Skip to site content
group travel leader select traveler small market meetings

Outdoor dramas keep stories alive

Courtesy Texas Outdoor Musical Drama

Some stories are so epic that traditional stages simply can’t do them justice.

For centuries, live theater has been humanity’s most compelling form of storytelling. And although theaters from Broadway to Branson mount exciting productions set inside beautiful interiors, some shows are meant for the outdoors.

Actors have performed outdoors since the days of classical Greece, and outdoor drama continues around the United States. Many of the country’s biggest outdoor shows are epic tales based on true stories from our history. To tell these tales, theater companies employ massive stages, live animals, hosts of actors and a wide range of special effects.

Church groups traveling across America will find a great variety of outdoor theater experiences at their disposal. The plays, musicals and dramas depict events such as the first colony at Roanoke, the life of Indian chief Tecumseh, the career of composer Stephen Foster and the romance between Theodore Roosevelt and the American West. A Texas-size show dramatizes the history of the Lone Star State, and Branson’s long-running outdoor show presents the story of the “Shepherd of the Hills.”

[ Chillicothe, Ohio ]
In Ohio, the outdoor drama “Tecumseh” is celebrating its fourth decade in production this year. The drama introduces viewers to the life of a prominent Native American chief who spent time in the area.

“It’s about the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and how he tried to unite the various Indian tribes together against the whites encroaching on their territory,” said president and producer Beth Beatty. “It chronicles his life and death, and this year marks our 40th anniversary.”

The company has used the same script for 40 years, but the show has evolved into a large-scale production that uses modern theatrical techniques. Action takes place on 10 stages throughout the 200-acre site, including a water stage and a promenade stage. The show uses numerous pyrotechnic effects, along with live horses and 65 actors and technicians.

Groups can take backstage tours before the show starts.

“Members of the company are the tour guides,” Beatty said. “They take you onstage, give you a history of how the drama came together and a history about Tecumseh the man. They go into how the show is put together with the lighting, the pyro and the makeup, and they show you how they do some fight scenes.”

The company also offers a buffet dinner that visitors can enjoy between the tour and the start of the show.

‘The Lost Colony’
[ Manteo, North Carolina ]
In the 1920s, locals from the Outer Banks of North Carolina created a simple production to tell the story of the failed Roanoke colony that was the first English establishment in the New World. Over the past decades, that effort has grown to become “The Lost Colony,” one of the country’s leading outdoor dramas.

“The people of the island decided to put on a pageant re-enacting the story,” said Charles Massey, director of marketing for “The Lost Colony.” “It grew and grew, and in 1937, they commissioned Paul Green to create an outdoor drama as a one-summer thing. It got a lot of national attention, and we’re now going into our 75th season.”

The show sticks faithfully to Green’s original script, following the events of the establishment of the Roanoke colony and the birth of Virginia Dare, the first child of English parentage born on American soil. It also lets viewers draw their own conclusions about the colony’s mysterious disappearance.

“Our show is located on the Fort Raleigh national historic site,” Massey said. “The place where you sit is pretty much the place where the story happened. You could be walking where the Indians taught the colonists to hunt, grow food and build homes.”

Groups should plan to arrive early enough to take the backstage tour, during which a cast member guides them behind the scenes to see the sets, costume shop and mechanics necessary to prepare the cast of 100 for the show each night.

‘Texas Outdoor Musical Drama’
[ Canyon, Texas ]
Yet another Paul Green story plays in the Lone Star State. “Texas Outdoor Musical Drama” has run every summer for 47 years, backed by the scenery of Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

“The park is the second-largest canyon in the United States,” said Kris Miller, the drama’s executive director and lead actor. “Our amphitheater is down on the canyon floor, and the backdrop is a 600-foot cliff.”

Miller joins a cast of approximately 80 young performers every night to tell the story of the pioneers and prospectors that settled in the Texas Panhandle area. Although it’s billed as a drama, the show features plenty of music and dancing, as well as three love stories and a patriotic finale.

The crew uses both the natural setting and modern technology to create a memorable production.

“We have a lot of special effects, like a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm,” Miller said. “We show a prairie fire and actually have fire out on the mesa and the stage. We do light projections onto the canyon wall and into fountains of water.”

Groups can arrive early and enjoy a chuckwagon barbecue dinner, browse the show’s gift shop and take in a live band performance. Savvy planners can tie in other activities, such as a horseback ride through the state park.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.