University of Lynchburg students, faculty, staff, and alumni shined a light on local history this month at the Old City Cemetery Candlelight Tours.
It wasn’t the first time members of the University community were involved in the tours, but it was the first time in the event’s 14-year history that Lynchburg played a part in almost every aspect of the production. The collaboration also was part of Lynchburg Tomorrow.
“This year, we forged a new partnership with the Old City Cemetery’s Candlelight Tours, which bring to life the diverse stories of the souls buried there through outdoor theatrical historical interpretation,” said Loretta Wittman, the tours’ artistic director and associate professor of theatre at Lynchburg.
“Faculty, staff, alumni, and students from all areas of the theatre department collaborated with the cemetery and the larger community to prepare and execute the artistic production, including research, site-specific logistics, rehearsals, and performances.
“Our students experienced a unique and professional perspective of theater while honoring and serving the community.”
Over three weekends in October, more than 1,700 people attended the Candlelight Tours. Here’s a peek at what they experienced:
Each tour began with a performance by Curtain Call, the University’s musical theater ensemble. The group sang “When I Go,” an original song written for this year’s tours by New York City composer and lyricist James Ballard. Not a stranger to Lynchburg, Ballard directs Curtain Call’s Curtain Up Songwriters Workshop each spring.
“Any musical theater writer will tell you that the opening numbers are one of the hardest things to write,” Ballard said. “I wanted it to be something that properly set the mood and tone for the evening.”
Ballard studied the actors’ monologues and thought about common themes. The end result was “When I Go,” which begins this way: “When I go up to glory at the end of my days, and the angels call me home. Lay me down up on the hill, where the air is cool and still. Say a prayer and think about me when I go.”
Ballard said he wanted the song to feel “timeless … like a song you’ve known your whole life and maybe heard your grandparents sing, something that could evoke another period in time and yet feels right at home in a contemporary setting.”
As Curtain Call broke into song one night of the tours, Ballard — in town for a performance — liked what he heard. “They sound great,” he said, adding, “It’s cool to hear it come to life in this new setting.”
The Candlelight Tours experience was also new for Georgia Brown ’22, a three-year veteran of Curtain Call. “I’m enjoying the different genre we’re getting to play with,” she said during rehearsals. “Folky music isn’t what we usually work on, and I’m loving getting to sing a different style of music.
“I think it’s awesome that we get to work with the community in a unique way. Performance art has such a variety of experiences that you can dive into, so I love that we’re getting to do something new and different than what I’m used to.”
After the opening number, the tour progressed through the cemetery along a path lit by luminaria. Keeping the lights on was one responsibility that fell to Christopher Otwell and his 11-student shop crew. The group also crafted a stone carver’s workstation, tables, benches, and other items.
“As the Candlelight Tours stories take place in the 1800s, all of these items had to be distressed or painted to have an appropriate ‘period’ feel,” Otwell, associate professor of theatre at Lynchburg, said in pre-production.
“[My students] helped transport and install the scenery. Throughout the run of the shows, they [were] also responsible for the care, placement and maintenance of 500 luminary bags. The recent inclement weather … created some challenges in that regard.”
The only other hitch, Otwell recalled good-naturedly, involved the local livestock. “The biggest challenge has been keeping the students motivated to work and not just play with and feed the goats that are on-site at Old City Cemetery,” he said.
The second stop on the tour told the story of Marion Fontaine Cabell, portrayed by Lydia Linkenhoker ’24.
As Cabell, Linkenhoker talked about growing up at Point of Honor, a brick mansion overlooking the James River. She spoke about the enslaved people who built the house, and about how the house was decorated with “floor cloths made from the sails of ships, painted to look like Italian marble.”
She spoke of her father’s death, her mother’s shortly thereafter, and her own death and burial in 1833, at the age of 26. Then she walked off, singing, “There’s no place like home,” her lantern swinging in the darkness.
“This has been my first time performing in a professional and community setting and it has taught me so much,” Linkenhoker, an undeclared major from Bedford, Virginia, said. “Being around everyone, regardless of their experience or age, has been so immersive and eye-opening. …
“It’s not only been a pleasurable experience, but an honor to be a part of the Candlelight Tours and have the chance to share these very real stories with people who can connect with them on a local and emotional level.”
In keeping with 19th-century fashion, Linkenhoker wore a long blue and white dress and shawl. Like all of the actors and historical interpreters involved in the tours, she was dressed by a team of costume designers, all of whom had ties to the University.
In dressing the cast, the costuming team relied on historical documents, photographs, and other research. For Hanna Raasch, a German immigrant portrayed by Lynchburg staff member Shelbie Filson, the designers drew from the monologues written for the tours.
“The scripts were a huge help, as they spoke to the experiences and hobbies of each character in the show,” Hope Maddox ’22 MA, tour costume designer, said. “For example, Hanna has traveled across the ocean and later the United States to find the American dream.
“She is also very religious. Even after losing several children, her faith is very important to her. All of this informed that she would have dressed more modestly and had more grit and strength, as opposed to wearing anything flashy and expensive.”
Several undergraduate students also worked on costuming. “Depending on the day, these students were in charge of cleaning and distributing laundry, organizing the clothing at the end of the night, restocking supplies, fixing any clothing items in need of repair, and other general clothing needs,” Savannah Bower ’20 MEd, the tours’ assistant costume designer, said.
One of the five students involved in wardrobe was Za’Marae Morgan ’23. The vocal performance and theatre double major from Madison Heights, Virginia, also performed with Curtain Call.
“The main challenge I faced was learning how the world of costuming works and understanding how to correctly take into account what each costume piece is called, so that they can be marked off as accounted for at the end of the night,” he said.
“I learned a lot more about the ins and outs of costuming and have developed a strong appreciation for it.”
Filson, senior administrative assistant for the Lynchburg College of Arts and Sciences, not only had to dress like the German immigrant Raasch, she had to speak like her, too. For help, she turned to Dr. Alicia Carter, chair of Lynchburg’s modern and classical languages department.
“[She] graciously helped me with the German pronunciation in the script, as well as some specific words and names I was unsure of how to say with a German accent,” Filson said.
Several Lynchburg alumni worked on the Candlelight Tours, too, among them cemetery executive director Denise McDonald ’19 MA, campus safety officer Dee Brown ’02, ’19 MEd, and Janice Benejan ’06, ’14.
Benejan, the tours’ production manager and founder of the local nonprofit Building Bridges Productions, enjoyed spending time with fellow Hornets. “It has been awesome to reconnect with all of the University of Lynchburg family,” Benejan said a few days before opening night.
“I didn’t want to leave the school, to be honest. I loved being around the theater so much. So, it has been great, especially working with the crew that I have. They have been amazing. I would not expect anything less from future University of Lynchburg alums!”