Niagara Gazette

September 27, 2012

Stepping into Lewiston's past

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Sometimes it's impossible to avoid the "fish out of water" feel in life. For me, I get a little antsy being asked to perform in front of crowds, whether they be five or 500.

I relive this fear every time I step forward in the role of James Fenimore Cooper, the popular 1800's author of some classic American tales, in Lewiston's Marble Orchard Ghost Walk, 7 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 27, at the village's Peace Garden behind the Little Yellow House on Center Street.

Oh, brother, is it terrifying. Not only speaking in front of crowds – more on that in a bit – but the walk itself is gruesome. The actors who give this two-hour portion of their Saturday nights to put on era clothing (including one brave soul who wears a kilt) and receive no pay do a marvelous job of telling their stories and using just the right amount of dramatic tension.

They all know their parts, many of them veterans of the same characters for more than a year or two. They speak with purpose, put emotion behind their words and deliver their performances to crowds that hang on their every words – mostly.

Then there's me. I was approached to take on the role of the author after I told my story of the improv class I took this summer in Lockport. The first week of the Marble Orchard walks, I took the tour as part of the audience and stepped in the next week to make my debut. Initially I had my doubts about what I could bring to the well-oiled machine the Ghost Walks have become. But Eva Nicklas of the Lewiston Council on the Arts convinced me I could play a part in this year's success.

I started off going about my research for the character by reading about him on the Internet. I remembered he wrote numerous books in the years after the War of 1812, including the wildly popular "The Last of the Mohicans" and "The Spy," a story which featured a character based on the life of Lewiston's Catherine Hustler (and the reason they wanted me to play the author at all). Cooper, whose name is the namesake of Cooperstown after his father settled the then-future home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, also worked as a midshipman in the Navy and spent several years living in Europe. It was as a midshipman where he visited Lewiston and met Hustler and her husband.

But as I took my first steps forward this last week, my mind blanked. All this information disappeared, leaving me with a blank stare and the busted vision from the shining flashlights blasting my eyes with a wall of white. I took a step forward and almost tripped on a broken stone, throwing concentration out the window.

Somewhere, there's probably a YouTube video of me sputtering and failing to give a convincing performance.

So is this worth the trouble? Heck, yes. Just like when I took my eight-week improv class with Defiant Monkey Improv – which I continue to enjoy every free Wednesday night I can find thanks to the group's open jams – I'm learning so much about myself and the limits I have in overcoming situations I normally would flee from. I find it challenging every Saturday standing in front of a gathered crowd putting myself into a character I maintain for an hour or two.

I choose to look at this experience as suffering now but I have nothing but improvement to look forward to. As I tell my story and work on what succeeds and develop the failures, I can only improve my presentation and work on projecting myself.

This past weekend, with its fantastic weather, drew a crowd we estimated of about 75. There were quite a few people on the tour, many of whom for the first time. My hope, going forward, is they come back once I get my act together and come into my own. It may take a week or two more to get used to this, but I will get there eventually.

To join the audience of the Marble Orchard Ghost Walks, bring a flashlight at 7 p.m. sharp any Saturday through Oct. 27 to the Peace Garden behind the Little Yellow House, 476 Center St. Admission is $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12 years old.