It was almost 10 years ago that Kyle Jenks enthusiastically jumped into the world of historical re-enacting. Now, he’s making an even bigger leap with a full-scale theatrical production of Walter Edmonds’ popular novel of the American Revolution “Drums Along the Mohawk.”
Jenks produced, directed and wrote the script for this stage adaptation of Edmonds’ 1937 classic, which was turned into a movie in 1939 by John Ford and starred Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. The show will be performed just once, at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Gelston Castle Estate in the Town of Mohawk just south of Herkimer, although Jenks does hope to make it an annual event.
“I was at a historical pageant in Bennington in 2003 when my dormant interest in history was awakened,” said Jenks, an Endicott native and longtime resident of Burnt Hills and Clifton Park before recently moving to Cleveland.
“It was like a light switch went off. Then I saw an outdoor drama about Tecumseh in Cleveland two years ago and it was another ‘ah-ha’ moment. I thought, ‘We could do something like that.’ ”
‘Drums Along the Mohawk, Outdoor Drama’
WHERE: Gelston Castle Estate, 980 Robinson Road, Mohawk
WHEN: 5 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, children under 12 and students with a college ID
MORE INFO: (216) 509-7502, www.datmod.com
Officially, the title of the play is “Drums Along the Mohawk, Outdoor Drama,” which indicates that it is an outdoor event relating to local history. According to Jenks, there are about 30 outdoor theater companies in the country that align themselves with The Institute of Outdoor Drama at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. Included in that number is James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans, Outdoor Drama,” now in its third summer in Lake George.
“We feel a real connection to them, and I don’t mind giving them a plug,” said Jenks, referring to the stage adaptation of Cooper’s novel being performed at the Wild West Ranch & Western Town in Lake George.
“Our two groups have met each other at the Outdoor Drama National Conference held last year in Lexington, Ky., and Lake George is going to host this year’s national conference. So, we’re the new kid on the block, and we hope to stay around.”
Jenks’ long-range plan is to produce “Drums” every summer and to add many more performances each year. He will most likely keep the play at the Gelston Castle Estate, the precise region of the Mohawk Valley where many of the events depicted in the show actually took place.
“This play is a part of a huge vision to increase heritage tourism in upstate New York, especially along the Mohawk Valley,” he said. “Our mission is to establish a permanent seasonal outdoor drama at a permanent structure on the Gelston Castle Estate, and to run it from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. It’s a perfect venue for this kind of outdoor drama that we’re putting together.”
Jenks also expects to have something of a captive audience for his world premiere on Saturday because the estate will be hosting a large American Revolutionary War re-enactment this weekend to commemorate the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany, a key component in Edmonds’ novel and the focus of Jenks’ play.
“It’s a long book, so I’m covering [Edmonds’] description of the events that took place in the summer of 1777, particularly the Battle of Oriskany,” said Jenks. “You couldn’t do the whole book, and I also knew that there was a big ‘Rev War’ re-enactment that very weekend.”
“Drums Along the Mohawk” focuses on the life of newlyweds Gil and Lana Martin, the couple having recently left the safe confines of Albany and headed west into what was then the American frontier. Guilderland native Jeremy Kester plays Gil and Saratoga Springs’ Sarah Cordts is Lana.
“I have not read the book, but I was always intrigued by the idea of playing someone from that time period,” said Kester, who most recently performed in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” in September of 2011 and “Our Town” in May of 2010, both at Albany Civic Theater. “You don’t get this kind of opportunity that often. Obviously, there’s ‘1776,’ but that’s a musical and a comedy. This is something completely different.”
The cast has been rehearsing all week at Tawasentha Park in Guilderland.
“I saw the ad for it online, and it just sounded very interesting,” said Cordts, who just recently earned her master’s in library science at the University at Albany. “It’s very historically based, and I’ve always loved learning about history. I’ve read the book, I’ve seen the movie and I’ve memorized our script, so I’m really looking forward to the show. I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience, and I would really like to do it again next year. I’d love to do more than one performance.”
Cordts has acted in various productions throughout her high-school years at Saratoga Springs and during her undergraduate days at SUNY-Plattsburgh. Earlier this summer she was in a production of “Wagon Wheels West,” put on by the town of Malta.
“That was a fun musical, a western, and ‘Drums’ is much more serious, more of a romantic story,” she said. “It looks at the relationship between this young married couple, and how they’re just starting their lives in what was the western frontier. It’s about them interacting with their neighbors and the men in Gil’s regiment. It’s a terrific book, and I’m really excited about the play.”
Kyle Jenks, shown here in costume, as Philip Schuyler. He is directing "Drums Along the Mohawk Outdoor Drama" Saturday at Gilston Castle Estate in Mohawk.
Jenks, meanwhile, had never read Edmonds’ book until recently.
“I had been focused on reading a lot of non-fiction for my re-enacting events,” said Jenks, who has portrayed General Philip Schuyler at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. “But a friend showed up with the book in hand and said, ‘You have to read this.’ I didn’t read it right away, but I did and that’s eventually what led to my ‘ah-ha’ moment in Cleveland. To my knowledge it has never been done before as a play, especially not outdoors.”
Jenks, who is a fitness professional, has done some writing.
“I wrote a play and have performed it for students, about Colonial life in America,” he said. “But this is a bit unique for me because it’s a full play with a big cast. Act one is 75 minutes, and after an intermission, act two is 60 minutes. There’s plenty of spectacle to it, and an original score. I didn’t have any connections to the theater world before this, but I feel like doing this historical drama is something I was born to do. It just took me a while to discover that.”
Along with Kester and Cordts, Jenks has some of the Capital Region’s top actors among his cast. Ron Komora, a regular at the now-defunct New York State Theatre Institute, will play Gen. Nicholas Herkimer, and Rie Lee of North Chatham, another familiar face to theater fans throughout the area, will be Mrs. McKlennar.
Kit Goldstein of Latham composed the original score, and Schenectady’s Barret Germain is acting as musical director.