I had such a good time performing the reading of Sharlott Hall's short 1880's story, “The Fruit of the Yucca Tree,” at the Tombstone Territory Rendezvous last year that I decided to do another reading. After some discussion about what would be a good fit for this group of Tombstone enthusiasts, historians and researchers, organizer Jennifer Lewis and I came up with the idea doing a reading from pioneer letters or journals from the Southwest. Jenn generously did some speedy research and found, “The Journal of Mrs. Mary Ringo.” It's the mother of Johnny Ringo's accounts of her family's wagon train trek from Liberty, Missouri to Austin, Nevada. I perused the journal. It included plenty of hardships and Indian attacks! We were set!
So, how do you cut a 38 page journal into a 4 ½ page script?
First, I read it through marking all the juicy parts and possible story threads that could be built into a compelling story. For instance, I marked all the passages about Indians - including the interactions with friendly Indians so I would have rising and falling action. I wanted to show some of the scenic beauty along the way and their daily activities without getting too boring or repetitious. On a second read, I included a strand about the sick cattle. I figured that the TTR audience would be interested in anything about the young Johnny Ringo (who later became a famous outlaw) so I marked the little I could find about him. The most dramatic journal entry was Mary Ringo's account of her husband's death, so I decided to set up his character by including whatever I could find about him.
I typed up all the journal entries I had selected – double spaced to have room for the comments when I “break down” the script. Since this is a historical journal, I decided to stay true to it by not changing Mary's wording. But I did cut sentences here and there to lessen repetition and boring details (like how many miles they traveled each day.) I tweaked and cut until it flowed as a story.
Time for some research -
I did a little research to find out Johnny's age at the time of the wagon trip (Johnny was 14) and the route they were traveling (from Liberty, Missouri to Austin, Nevada). I also found some facts about Johnny that I could use in my introduction. Johnny Ringo (also known as Ringo) started his life of crime by killing a man in the Mason County War. He later ended up in Tombstone embroiled in a conflict with Doc Holliday. Wyatt Earp went after Ringo believing that he was one of the Cowboys responsible the murder of his little brother Morgan. My next step was to look up any old-timey words that I didn't know so I could interpret it accurately.
Next, I “breakdown” the manuscript.
I underline the words I want to emphasis and put slashes where I want to pause for effect. I mark different parts for tempo - for instance exciting passages that I want to read fast or sentences I want to sloooow down. I love it when I find a line I can YELL (and wake up that audience.) At this point, I practice it aloud and circle lines that are awkward to say so I can work on them. I might watch a period accurate movie set in the same time period to get a sense of the dialect. If I'm having trouble with some stiff dialogue, I might leave the page and try saying it in my own words to get more conversational.
Now I put on my actor hat, and re-read the journal for hints of who Mary was so I can flesh out her character. (For example, Mary Ringo bought a new dress along the way so she cared about her appearance. She also puts a positive slant on everything.) I might even write my own journal entry in her voice to really get in her head. I search for sections where I can add emotions and mark them. I ask myself how she would feel about a certain situation. Are there any clues about how she feels? I try to incorporate as many emotions as I can and contrast them. I work towards building the emotions to a dramatic climax.
How do I know when I've practiced enough?
I practice it until I know it well enough that I can look up from the page to the audience. At some point, I like to read it out loud to another person – so I get used to having an audience. This helps offset stage fright. If I can, I practice in the space to get comfortable there. It's really about reaching a certain level of comfort and confidence – then let me at it! I'm ready to perform!