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North Carolina is known as the birthplace of the Outdoor Drama. It is also the home of more outdoor dramas than any other state – sixteen, to be precise. One of the people most responsible for those two boasts is Mark R. Sumner, Sr. – 25-year veteran of the Institute of Outdoor Drama and the playwright of the Snow Camp, NC, play, Pathway to Freedom.
Sumner has been writing plays since his high school days in Asheville, NC, when the very first play he ever wrote, The Scarlet Arrow, won a state-wide playwriting award and was produced at a festival hosted by UNC Playmakers. Since that time, Sumner has worked as an actor, director, producer, and playwright, including five plays written especially for outdoor drama. His work as director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama at UNC-CH prepared him only a little, he says, for the actual work of writing an Outdoor Drama.
“There are aspects of outdoor drama that you have to consider that you don’t have to worry about in a regular play,” Sumner said in an interview. “Like, for example, how long it takes to walk from one entrance cue to another.” In outdoor drama, such a walk could very well cover a considerable distance, and the time it takes is a real factor.
“I was urged to write for outdoor drama by Paul Green,” a man who was no stranger to writing for the outdoors. “He told me that the only way I would really get an idea of what was involved was to do it. And it was an education.”
Sumner has written five plays for outdoor drama, only one of which, Pathway to Freedom, is a North Carolina play. The first was a work on George Washington during the French and Indian War, set in Fort Necessity National Park in Pennsylvania. Two other plays were written for New Mexico, one based in the northwest of the state, in the Four Corners, which dealt with the Black River Traders. It ran for six summers. The others were a work on the development of oil and gas production, which ran until 2005, and, for Kentucky, Shadow of a Giant.
In addition, Sumner produced Robert Emmett McDowell's play Home Is the Hunter, about George Rogers Clark of Kentucky, and performed in Harrisburg. (Clark is known for capturing the west for the United States before the term “United States” was in vogue.) For that production, Sumner received the honor of Kentucky Colonel, bestowed by Governor Ned Breathit.
In 1992, the Sword of Peace Summer Celebration commissioned Pathway to Freedom. It was finished a year later. Sumner says it takes “about a year” to wade through the historical data before pen can be set to paper. The play spent two years in development and was first produced at Snow Camp in 1995. It is currently in its sixteenth straight year of production.
“Much of an outdoor drama is based on fact,” points out Sumner. “Levi and Katie Coffin, the Quaker couple who helped slaves escape to freedom, are true-to-life. And the main events of the play are historically based, even if with a touch of theatrical license.” Essie, for example, the main character of the first act, is based on a slave woman who took the Underground Railroad to Indiana. She and her three children were almost to freedom when they were caught by marauding slavers and were to be returned to slavery. The woman, knowing the life the children would endure, killed them rather than subject them to the terrible life she knew first-hand. Essie, in “Pathway to Freedom,” attempts to kill her two elder children before carrying her newborn and drowning herself in the river. The desperate measures she goes to cause George Vestal, another historical figure, to begin dedicating his life to working in the Underground Railroad.
Sumner is retired now to the woods of North Carolina outside Chapel Hill, where he lives with his wife, Glenn. Their days are punctuated by frequent visits from the grandkids. The couple has a total of ten. Keeping up with them, says Sumner, is part of what keeps him young. But he also looks back on his years at the Institute of Outdoor Drama as the very best job he could ever imagine having.
“Outdoor Drama is a real draw to North Carolina and all the states that support them,” Sumner knows. “Outdoor theaters are a real tourist attraction – during the summers, outdoor drama outdraws Broadway. And often these shows are a young actor’s first paying job.”
“These shows are important history, performed on the land it started from,” says Sumner. But even though he has written many an historical drama, Sumner also knows that the work of a playwright is merely the first step in a long and often on-going creative process. A play is the property of the playwright only until it is finished. “Once a script is delivered, it belongs to the director, but only briefly. Then it belongs to the actors.”
Pathway to Freedom continues to run at the Sword of Peace Summer Celebration, located in Snow Camp, NC, through August. Performances are July 23, 29, and 31, and Aug. 6, 12, 14, and 20, beginning at 8 p.m. Check our festival listings to see what other works are also running, alongside Pathway to Freedom.