Volume 144, Number 4, July/August 2010, Page 7
By Lena Anthony
Photos Courtesy of Patsy Johnson Gaines
Martha Washington. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Caroline Scott Harrison. Those are just a few of the 24 women Patsy Johnson Gaines plays as an historical re-enactor. Since the early 1980s, she has performed as many as 160 times a year in front of audiences ranging from schoolchildren to DAR members to retirement home residents.
Her hobby started with a book on Hannah Dustin she read in 1982. She researched the Puritan woman—who is famous for escaping from her American Indian captors—and turned the story into “Gallant Warrior,” a monologue she performed as a member of a drama circle in her hometown of Wyoming, Ohio.
Mrs. Gaines performed about once a year until 1985, when she promoted herself as an historical re-enactor to local women’s and religious clubs. A few shows later, word spread quickly of Mrs. Gaines’ ability to bring history to life. The secret, she says, is the meticulous preparation she does prior to any performance. “The first thing I do is read every book I can find on the subject and make notes on everything. By reading it all, you can see the common thread, which helps as I decide what to cover in the script.” Mrs. Gaines also has traveled to museums dedicated to her characters or their hometowns. “It really helps me get a feeling for where they lived,” she says.
It also helps in her fact-checking. “There’s a lot of wrong information out there,” she says.
After finalizing a script, Mrs. Gaines turns her attention to costume and props, which fill the entire third floor of her Victorian house.
Props are especially important for younger audiences, but finding the right prop to go with the story can be a challenge. “Every year for a school group in Kentucky I perform as Jenny Wiley, a pioneer woman who was captured by American Indians,” she says. “When the Indians came, she was busy sewing a shirt for her husband, which is an important part of the story. But I can’t take all of that sewing equipment, so I take a basket of eggs to show she was busy and couldn’t leave when she was supposed to.”
Mrs. Gaines develops characters on her own, but she also takes requests from the groups that hire her. A church group, for example, asked her to perform as Susanna Wesley, known as the “Mother of Methodism.” A Jewish women’s group requested she portray Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister.
To relate the ancestry and early life of George Washington, Mrs. Gaines becomes Mary Ball Washington. She also plays historical figures’ wives, including Martha Washington, America’s first first lady, and Rebecca Boone, wife of Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone.
One of her favorite characters is Fanny Crosby, who wrote thousands of Christian hymns despite being blind since infancy.
“People tell me they learn more about history through a monologue than they ever did in school,” she says.
At the National Chairmen’s Association Brunch at Continental Congress, Mrs. Gaines performed as Caroline Scott Harrison, first NSDAR President General and wife of President Benjamin Harrison.
Mrs. Gaines just finished a three-year term as Ohio State Regent and is looking forward to doing more work for the Cincinnati Chapter, Cincinnati, Ohio, of which she’s been a member for 27 years.
She’s always on the lookout for new program ideas. “Ever since 1982, I’ve read at least a book a week and have kept track of every single one in a notebook,” she explains. “I write down interesting notes and whether they would make a good monologue.”