Exploring April 1865 with the “One Destiny” Cast

One Destiny, a 35-minute play by Richard Hellesen, explores the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination from the perspectives of those in the theatre that fateful day. The two lead characters in One Destiny are Harry Hawk and Harry Ford. Hawk was an actor in Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln attended when he was assassinated. Ford was owner of the theatre.

Stephen F. Schmidt and Michael Bunce play multiple characters in the one-act play "One Destiny." Photo by Gary Erskine.

Michael Bunce and Stephen F. Schmidt play the roles of Hawk and Ford and, as of May 2014, the show has seen more than 700 performances. Schmidt and Bunce are regulars on the Ford’s Theatre stage and also are Ford’s Teaching Artists, helping education professionals teach history through theatre, speech and storytelling. We recently asked them about how they keep the production looking fresh for each show and about the impact of theatre.

Character Challenges

In One Destiny, the cast reenacts the hours leading up to Lincoln’s assassination through the perspective of the theatre’s many workers and actors. One Destiny playwright Richard Hellesen included short biographical sketches about many of the production’s different characters in his play notes, and Schmidt and Bunce have both invested a great amount of research into creating their unique roles.

John Wilkes Booth used this small deringer pistol to shoot President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

Schmidt says he prepared for One Destiny by reading several historical books including James L. Swanson’s Manhunt and Michael W. Kauffman’s American Brutus. Bunce explains, “A ton of information about the assassination itself is available, and new information seems to come out all the time. However, we found very little initial information about the actors, crew and staff of the theatre. The only information I found about Harry Hawk was about the events of the night of April 14. Other characters (house manager, doorman, etc.) were pretty much left for us to create. Recently, Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination by Thomas A. Bogar was published. This is a great resource, as it describes in great detail pretty much everyone that was employed at the theatre that night.”

700 Performances and Counting

Given the number of performances during the spring and summer, Bunce and Schmidt both occasionally modify their performances in small ways to keep the material fresh. It helps that each portray five or six characters in one play, but both actors must actively listen to each other’s lines during the show to maintain enthusiasm. Bunce says, “We sometimes marvel that we will inadvertently give a different line reading that’s never been done.”

On the Road

One Destiny has been performed in venues including the White House, elementary cafetoriums and numerous middle and high schools in the D.C. area. Schmidt’s most memorable performance was in the East Room of the White House at the request of First Lady Laura Bush. “To have the honor of performing in the very room where President Lincoln’s body once lay in state on April 18, 1865, is an enduring memory that I will never forget.” Yet both actors believe no performance setting is as effective as Ford’s Theatre. Performing under the Presidential Box where Lincoln’s assassination took place guarantees a powerful experience for both the actors and audience.

Image of the Presidential Box at Ford's Theatre by Maxwell MacKenzie.

Educational Theatre

While covering the same information as a traditional lecture or ranger talk about Ford’s Theatre, One Destiny engages audiences in different ways. The play brings history to life by inviting audiences to see the emotions of the real characters from the 1860s. “I like to think that telling the story in the context of a play makes it a bit more real,” Bunce says. Both actors talk about audiences having many questions after the performance and see the show as an effective way to get kids excited about the performing arts and American history.

“Even without prior knowledge about the assassination, kids can take the play at face value and many of them can intuit much from the text they hear,” Schmidt explained. “One Destiny has the unique power of live theatre to teach empathy. We can, I hope, help our audiences somewhat understand how people felt before, during and after this terrible tragedy on April 14, 1865.”

In each One Destiny performance, the audience ranges in age and prior knowledge of Lincoln and the assassination. One Destiny may be the first theatrical experience for many. Bunce explains, “If we can instill in anyone the desire to regularly go to the theatre, I think we’re doing a great service.”

Danny Dubin is a former Ford’s Theatre Marketing and Communication Intern and graduate of American University with a major in Public Communication.