Donna Becker has plenty of experience with public speaking from her years in 4-H to her career with Harry Hynes Hospice to teaching at Bethel College, but now the Newton resident is challenging herself to add performing to her repertoire.
After retiring four years ago, Becker found she wanted to do more than read and volunteer on occasion. Then, she attended a presentation by Historical Echoes, at which women from history were portrayed by costumed reenactors giving solo performances.
"I was just absolutely fascinated," Becker said. "...For many, many years, there was kind of this submerged interest that I had, because I had seen some one-woman performances years ago and I just thought, 'that is so powerful.'"
When Becker learned Historical Echoes was launching an institute to teach others the principles of performing as historical characters, she applied to be its first trainee.
"Donna was a marvelous student," said Irene Nielsen of Historical Echoes. "...It is important in our interactive performances that the storyteller does not memorize anything, but has to relate intimately with the audience and change (the performance) for different audiences. That's a skill we practice in the institute and she managed it very well."
The intensive two-day workshop taught Becker not only storytelling techniques and performance skills, but also gave her insight into her own personality.
"Part of the experience was a number of assessments that are intended to help the student understand themselves better and those things I think are important," Becker said. "...It was important for me to be aware of certain tendencies I have; that I not project those onto my character."
The ethics of taking on the persona of a real woman who lived in years gone by was also a major focus of the workshop.
"We have to be true to these women's stories. We don't use them to promote our own agenda or tweak (them) to make them look better than they were," Becker said.
Still, Becker is able to bring her own interests and experience to the table in choosing the characters she will portray, several of whom were champions in the fields of medicine, mental health or social justice.
"These characters illustrate some reform or some progress women made," Becker said. "They've been leaders. They've pushed the role of women in a number of ways."
Becker is working on developing performances that not only inform, but also motivate audiences to think about what progress has been made and what still needs to happen in certain areas of life.
"The characters who I'm choosing ... are women who have pushed boundaries; who have, in different ways, expanded and broken through that women's sphere that was prescribed by a patriarchal society," Becker said.
Becker's first performance will take place at 2 p.m. Jan. 5, 2019, at Dyck Arboretum, 177 W. Hickory St. in Hesston. At that event, she will portray Frances Willard.
"(Willard) was an educator; she became the president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and then she began to hook up with the suffrage movement and got into all kinds of social issues — prison reform, age of consent, labor laws — and she died very early, she died at age 59," Becker said.
Dame Cicely Saunders, who is credited with being the founder of the modern hospice movement, is another woman whose story Becker hopes to share with audiences.
"I believe so strongly in quality end of life care and hospice and palliative care — I want to find ways to sort of keep that option alive in people's minds," Becker said.
Another historical figure who sparks Becker's interest is Elizabeth Packard, who was declared insane by her Calvinist minister husband.
"I think when I do Elizabeth Packard, it will speak to mental health reform and will generate a discussion afterwards about the state of mental health care today," Becker said.
While it takes several months to compile the facts about each woman and polish her performance, Becker admitted she enjoys the research and rehearsal — and that she hopes it will influence those who attend her presentations.
"There is a way to add relevance to today's issues by channeling women who dealt with situations that are still prevalent today," Becker said.
Tickets to see Becker as Francis Willard are $25 ($18 for ages 12-16) and are available by calling 785-493-5246. Tea and cookies will be served at the event.
The Institute of Historical Echoes for First-Person Performers will hold its next workshops on April 25 and 26, 2019, and Sept. 26 and 27, 2019, in Lindsborg. To learn more about the program and how it can benefit performers, executives or others wishing to improve their public speaking skills, visit http://institute.historical-echoes.com.