The Great American People Show was a not-for-profit theater company known for plays about American history, with a particularly strong focus on Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy. GAPS, as it became known, was a regional favorite in Illinois. Beginning in 1976, the theatre ran for twenty seasons in New Salem, near Springfield, until the company’s dissolution in 1996. In 1995, Illinois designated “The Great American People Show” as the official “state theatre of Lincoln and the American Experience.”
John Ahart, a theatre professor at the University of Illinois, founded GAPS to present history through evocative and educational theatre, and he served as the company’s artistic director and leader as they moved forward. Ahart was influenced by Brechtian epic theatre and the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) of the 1930s, and he drew from the FTP’s methods for his own creative process. The Great American People Show was incorporated in December of 1975 as a non-profit organization. In its charter, it declared a list of goals: to develop a new permanent theatre in an Illinois historical center; to create a series of historically based dramas, or People Shows, celebrating the varied history of this country; to develop a new and significant audience in Illinois drawing on and creating a tourist audience for the state; to develop an input process in which organizations interested in the work of the company can suggest topics for new works; and to create a theatre that is not remote from the people, but vital and integral.
The Great American People Show’s first production, Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln, was presented in the summer of 1976 and received critical acclaim. The play is a dramatic biography of Lincoln, drawing upon speeches, letters, and other writings of the period for historical accuracy. A cast of eleven actors took on over 200 characters in the course of two hours, and the piece was performed on a new multi-level outdoor stage in the Kelso Hollow Amphitheatre at the edge of the reconstructed New Salem Village. The stage was actually built in 1976 specifically for this production. The play is composed of hundreds of short scenes that range from monologues and two-person conversations to large-scale battles and convention scenes. The instant scene changes were often indicated by an actor shouting out a headline-style title for the audience. Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln was written by Ahart and the original company, and critics described it as “not just another Lincoln play, but an experience.” This play became one of the company’s signature shows, and they performed it every year until 1993 and reprised it again in 1995.
Two other works, Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (1980) and Even We Here (1982), were performed along with Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln to form a trilogy of plays that covered episodes of American history from Lincoln’s birth to the moon landing. This trilogy was performed each summer from 1982 to 1987, but funding constraints ultimately reduced the summer season to a single play. Later seasons featured other works beyond the GAPS repertoire like Thorton Wilder’s Our Town and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, in addition to other GAPS-specific productions.
In 1980, GAPS became the first theater to receive the Governor’s Award for the Arts, and by 1995 the Illinois legislature named it the Official State Theatre of Lincoln and the American Experience. By the fall of 1995, though, John Ahart resigned from his positions as the President of the Board and Artistic Director. The following year the board decided to dissolve the organization.
The Great American People Show Records, 1968-1997 (MS 270) contains documents of the administration, promotion, production work, and history of GAPS from its inception in 1975 to its dissolution in 1996. Materials include programs, photographs, news clippings, costume design notes and materials, audience statistics and surveys, and production notes. You can also check out the James Hurt “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” Scripts, 1980 and 2008 (MS 774), which consists of two copies of the play that was performed from 1980 to 1987. The play traces Lincoln’s life and legacy through the eyes of three Illinois poets, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Edgar Lee Masters.
“Great American People Show To Open.” The Pantagraph. June 16, 1981. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/11826317/great_american_people_show_1981/.
Spinrad, Diana. “On Stage: The Story of Lincoln, But Hipper.” Chicago Reader. May 30, 1991. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/on-stage-the-story-of-lincoln-but-hipper/Content?oid=877691.
Wilson, Douglas L. “Chatutauqua: Old and New.” Illinois Issues. July 1991. https://www.lib.niu.edu/1991/ii910721.html.