In late Summer 1974 Bobby Bridger visited Austin's Creek Theater on East Sixth Street to explore the idea of a theatrical production of A Ballad of the West. After months of rehearsal with director Larry Martin, Bridger's one-man show of Parts One and Three of A Ballad of the West, Seekers of the Fleece and Lakota, respectively, opened in January, 1975 and ran SRO for fifteen weeks, beginning his career in the theater. Immediately after 'Ballad' closed in Austin Bridger took the one-man shows out on the road and continues to tour with them to this day. Part Three of the trilogy, Pahaska, was completed in 1996 and immediately joined the companion pieces in Bridger's touring. After intense theatrical directorial/design workshops in Connecticut with Eugene O'Neill Theater Center Founder, George C. White, from 1983-85 and further directorial and design collaboration with Joe Sears (Greater Tuna Trilogy) from 1985-1989, full company productions of Part One of A Ballad of the West, Seekers of the Fleece -based in Cody and Austin- ran from 1988-1995 in various national parks and communities throughout Wyoming. From 1989-1993 Seekers of the Fleece was directed by C. H. Parker. After Bridger returned his focus to performing the one man shows of the epic trilogy with the completion of Pahaska in 1996, A Ballad of the West was performed in repertory at Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming each Summer from 1999-2003.
Black Elks Speaks
In August, 1978 Bobby Bridger performed his one man show, Seekers of the Fleece, at the John G. Neihardt Center in Bancroft, Nebraska as part of the annual state-wide celebration of Nebraska's official 'poet-laureate-in perpetuity'. Aside from his epic poetry, Neihardt is world-renowned as the author of the classic work on Plains Indian religion and culture, Black Elk Speaks. One of those in attendance at 'Neihardt Day' in 1978 was Christopher Sergel, president and owner of America's first and oldest theatrical publishing house, the Dramatic Publishing Company of Westport, Connecticut. After Bridger's performance Mr. Sergel informed him that he had purchased the theatrical and film rights to Black Elk Speaks and invited Bobby to join the production team developing a play and film based on the book. Mr. Sergel also told Bridger that he wanted him to portray William Bent in the theatrical production of Black Elk Speaks and John Neihardt in the film. Even while Bobby continued his theatrical balladeering around the country, their meeting was the beginning of Bobby's involvement with 'legitimate' theater as well as the beginning of his close relationship with Mr. Sergel that would last until the publisher and playwright's death in 1993.
After joining the Black Elk Speaks production team in 1978, however, in 1982 Chris asked Bridger to help him explore the Indian theatrical community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, Bobby became a member of the Board of Directors of the American Indian Theater Company as they began developing a prototype Native American production of the play for the two-thousand seat John Williams Performance Art Center in Tulsa.
After two years of seeking, discovering and training a committed company of young Indian actors and technicians, in 1984 the American Indian Theater Company mounted a major production of Black Elk Speaks, featuring David Carradine as Black Elk, Will Sampson as Red Cloud, and Bobby Bridger as William Bent.
(*Many of these actors like Wes Studi later assumed pivotal roles in Dances With Wolves, Last Of The Mohicans and other 'Indian' films that came out in the early 1990s.)
The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
& Shakespeare and the Indians
Bobby Bridger went to New York City in January, 1982 on a mission to sell his album Heal In The Wisdom to a major record label. While in Manhattan Bobby met Chris Sergel at the Lone Star Cafe for an update on the Black Elk Speaks production and Sergel informed him that the playwright Dale Wasserman (Man Of LaMancha, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) was looking for a 'mountain man balladeer' for his new musical comedy, Shakespeare and The Indians. Bridger sent a cassette of Seekers of the Fleece and a press kit to Wasserman and soon the playwright called and invited Bobby to join a workshop production of the musical at the famous Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. In May, 1982 Bridger went to Connecticut and joined the two-week workshop production as part of the National Composer/Librettist Conference. Mid-way through the workshop Bridger was asked to perform Seekers of the Fleece and, upon hearing it, 'O'Neill' founder and president, George C. White, who also happened to be the founder and chairman of the Board of Directors of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, invited Bobby to perform 'Seekers' for the actor in Utah. Mr. White also created a position for Bridger as the official 'balladeer-in-residence' of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and asked Bobby to join the faculty of the National Theater Institute at 'the O'Neill'.
After being named 'balladeer-in-residence' at 'the O'Neill' George White asked Bridger if he had any other pieces like 'Ballad' and Bobby submitted the script of a three-hour experimental fantasy piece he completed in 1973 titled Aldebaran and The Falling Star.
Shakespeare and the Indians
(May, 1982 - March, 1983)
National Composer/Librettist Conference
Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
The two-week workshop production of Shakespeare and the Indians at the National Composer/Librettist Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was the beginning of an intense year of involvement for Bobby Bridger with Dale Wassmerman's musical. Acting upon Wasserman's advice, after returning to Austin from Sundance Institute in July, 1982, Bridger flew to Malibu, California for an intense 'one-on-one' month of training with theater professional, Eileen Daniels. After a month of theatrical 'boot camp' with Ms. Daniels Bridger answered an open 'cattle call' audition taking place simultaneously in Los Angeles and New York for the role of 'the Drifter' in the first production of Shakespeare and the Indians at the Firehouse Theater in Omaha, Nebraska. Over four-hundred actors auditioned for the part that Bobby Bridger won.
The Firehouse Theater
(October 1982-March, 1983)
After his historic Broadway success with Man Of LaMancha, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Dale Wasserman fled New York in favor of writing plays for western regional theater. Nevertheless, everyone assumed that Wasserman's delightful musical comedy, Shakespeare and the Indians was heading down the same charmed path as its predecessors and, with dreams of Broadway glory, enthusiastically joined the Omaha company. After a record-breaking five-month run at Omaha's Firehouse Theater, however, Bridger became close enough friends with Dale to realize, like himself, Wasserman was more interested in regional western theater than Broadway. Also, being in Nebraska strengthened Bobby's many connections with the John Neihardt Center and the team assembling the Black Elk Speaks production. With Black Elk Speaks and his own shows, Aldebaran and the Falling Star and A Ballad of the West beckoning, Bridger withdrew from Shakespeare and the Indians and went immediately into the first of two National Theater Institute workshop productions of 'Aldebaran' at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center (Spring, 1984 and 1985). Immediately after the two-week 'Aldebaran' workshop in 1984 Bridger headed to Tulsa to begin rehearsals for Black Elk Speaks.
Black Elk Speaks
After the Shakespeare and the Indians workshop in May 1982, Bobby Bridger visited Chris Sergel in Westport, Connecticut, where he was introduced to Quawpaw Indian, JR Mathews, who was visiting from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mathews spearheaded a Tulsa organization called the American Indian Theater Company that was dedicated to developing Native American talent trained in the theatrical arts. Bobby was invited to join the Board of Directors of the American Indian Theater Company and began traveling to Tulsa regularly to assist JR's efforts. During this time Chris organized what could only be called a 'pilgrimage' of the principle actors and the core production team to South Dakota to visit Black Elk's grandchildren at Pine Ridge Reservation and Harney Peak in the Black Hills. Coincidentally, the Black Elk family had unanimously requested actor David Carradine to portray their grandfather in the play and movie and, as Chris was old friends with the Carradine family, David promptly signed on to play the Holy Man. David Carradine always accompanied these Black Elk Speaks company pilgrimages through South Dakota. Around this time Will Sampson also joined the production. After playing 'Big Chief' in the film of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Will Sampson had become the most employed Indian actor in movies but he had never acted on stage. From the Tulsa region, however, Sampson quickly joined the Black Elk Speaks production and with these two famous actors on board the Oklahoma company rapidly gathered momentum. In the Spring of 1984 a company of thirty-six -thirty of which were Native American- created the first major production of Black Elk Speaks at Tulsa's John Williams Center For The Performing Arts.
Aldebaran and The Falling Star
Aldebaran and The Falling Star is an 'adult fairy-tale' performed as a three-act musical fantasy consisting of fifteen songs interspersed amid text and dialogue rendered in Homeric couplets. 'Aldebaran' is presented by a balladeer, himself a sailor and storyteller who has inherited the role of singing and telling this tale in the oral tradition of ballads. The story of the mysterious Captain Quince unfolds depicting him as the sole survivor of a bizarre ghost ship, the Na He. Claiming to have gone down into a whirlpool with his ship and crew only to miraculously return, Quince appears insane so no one believes his tale. Although shamed and outcast, the once proud Captain Quince recounts his tale and we follow him and a telepathic dolphin over oceans of water and stars.
'Aldebaran and the Falling Star is futuristic myth presented as a folk opera. It is a powerful and highly visual piece that represents an exciting new theatrical concept. 'Aldebaran' represents theater at its most exciting, drawing upon every aspect of the theater arts, from acting to song, to dance and mime, puppetry and storytelling; everything goes together to form a truly theatrical event.' Lynn Britt, Executive Director, National Theater Institute 1983-1989*
*Lynn Britt was the Movement Master and directed over fifty productions at England's renown, Old Vic Theater in Bristol and London before becoming Executive Director of the National Theater Institute in Connecticut in 1983. One of Ms. Britt's first tasks after becoming the Executive Director of NTI was to read a three-foot stack of scripts submitted for possible workshops. There, Ms. Britt discovered Aldebaran and The Falling Star and informed me that she wanted to use it as a workshop piece for students at NTI.
National Theater Institute Workshop
Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
The first two-week workshop production of 'Aldebaran' was an all acoustic effort performed with a three-piece band and a company of forty theater and dance students from all over the world.
National Theater Institute Workshop
Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
The second two-week workshop production of 'Aldebaran' was arguably one of the first theatrical performances in America with a score performed totally by computers. During the early 1980s Austin was one of America's hot spots for computer sciences as well as music and after the first NTI workshop, with computer musicians Fletcher Clark and David Roach, Bridger spent a year transposing the 'Aldebaran' score to a complex computer system that directed a bank of synthesizers to perform the musical score. Bridger invited several New York theater critics who were friends to attend the workshop and critique the production. Several of these critiques strongly suggested that Bridger continue developing the work as a chamber piece and he took their advice.
Chamber Piece Productions of
Aldebaran and The Falling Star
Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin, Texas
The first chamber piece presentation of Aldebaran and the Falling Star with the computer score and three-piece band. This was the beginning of several chamber piece productions with narration by actors Kathy Cronkite and Lydia Franchine and Bobby Bridger.
Armadillo Christmas Bizarre
The chamber piece of Aldebaran and the Falling Star with a computer score accompanied by a three-piece band presented as part of the popular seasonal gathering in Austin. Also featured actors Kathy Cronkite, Lydia Franchine and Bobby Bridger.
Kerrville Folk Festival
Highlights of the chamber piece version of 'Aldebaran' with Kathy Cronkite and Bridger performing narration.
*In June, 1986 members of the jazz/fusion group, Passenger, joined by Academy-award nominated vocalist, Jennifer Warnes, assisted Bridger to create a six-song demonstration recording of Aldebaran and the Falling Star for Columbia Records in New York. Note: Link with the recording chronology.
Unity Church/Houston, Texas
Refining the chamber piece production of 'Aldebaran' brought Bridger to abandon the computer version in order to develop a more traditional theatrical 'piano reduction' version. Kay Sparks joined this production on piano and Lydia Franchine and Bridger performed the narration.
A Ballad of the West
The full-company production of Part One of A Ballad of the West, Seekers of the Fleece, was directed by Joe Sears (Tony-nominated actor/playwright, the Greater Tuna trilogy) and debuted in Cody, Wyoming in 1988. The cast featured Joe Sears, Steven Fromholz, Wes Studi, Melissa Tatum, Daryl Watson, Bill Ginn and Bobby Bridger.
Live Oak Theater
After being driven from Cody by the historic Yellowstone fires in the Summer of 1988, the debut cast moved the production to Austin's Live Oak Theater in August, 1988, re-blocked the show and added two new scenes -all over a two week period!- and enjoyed a successful month-long run there.
Robbie Pow Wow Gardens
Buffalo Bill Historical Center
After the severe financial losses endured in 1988 it appeared that the full company production of Part One of 'Ballad', Seekers of the Fleece, was finished. Nevertheless, Joe Sears recruited his mentor, Northeast Oklahoma University Theater professor, C. H. Parker to direct, and his Greater Tuna Executive Producer, Charles H. Duggan to assist financially and the musical went back into business as Beartooth Productions. Rebounding from the ashes of the 1988 Yellowstone fires and the disastrous financial losses accrued in Cody, Part One of A Ballad of the West, Seekers of the Fleece, returned in 1989 with a severely trimmed down version of the show featuring Joe Sears, Melissa Tatum and Bobby Bridger from the original cast. Lost Gonzo Band founding member, Bob Livingston, joined the cast as Hugh Glass, and James Gonzoles played the Blackfeet warrior. Buffalo Bill Historical Center Senior Curator, Dr. Paul Fees, helped secure the Robbie Pow Wow Garden for the venue and, a former director of the Cherokee Nation's famous outdoor drama, Trail Of Tears, C. H. Parker was perfect to direct Seekers of the Fleece's transition from the indoor proscenium stage to outdoor musical drama .
Wyoming Centennial Rendezvous, Fort Bridger Rendezvous
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
As 1990 was Wyoming's Centennial, aside from 'Ballad's' company's normal Summer season in Cody, Bridger was able to secure grants from the Wyoming Art Commission to support company performance tours of Part One of A Ballad of the West, Seekers of the Fleece to the Museum of the Mountain Man in Pinedale, Wyoming and as the featured attraction of the two-week long Wyoming Centennial Rendezvous in Jackson Hole. After years of loyal support by former first Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, Bobby was finally also able to get to the right people in the National Park Service in Washington, Denver and Yellowstone to present his proposal: In 1990, and again in 1991, Seekers of the Fleece became the very first professional theatrical company to tour Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. This company of twenty-six actors, singers, musicians, dancers and technicians also played for crowds of over fifteen hundred Fur Trade re-inactors at the historic Fort Bridger Rendezvous.
Green River, Wyoming
In 1991 Beartooth Productions joined the National Outdoor Drama Association and immediately learned that Seekers of the Fleece was the only non-Shakespearean production in America being presented in verse. The production team brought Professor Emeritus of the Drama School of the University of Virginia, Dr. David Weiss, to Cody to review and critique the show as outdoor drama. An expert in outdoor drama, Weiss had lit or directed many of the nations one-hundred-fifty outdoor productions. Dr. Weiss advised Beartooth Productions to find a town (unlike Cody) in need of tourism to enthusiastically support the production. Ironically, city officials of Green River, Wyoming had seen the show in Yellowstone and contacted Bridger with an offer to do exactly what Weiss suggested. So from 1993-1995 the Seekers of the Fleece production divided the Summer season between its home base in Cody and the new development in southern Wyoming in Green River.
Buffalo Bill Historical Center
(July, 1996 - July, 1997)
After a quarter-century research and writing, Bridger debuted Part Two of A Ballad of the West, Pahaska, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in July, 1996. Bridger returned in July, 1997 to the historical center and ran Pahaska for the month of July.
St. Edwards University, Austin, Texas
Black Elk Speaks
In 1998 as a guest artist Bobby Bridger played multiple roles (Thomas Galbraith, Colonel John Chivington, Colonel Henry Carrington and General George A. Custer) in a splendid student production of Black Elk Speaks at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.
High Plains Heritage Center
Spearfish, South Dakota
During the Summers of 1998 and 1999 A Ballad of the West was performed at the High Plains Heritage Center in Spearfish, South Dakota.
PBS Series, In Search of Heroes: Buffalo Bill
Bobby Bridger was cast as William F. Cody's father, Isaac. (Incidentally, Bridger's son, Gabriel, was cast as nine-year-old, Will Cody.)
Old Trail Town
In it's early stages of development A Ballad of the West was often performed at Old Trail Town in Cody, Wyoming. Created by Bob Edgar on the land Buffalo Bill originally intended for the town of Cody, Old Trail Town is a frontier community on the outskirts of town. Edgar searched the Big Horn Basin and dis-assembled twenty-five cabins and buildings, moved them to the historic site and re-constructed them. A Ballad of the West ran in repertory for four consecutive summer seasons at Old Trail Town.