Wandering Aesthetics hits the Appalachian Trail for biographical performance
-In 1955, Emma Gatewood grabbed an army blanket, raincoat, plastic shower curtain and a pair of Keds, and became the first woman to hike the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail when she was 67. The mother of 11 and grandmother of 24 was a farmer’s wife who lived in an abusive marriage, and she started walking “on a lark,” eventually hiking this same trail two more times, along with traversing the Oregon Trail and becoming a pioneer in hiking, conservation and resolve.
Akron residents can get an inside peek at “Grandma” Gatewood’s life with “Trail Magic,” Nov. 21 through 23, produced by theater group Wandering Aesthetics, at the Balch Street Theatre.
“Anybody that has any kind of knowledge about Appalachia and the trail or any hiking enthusiasts in general will love this show,” says Director Kyle Jozsa. “It’s fascinating for me putting Grandma Gatewood in perspective, being able to think about what was happening not just in Ohio but in our entire country. I think the audience is really going to fall in love with the relationship these two have.”
Gatewood was born in Southern Ohio, and her local legacy includes helping to create the Buckeye Trail, which runs directly through Akron.
This production caters to everyone from theater enthusiasts to outdoors-people and local history buffs, adds Jozsa, who is the co-artistic director of Wandering Aesthetics, along with Benjamin Rexroad.
Jozsa hiked the Appalachian Trail with Rexroad, and the two learned about this remarkable woman.
“We hiked the Appalachian Trail last year and we heard about Grandma Gatewood, so when we were starting our production of ‘Boogers, Witches and Haints,’ which is also deeply involved in the Appalachian Trail, we decided it would be a perfect companion piece to our Mountain Cycle, which is our series of three solo performances based on the Appalachian Trail,” says Jozsa.
The performance of her story is presented in partnership with the Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture (CATAC) and Eden Valley Enterprises, which specializes in living history programs.
Jozsa and Rexroad have created a unique approach to theater that sometimes brings the performances to the people and uses storytelling and personal experience as a backbone of their performances.
Two actors, many creative choices
The production includes only two characters: Grandma Gatewood and a narrator.
Priscilla Kaczuk, from Solon, met Wandering Aesthetics while working together on a previous production. “Benji (Rexroad) and I thought she would be ideal to play this fierce woman,” admits Jozsa.
“There’s something about (Grandma Gatewood’s) inner spirit that reminds me a little bit of my grandma,” says Kaczuk. “My grandma was soft-spoken but she was like iron inside.”
Coincidentally, Gatewood started her legendary hike on Sept. 25, which also is Kaczuk’s mother’s birthday. “What a wonderful woman to pay a tribute to. I’m just in awe when I hear the things she did and had to go through.”
Nici Romo, the narrator, developed her character into a harmonica-playing “trail angel.” Even though her character doesn’t live with Gatewood, the interplay between the two characters is crucial to the story.
“She was mystical, she was running the story, creating the picture,” says Romo, who’s also artistic assistant for Wandering Aesthetics. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a show where it was myself and someone else. The challenge of being separate but still together is really exciting for me.”
Even with a written script, the production leaves room for creative choices. Jozsa, marking his directorial debut, offers up the “ingredients” and lets the actors make their choices, which he then refines. “It’s nice to have the freedom to try things,” says Kaczuk. “Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t.”
“It does cover the history of the Appalachian Trail, but it also shows the human element, from Emma meeting different trail angels to the difficulties that were there for Emma to face,” Jozsa says.
Rexroad and Jozsa trained for their Appalachian Trail experience at local parks, like the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. He says, “When you’re on the Appalachian Trail, people will talk about how they love this area, especially in the fall.”
He also offers this dose of reality of Gatewood’s experience: “If she would have known how hard it was going to be, she never would have started. But when she got started, there was no stopping her.”
Wandering Aesthetics is part of CATAC, and “Trail Magic” is written by Kelly Boyer Sagert, with research by Kelly Boyer Sagert and Bette Lou Higgins.
Other members of the production team include Producer Rexroad, Production Designer Kirsten Nicole and Costume Designer Dina Younis.
There will be a reception following the Nov. 23 performance to raise money for Eden Valley Enterprises’ PBS documentary about the life of Emma “Grandma” Gatewood.
Tickets are $15, or $20 for a combined ticket that includes any performance, along with the Sunday reception (to attend the reception alone costs $10).