By Kristen Miller
Most who see the upcoming Dassel-Cokato Arts Association’s performance, “Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi,” won’t recognize the man on stage portraying the 19th century author. That’s what retired Twin Cities newscast journalist Don Shelby hopes for, anyway.
Shelby has been performing this one-man show for 25 years and each time, he said, his hope is that for the two hours, the audience will not see the news anchor, but rather be “transported back in time.”
Twain is best known for the novel “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) and its sequel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1885), though Twain also worked as a master riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before the Civil War and penned the travel book and memoir “Life on the Mississippi” in 1883.
In this one-man show, coming the DC Performing Arts Center, Saturday, Jan. 24, Shelby’s portrayal has been said to amaze audiences with his wit and sensibility.
Shelby will also stay for an after-performance stage talk with the audience, where they can ask questions regarding either Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, or Shelby himself.
Below, Shelby responds to some questions regarding his Twain transformation and shares why audiences will find it worth seeing.
ED: How would you describe the performance?
SHELBY: I hope that the performance allows the audience to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours and imagine that they are seeing the real Mark Twain in the 19th century on his lecture tour. The material is drawn directly from the record and writings of Twain’s appearances.
It takes two hours to perform the makeup. There are many steps. A prosthetic nose, wig, mustache, aging to about 70 years. It takes me a lot less to get to that age than it used to. I’m only about three years younger than Twain when he was on his final tour. Used to take me a lot longer to do the makeup. Now, nature does most of it for me.
ED: What led you to portray Mark Twain on the stage?
SHELBY: I have always had the acting bug, the performing bug. And, I’ve been a fan of Mark Twain’s writing since childhood. My love of rivers and steamboats drew me closer to Twain. He was a journalist, and so am I. We both love good writing and telling a good joke. Of course, I was influenced by Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of Clemens in “Mark Twain Tonight.” [Holbrook is an Emmy- and Tony-Award winning actor.]
Over the years, Holbrook has become a friend and I’ve seen his performances many times.
The last time was at Orchestra Hall about 10 years ago in Minneapolis.
I went backstage and asked him how long it took him to do the makeup these days. He was nearly 77 at the time.
He said, “As long as it takes me to put on the white suit.”
There is simply no way to avoid a comparison to Holbrook’s portrayal.
We both rely on Twain’s own words, we both look like Twain, and we use the same sparse set pieces as Twain used on stage.
He smokes real cigars; I smoke e-cigars so the audience isn’t discomfited.
I was once told that I didn’t sound like Mark Twain.
The comment confused me because Mark Twain’s voice was never recorded and hasn’t been heard for 105 years.
Then, I realized they thought Holbrook’s voice was Twain’s voice and that I didn’t sound like Holbrook.
There is no doubt about it, Holbrook is the greatest. Anyone trying to portray Twain will always be a distant third to the real Mark Twain, and to Hal Holbrook.
ED: Where have you performed this show, and for how long?
SHELBY: I have been performing this one-man show for more than 25 years. I have performed it on the Showboat, in river cities across the state, on the Delta Queen during the Grand Excursion, at the Great River Gathering in St. Paul.
I’ve performed it roughly 100 times at different venues.
This year I wrote a new program that uses VocalEssence’s Ensemble singers doing beautiful river songs, and Twain appears to weave together the music and tell his tales.
We have performed that show four times, and have a state arts grant to continue for the next two years.
ED: What do you hope audiences get from the performance/story, you share?
SHELBY: The performance isn’t expected to alter anyone’s mind or world-view, but Twain did manage to do that in his time, with his words.
In a historical sense, there are one or two sections of the show when the audience will see with what courage Twain approached the problems of his day.
He was absolutely convinced that he could change people’s hearts with satire and humor. And, he did.
My hope is that the audience will simply have a good time at the theater and believe, for those two hours, that they have been transported back in time.
The performer knows when the audience has stopped seeing the actor and starts seeing the character.
In my case, when they stop seeing Don Shelby from WCCO-TV on stage in a white suit and white wig, and start allowing themselves to believe, they are seeing Mark Twain.
ED: Any other comments you wish to share?
SHELBY: Twain was not just a humorist. He was a moralist, a dramatist, critic, and some of his work is very sad. Despite being known as America’s first stand-up comedian, he had a very difficult and tragic life.
In his last years, he was care-worn, but still managed to go for the laugh. It saved his life. His last tour saved his reputation. Because of some bad business investments, he ended up losing about $20 million in today’s money.
Instead of filing for bankruptcy, he went back on the lecture circuit on a world tour and paid everyone back, to the penny.
Much of my material is drawn from that last lecture tour.
‘Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi’
When: Saturday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m.
Where: Dassel-Cokato Performing Arts Center
Ticket sales: Reserved seat tickets are $20 for adults, and $7 for youth ages 1-18, available by calling (320) 286-4120 or online at www.dc.k12.mn.us/pac.
Note: The DC Community Education office will be closed Tuesday, Dec. 30 through Sunday, Jan. 4.