play dramatizes why the founders chose a Republic, not empire. James Madison was the genius behind our Constitution. George Washington was the figure who resisted the monarchical ideas of Alexander Hamilton and carried the day. My Hamilton I believe is more true to character than the hit Broadway musical.

How did you pick the title “Republic For Which We Stand”?

It’s from the Pledge of Allegiance. We don’t pledge allegiance to “The Democracy For Which We Stand.” I chose the title to emphasize the discrepancy between what we’re told we are and what we’re supposed to be. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s next year’s play. Instead of looking back at British history, the founders will come forward as ghosts to challenge American Presidents who undermined their legacy.

A century ago Woodrow Wilson took us to war to make the world safe for democracy when we were a republic. Wilson had contempt for congressional government and celebrated an imperial presidency. Wilson embraced an Old Testament foreign policy that contaminates our relations with other nations today. My play last year “Arguing with God” explored the dangers of this “chosen people” narrative.

Unfortunately, Congress has abdicated its constitutional responsibility. Both political parties have been busy building up the power of the Presidency. Massive military spending eats away the foundations of Congress. Our move to an elective monarchy has been three generations in the making. Now that we have the hottest personality in the White House in our history, this truth is hard to miss. George Bush handed Obama three presidential wars and Obama handed Trump nine presidential wars. Unless stopped by Congress, Trump may start more presidential wars.

What can we do?

It’s our job as citizens to get our Representatives and Senators to take a “no presidential wars” pledge and reassert their war power. The war power is the most important power in the Constitution, and that power has been transferred to the executive branch without a constitutional amendment. We have a diplomacy-free, evidence-free, constitution-free foreign policy. We need to bring U.S. foreign policy inside the law of the land.

You had a lot of humor in Arguing with God. This year you have even more.

I don’t see any choice. Humor is our greatest strength. If we can’t laugh at our ourselves, we’re lost. Rick Davis is coaching our citizen actors to deliver the laugh lines with great precision.

Who are some of the Rappahannock residents performing as citizen actors in “The Republic For Which We Stand?”

It’s amazing how much talent we have in Rappahannock. Father Tuck Grinnell puts in his first performance at the Stone Hill Amphitheater as the Priest in the Henry V death scene. Tuck has provided valuable help with the development of the Virgin Mary character as he did in the ending of Arguing with God.

Bill Walton takes the stage at Stone Hill Amphitheater for the first time as George Washington and Roger Mortimer. Even though most people know Bill as a successful businessman, he started his career as an actor. So this is homecoming for Bill.

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Bill Walton takes the stage as George Washington.

Hugh Hill plays Alexander Hamilton and William the Conqueror. These two characters provide the backbone of Republic For Which We Stand. Hugh was our most talented amateur actor in our last two plays – as General Grant in “Sherman” and as Moses in “Arguing with God.”

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Hugh Hill plays Alexander Hamilton.

Pat Nicklin is first in song and personality. Pat’s amazing voice will be on display as she performs solos and leads the chorus like last year. She plays two very different roles as the bubbling and engaging Dolly Madison and the crusading Middle Ages warrior woman Joan of Arc.

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Pat Nicklin plays the bubbling and engaging Dolly Madison.

Maeve Ciuba plays young Edward III. Maeve is our best young actor. She did a compelling performance last year as Isaac and we can’t wait to see her May 28.

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Maeve Ciuba plays young Edward III.

Deverell Pedersen plays Madame de Stael, who takes Benjamin Franklin’s gathering to new levels of excitement and humor.

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Deverell Pedersen plays Madame de Stael.

Lynn Sullivan plays Norman Lady.

Peter Stenner, a man for all seasons, plays numerous roles this season as he did in “Arguing with God.”

How can people get more information and tickets for the performance?

Probably as convenient a way as any is to simply check out our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/StoneHillFoundation/

Tickets are available at www.republicforwhichwestand.eventbrite.com

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