Lincoln Amphitheatre: Theater of HistorySeptember 23, 2017
Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Jacob Wiegand
History has crossed the Lincoln Amphitheatre stage for years.
In the last two years, that history has represented different eras.
Along with productions that focus on the life of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, bands have also graced the stage performing music from other eras like the 60s and 80s.
That diversity is what actors, staff and volunteers hope will continue to attract visitors to the largest covered amphitheater east of the Mississippi River.
“I want to improve this place and keep it open for everyone,” said Marc Steczyk, who has been director of the amphitheater since 2015. “There are so many memories here. It was my first job out of college. Others can attest to seeing shows about Abraham Lincoln here. And it’s located in the place where Abraham Lincoln grew up. This place is special.”
The theater is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with shows this summer and fall, a schedule that Steczyk plans to keep going for a while.
On a Saturday in August, the band Hard Day’s Night donned the same colorful outfits The Beatles wore for the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album and sang popular songs by the Fab Four, songs that the sold-out crowd sang along to, like “Yellow Submarine.”
It was clear from the smiles, screams and impromptu dancing in the aisles that audience members were enjoying themselves.
Volunteers also had fun as they tore down tables and emptied trash cans on the theater grounds. “You say you want a revolution, well, you know...” several sang while they worked.
By the time the waves of “Naaa, naaa, na-na-na-naaaa” echoed in the 1,500-seat theater as people stood and swayed to the familiar sound of “Hey Jude,” volunteers were in place to thank everyone for coming and to drive those who couldn’t walk well to their cars. The volunteers made sure newly discarded trash was picked up and the seats in the theater were clean as the crowd dispersed.
The theater relies on its volunteers to carry the season through, Steczyk said. There are only about eight paid staff members, he said, with several of those being part-time.
“We work hard to keep things going,” he said. “We are on a shoestring budget, and we’re trying to generate funds to keep this place going. It’s so special. And the fact that several of the shows sold out this year, the public seems to realize what a gem we have here.”
The Lincoln Amphitheatre is located in Lincoln State Park, the area that Abraham Lincoln lived from age 7 to 21, what people call his formative years.
“Those are years that he grew, he learned, he was curious,” said longtime actor and theater supporter Bud Schaaf. “When you look in history books, very little was said about Lincoln in Indiana,” he said. “That is why we, as in Indiana, have to tell the story.”
That history is important to America, and the theater stands to remind everyone of the importance of that time, he said.
“There are people in northern Indiana that don’t know that Lincoln lived in Indiana,” Schaaf said. “The history books tell about him being born in Kentucky and then talk about his time in Illinois and Washington, D.C. We need to continue to tell the story of Lincoln’s years in Indiana.”
The production of “Young Abe Lincoln,” which does tell that story, returned to the amphitheater stage this season. Schaaf was again involved, playing the role of James Gentry. The shows drew people from near and far, which is what Schaaf knew would happen.
But, the theater is also sharing significant musical history. Along with celebrating the music of bands like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses and Jimmy Buffett, the theater welcomed Lee Ann Womack in June, Grand Funk Railroad in August, and the movie score compositions of composer John Williams, performed by the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, this month, The season will end next Saturday with a performance by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.
“The concerts are working,” Steczyk said, “They are drawing people to the amphitheater. That’s what I was hoping.”
The theater was the idea of Mary Conen and she worked with the Lincoln Club of Southern Indiana to get it built, Schaaf said. The cost at that time, the late 1980s, was about $3 million. The theater opened its first season with “Young Abe Lincoln” in 1987.
The theater’s stage was first made of asphalt, but was changed just before the venue opened. “That was done for the dancers, to help their feet and legs,” Schaaf said. “We soon found out when we put the New Orleans set on the stage that it sunk into the asphalt. So two or three weeks before we opened in 1987, we had to tear out the asphalt and pour concrete.”
It got done, he said, “and that first season was fantastic.”
There have been different challenges over the years. Several times, a challenge involved finding horses to pull the wagon for the scene that brought Lincoln’s dad, Thomas, and his new wife, the former Sarah Bush Johnston, and stepchildren from Kentucky to Indiana to meet Abe and his sister Sarah, whose mom, Nancy Lincoln, had died.
“One year (in the 1990s), I bought a horse for the show,” said Schaaf, who was technical director at the time. “It worked, but I didn’t know that the horse was pregnant.”
He said he went home one evening to find a new colt had been born. They couldn’t use the horses because the colt got spooked on stage. Incidents like that brought to an end the use of horses in the show.
“Anytime you work with live animals, you have interesting stories,” Schaaf said.
Another story Schaaf remembered was then-Sen. Dan Quayle’s attendance at a show in 1988. The senator spoke before the start of the show and settled in the audience to watch.
“While he was there, he got a call from George (H.W.) Bush, asking him to be his vice president,” Schaaf recalled. “So he had to leave at the intermission to go to the Republican convention.” Quayle did indeed become vice president the following year.
The amphitheater went on with productions until the end of the 2005 season. During that year, theater management learned that the Indiana General Assembly did not put the normal $285,000 into the state’s budget for the theater. So the show and amphitheater did not open for productions in 2006.
But then the late Will Koch stepped up in 2007. “Will wanted the theater to be running again by 2009, which was the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth,” Schaaf said. A new play called “Lincoln: Upon the Altar of Freedom” opened the 2009 season and was performed for few years, followed by “A. Lincoln: Pioneer Tale,” and “Between Friends,” a play about Lincoln’s relationship with his generals. In 2012, “Our American Cousin” was performed, which is the play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated in 1865, Schaaf said.
Although the plays were back on, organizers struggled to bring in consistent crowds. When Steczyk came aboard in 2015, he brought ideas to bring a variety of performances to the stage. Steczyk has a love for arts, evident by his continued involvement in the Ferdinand Folk Festival and Next Act, the group working on renovating and reopening the Astra Theatre in Jasper.
“I thought that it would be good to have shows that appealed to a variety of people,” he said.
In 2015, the theater’s management changed. Now the theater is operated by the Indiana Office of Tourism Development and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The theater held a show in October 2015 featuring Beatles tribute band Hard Day’s Night and Rolling Stones tribute band Satisfaction, and a full season of shows in 2016, from groups like Marshall Tucker Band and Eddie Money. There were tribute shows featuring the music of Garth Brooks, AC/DC, Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys. The play “Lincoln: A Pioneer Tale” was also performed.
The theater is sustaining both plays and concerts, to the glee of play and music lovers. And who knows what other ideas Steczyk might implement in future years.
“As time goes on, we’ll see how things should expand,” he said.
Schaaf is glad to see the theater continuing to operate.
As he reiterated several times, “We need to continue to tell the story of Lincoln. The experiences he had here and the things he learned are what shaped his thinking and made him the great president that he was.”
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