More Than Just the Facts, Ma'am
Two Austin actors bring Davy Crockett to life at the Texas State History Museum
When I buy my ticket to see Davy Crockett in Texas at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the register spits out a little paper receipt. Printed at the top of the receipt is a notation that my purchase is the museum's Transaction Number 263,301.
The museum's keeping track of all that stuff -- of the numbers, the times and dates, the exact sequence of occurrences -- as any entity of commerce, public or private, must. Of course, this is an entity where detailed record keeping isn't all that different from the sort of cultural and historical fact-gathering constantly performed as part of its reason for existence. But the other part of a museum's raison d'être is to present its gathered knowledge to the public, in as engaging a manner as possible; and for that, it must go beyond the dry statistics, the cold abstractions, and venture into the more concrete.
The State History Museum, to meet its goal of telling "The Story of Texas," deploys the usual arsenal of artifacts and models, paintings and timelines, small-scale dioramas and large-as-life reproductions of scenes from how this part of the West was won and how it thrives -- and it does a damn fine job. Take some time, pardner -- wander through the exhibits, cock an appreciative eyeball at what your tax dollars, in part, have wrought. There's a beautiful series of displays, expertly designed and artfully arranged, engineered to inform and delight. But all of it -- even the accompanying video segments, even whatever relevant mega-movie might be climbing the walls at the adjoining IMAX Theatre -- operates at a remove. It's history, after all: It's dead. Or, at least, it's prerecorded.
But Davy Crockett isn't.
In order to introduce an undeniably live and human element into the wealth of staged information, the Bullock Museum is presenting a series of performances in its Texas Spirit Theatre, rotating these walking, talking enactments with the short film Star of Destiny each day. And the first of the historical figures from the Lone Star State's storied past to be given the live and in-person treatment is that King of the Wild Frontier himself, former three-term congressman from Tennessee and ultimately true blue Texan -- ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for Colonel David Crockett!
"Well, Davy was never really a colonel," amends Douglas Taylor, scratching at his newly thick sideburns. "Although he was a sergeant in the Indian wars."
"He did have the honorary title of colonel in Tennessee, after the wars," says Ken Webster, tugging at the bottom of his fringed leather jacket. "But it wasn't his actual, bona fide rank."
Douglas Taylor and Ken Webster ought to know. They're the two men who portray the Alamo hero, day-in and day-out, on the Texas Spirit stage. The woman who hired them -- their director, Catherine Berry -- acknowledges the importance of their precision. "It's an almost bizarre thing we're doing here," Berry says, "because we're doing a show like we'd do any kind of show. But it's part of an exhibit -- we're in a museum. So we have to be accurate."
And that's unusual?
"This is the first time I've done a show where you have to get 'checked,'" says Berry. "Sometimes it feels like we've got every major historian in Austin watching what we do. Like, at one point, I wanted Davy to use a pipe, and we had that in for a while. And we were told, 'Yeah, they all used pipes back then.' But then, a couple weeks later, we found out that Davy himself didn't really use a pipe. So we had to cut that." She shakes her head, remembering. "At this point, everything's been checked and double-checked. Everything's accurate. This is the most accurate piece of theatre you'll see around town -- or anywhere -- I can guarantee you that."
And what about the accuracy of the human element, visually speaking? Are Taylor and Webster dead ringers for the historical Crockett?
"I was looking for people who kind of resembled Davy," says Berry. "This is set later in his life, a couple of weeks before he died. He was in his late 40s then, so we wanted to hire somebody who was around that age, or somebody younger who could play older. Instead of having somebody in their 60s trying to look, you know, younger and virile.
"The big premise behind this show," she says, "is to make it very physical and very hands-on. We've got Davy going out into the audience, it requires a lot of movement and interaction. And we talked to Paul Hutton, who's the head of the exhibit and the big Crockett authority, and he was telling us that if anybody was going to make a movie about Davy today, they'd have to get some actor like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey -- somebody who's really out there. Which was shocking to me, because I'd assumed that he'd be kind of stiff. Because we think of, you know, John Wayne. But Davy was evidently real animated."
"A rip-roaring, ring-tailed tooter, is what he was," clarifies Taylor.
"We had about 30 to 40 guys show up for the auditions, and we narrowed it down to eight for the callback and then cast from there," says Berry. "We had this one guy who auditioned," she adds, a smile brightening her face. "He was like 16 or something. He was really cute, really earnest -- but of course he was too young, so we couldn't use him. But he called me the next day and thanked me anyway."
Nothing exists in the present without having been shaped by the past. That's what the State History Museum is all about: the discernible courses such shaping has followed to create the present through which we as Texans now move. And, of course, the players on the Texas Spirit stage aren't without their own pasts, and those pasts are also grounded in the Lone Star State. Right?
"I was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and I've lived in Texas all my life," says Ken Webster proudly.
"Well," admits Douglas Taylor, "here's where I backpedal."
Webster laughs heartily while Taylor continues: "My parents were born in Texas. My father served in the United States Air Force, and I was born on an Air Force base, so, technically, I am a Texan. But I was born in Kansas. But all of my family's from Texas -- both sides. Everybody's been here for eons."
Both actors have worked long and hard in Austin theatre, on or behind stages all over the city. Taylor was part of the astoundingly long run of Zachary Scott Theatre Center's interactive comedy Shear Madness in the Nineties. Webster, longtime leader of Subterranean Theatre Company, is currently at the helm of the new Hyde Park Theatre. The local community has been enriched by the endeavors of these men for many years. But which of these facts has drawn our natives into the role of a dead man's lifetime? Any of them? All of them?
"Well, it sounded like an interesting idea," says Taylor. "The premise of the show is that Davy is at a big dinner given in his honor at a ranch about a day's ride out of San Antonio. And Davy's playing the fiddle and everybody's dancing, and the host asks him to give a speech. And he talks about his past, and why he came to Texas, and why everybody should be proud to be a Texan."
But the fiddle. Do these actors play the fiddle?
"Well, ah, heh-heh" says Webster, "the premise is that the show starts just after Davy's finished the music. But we'll be holding a fiddle."
"But there will be music throughout the show," interjects Berry. "There's a wonderful score written by David Hamburger and Eddy Hobizal. And we've checked with Angela Davis and other historical music folks, made sure that the instruments are at least in the ballpark of what would've been used at the time."
"It's all authentic," says Taylor. "Like these costumes -- here, check this out," he says, offering the sleeve of his soft buckskin jacket. "It's the real stuff."
"Star Costumes did those," says Berry. "Cyndi Williams had just been in Tilt Angel, and she told me about Meredith Moseley and Star Costumes. And Meredith came over to meet Lynn Denton, the museum's executive director, who has a pretty strong background in costumes herself. And we all liked Meredith and what she presented, so we brought her on board. And as you can see, it was a good choice."
But wait. We're losing track of the sequence, here; let's keep this on schedule, keep the facts straight, the events in their proper order. Why did our two stalwart thespians want this role?
"The idea of being Davy Crockett on stage really appealed to me," says Taylor. "Well, being anybody on stage, at that point. I hadn't done anything since July of last year, and I was starting to itch a little bit. It's a real privilege, being a part of the history museum like this, the first live show they've done. And it's fun to be able to do something one week and then do it again the next week, improving on it as you go, finding out what works with some audiences and doesn't work with others.
"With a short run, you've got to go in and hit the same mark every time; but with a long run, you still have to hit the same marks, but you can do it with a little different attitude each time. And the audience interaction, getting to go down there and actually shake hands with people, a little personal one-on-one, I love that. And," admits Taylor, "there's the steady paycheck, too."
"In Austin, you don't usually get the opportunity for such a long run," says Webster, nodding. "Usually, you have a four-week run, it's over. A five-week run, it's over. It's better to have a long run. This show runs through August."
"Getting to do this role has been a big outlet for my patriotism, lately," adds Taylor. "Because you have to stand up there and just let your love for Texas shine through. And you don't always get to do that. I mean, Texas is a big state, and everybody's proud of it, but you don't always get to stand up and express how much fun you have living here."
"And it's a one-man show, too," says Webster. "I love doing one-man shows. Once you've done a one-man show, it's hard to go back to being in plays with other actors." He laughs. Taylor laughs. Berry nods, smiling, perhaps rolling her eyes.
"Another one of the wonderful things about this job," says Webster, "is that we're still able to do nighttime theatre. I'm able to direct at Hyde Park and still take roles in plays around town." And Doug?
"I can be in Celebrity Crush and Seven Deadly Sins," finishes Taylor. "That's one of the main reasons I took this job. Even though it's a long-term gig with good money, I would've hesitated, maybe turned it down, if it had gotten in the way of my other acting opportunities. But this is like a regular job, like every actor would love to have. I've got a day job acting and a night job acting. You know? You can't beat it with a stick."
Davy Crockett had similarly fond feelings about his own job in Congress, once upon a time. That is, he had those feelings until, running athwart of the policies and personality of then-President Andrew Jackson; he wasn't elected to a fourth term. Then Crockett told his former peers, "You all can go to Hell -- I'm going to Texas." And so he did, and later died defending his chosen land against the onslaughts of General Santa Anna and the Mexican army.
Davy Crockett was born in Tennessee in 1786; he died at the Alamo in 1836. On December 29, 1845, the Republic of Texas became part of the United States. The Alamo is located in San Antonio. The distance between Tennessee and San Antonio is approximately 800 miles.
These are the facts: dry, lifeless, immutable. To experience more closely a human whose trajectory through history invigorates those facts, you can make a short trip downtown to the Texas Spirit Theater within the Bob Bullock State History Museum. There, until August 18, amidst the gorgeous yet more static displays of days gone by, you can see 20 minutes of live theatre: either Ken Webster or Douglas Taylor bringing a Western hero back to life for your education and delight in Davy Crockett in Texas.
And to make sure everything is properly charted within the Museum's smaller, more administrative history, the clerk at the box office will be glad to provide you with your own Transaction Number.
"Sunrise in His Pocket: The Life, Legend, and Legacy of Davy Crockett," including the short play "Davy Crockett in Texas," is on display at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum through August 18.
"Davy Crockett in Texas" is performed Monday-Friday at 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, and 2:30pm; Saturday at 10:30am, 11:30am, 12:30pm, 2:30pm, and 4:30pm; and Sunday at 1:30pm, 2:30pm, and 4:30pm, in the museum's Texas Spirit Theatre.