The Voice: Summer 2003

The Voice

Senior Laura Groen stages Ghostdance, a one-person show

By: Sally Jongsma

Most senior theater arts majors direct a show as a concluding senior project. Laura Groen wrote, acted, and directed her senior show, Ghostdance.

“At times I’ve thought I was crazy for having done this, but I’ve definitely grown to have a passion for the story,” says Groen. She also sees it as the first step in what could be developed into a touring show.

Groen’s one-woman show focuses on the Ghostdance, a dance but also a religion that spread throughout Native American tribes in the second half of the nineteenth century. The story of its spread is told by Groen largely through the eyes of Elaine Goodale, a school teacher from the East who went “out West” to teach on an Indian reservation.

Groen draws from a biography of Goodale, who later in life became an official in the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., to tell the story of the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. But Groen also wanted to show more than one perspective on the event, so she created five characters, all based on real people: a general, a young Indian woman, a settler woman, a private in the army, and Wovoka, the Indian prophet who began the Ghostdance. Groen plays them all.

“Everything in Ghostdance is based on historical events,” says Groen, who worked on researching and writing the show from last May until December. She learned about the struggles of the Sioux Indian people who were suffering from hunger and poverty because their nomadic way of supporting themselves did not mesh with that of white settlers who were homesteading the land they had used to hunt. She learned about the Indian prophet Wovoka who, building on exposure the Native Americans had to Christianity through missionaries, began what came to be known as the Ghostdance religion.

“There are really many parallels to Christianity,” Groen says. Wovoka traveled to different tribes preaching the good news that Jesus was coming back—to take away the white people, bring back the buffalo, and return the land so they could once again feed themselves. Performing the Ghostdance would hasten Jesus’ return. So every six weeks each tribe would purify themselves and, in fervor and anticipation, dance for five days.

“Tribes all over the west were adopting this religion,” says Groen. The five-day dances sprang up all over. And so did fear in the settlers and the United States government. They did not understand the dance and felt deeply threatened by the rising pitch of emotion. More and more troops arrived to protect the settlers. In that tense setting, one shot set off a massacre.

Groen became deeply involved in the story of Wounded Knee, but has also become convinced that the incident speaks more broadly than just to the Native American-white settler conflict. What it has to say about communication between communities of people and governments may have implications for situations in today’s world, too, she believes. Groen was originally alerted to the story by English Professor James C. Schaap.

“He told me that if someone was looking to do a one-woman show, Elaine Goodale would be a good subject,” says Groen. After reading Goodale’s biography and delving into the story, she agreed. In fact she found the stories so compelling that most of the script is taken from direct quotes by the variety of characters Groen chose to tell the story.    

Groen credits Anna Dever Smith, someone who makes her living by doing one-woman shows, as giving her the inspiration as well as the direction and format she could use to effectively tell her story. She met weekly with Theater Arts Professor Simon du Toit to hone the script, rearrange monologues, put in voice-overs, and tighten up the prose. She wants to do it right—not just to tell the story but to help the audience grapple with the issues and form opinions and ask questions about the events that took place and their relevance for other situations.

“I’ve never considered myself a writer,” Groen says. That’s partly why she opted to do a very historical show. “My strength and interest has always been in acting.” But being part of every aspect of the process from conception to writing and editing to scene and costume design, blocking, directing, and acting has given her a breadth of experience that she’s found challenging and invaluable. “It’s tied together so many things about theater that I’ve learned at Dordt College—and all a week before graduation,” she says. But she still considers it essentially a first draft, something she can build upon and possibly develop into a traveling show at some point.

Groen is grateful for the variety of shows and genres she’s been able to learn in the theater program. “The department intentionally picks works that give actors a broad range of characters and styles in their resume.” She’s also grateful that they don’t only choose crowd-pleasing material. “We deal with big questions while we have supporting Christian faculty around us,” she says. That is why she now feels prepared to look for a position in professional theater. She says she’d like to act, but she’ll look for an administrative job in a professional company first, hoping to earn an opportunity to audition for an acting part.

“I’m not looking to head to New York and be a starving artist, but I do hope that at some point in my life I can be involved in theater, even if I’m in another job and do community theater,” she says.

Theater has always been her main interest. “It’s a great art form in which to serve the community. It asks provoking questions; it entertains; it’s exciting,” she says, adding that the world needs more good Christian artists focused on using their gifts and fine-tuning their skills to be able to create art that serves the community.

“Christian artists have a good basis to start from,” she says. “We believe that God said ‘This is mine’ to every square inch of creation. Theater is part of that.”