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Acting out on the Oregon Trail
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
Nancy Harms had an idea for recruiting actors for living history programs at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: Get local kids interested in drama and Oregon Trail history at an early age and invite them to take part in future programs.
Harms, living history interpreter at NHOTIC, organized a six-hour drama camp workshop for 9- to 12-year-olds on Saturday, designed to teach the basics of theater.
But during the morning session, the students didn't set foot on the stage. They spent most of the time talking about what they already knew, and the other part preparing to take the stage.
The first question concerned the 1800s, and what the students remembered about their Oregon Trail history. The 13 campers threw up their hands, eager to share their knowledge with Harms.
They knew that many people lost their lives enroute to Oregon, most pioneers passed through Independence, Mo., and even one of the major motivations for undertaking the journey.
"Land was getting expensive in Missouri and in Oregon it was free," said 12-year-old Jessica Mc Broom.
To prepare for their roles as children who had traveled the trail, Harms asked her students to compare themselves with children of the same age from the 1860s. Everyone thought education was about the same except for the one-room schoolhouse and the end of school at eighth grade.
Harms told them that wasn't quite right eighth grade was the modern equivalent of high school and was considered to be higher education.
"They were reading Greeks, they were reading Homer, they were reading The Odyssey,'" she said.
Then she pointed to the young girls in the class.
"Are you all wearing corsets, young women?" she asked.
As they shook their heads, Harms told them that children, both boys and girls, were given a belly band when they reached the age of two. The purpose was to straighten the back of the wearer, and boys wore the corset until age seven, and the girls wore them from then on.
"You were getting a stiffer and stiffer corset as the ages grew," Harms said.
That was greeted with gasps of amazement from the kids.
For all the information the students recalled about the Oregon Trail, none seemed to believe what Harms told them about marriage especially that the youngest girl documented to marry while on the trail was 11, and many were 12.
"Young girls your age 11, 12 marrying men 25 to 35 years old," Harms told them.
Eyes grew wide, and the girls just shook their heads at this bit of trivia.
While the campers tried to grasp these facts of the Oregon Trail experience, Harms moved them into the next phase of drama camp stretching both their bodies and their voices.
"The voice is your instrument," she told them. "Sometimes you're going to be a whiny, whiny child."
The group proceeded through an anatomy lesson of where body joints were and how they moved handy when pretending you're strapped into a corset, she said.
"When you're in a corset, you can't bend at the waist," she said, demonstrating how to bend at the hips instead.
After a lunch break, the budding actors really got down to work. They each chose a spot on the stage, and Harms distributed strips of paper containing their lines.
The lines were part of "A Pioneer Story," a program designed from children's diary excerpts that were written on the Oregon Trail. The children actors were accompanied on the stage by Harms and Center volunteer Tay Mohr.
The actors studied their short scripts, ranging in topics from medicine to etiquette to leaving home.
Most got right into their parts, especially after the adults explained some of the medicinal remedies.
LaTonia Lafever, 12, was able to supply the audience with a cure for the common headache.
"For a headache, take a shovelful of wood ashes, put them into clean, cold water, and, when it has settled, drink the water. May cause vomiting," she said, grimacing at the side effect.
"For a cold in the head," recited 9-year-old Marley Robb, "nothing is better than powdered Borax, sniffed up the nostrils."
Harms was pleased with how the camp went, and hopes to provide additional workshops in the future. She even wants to extend the drama education to classes advanced acting, and higher advanced acting.
"My vision is a full 45-minute play featuring just children. I would love to get more kids up here," she said.
"They bring a wonderful, wonderful facet of the Oregon Trail that we don't always get to see."