Most days Stan Gill is the director of the Sprouts Children's Theatre in Mount Pleasant. But some days, he is an educator of a completely different sort for children and adults alike, impersonating the American author and satirist Mark Twain.
While rehearsing for his show at Piccolo Spoleto Festival, "Mark Twain's Final Tour," Gill sat down to discuss his relationship with Twain, his long history of portraying the man in white, and how Twain might react to the events and news of today.
Q: How old were when you were first exposed to Mark Twain?
A: I'm from Detroit and I first heard about him on a personal level when I was working at a place called Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. It's the Henry Ford Museum. And there was a very cute girl named Penny, who was a tour guide there. And one day she told me there was a wire recording and short film of Edison and Mark Twain talking. And it's literally two uncomfortable men standing next to each other, shaking hands and kind of smiling for the camera, and saying something. And I said, "I'd love to see that." And she said, "Come by here at 4:30 when everyone's leaving, and I'll take you back there and show you." And she did. I looked at him and she said to me, "You look a little like him." And I said, "Yeah." I've always been a big fan.
Q: How important do you think exposing Twain's work to young children is?
A: Well, this is a touchier question. I've done this all over the United States, and I've done it in other countries, too, and you have to be careful in some places with Twain's work. I think there are a lot of narrow-minded people, and in the South I've run into a lot of this. You really have to be careful, and in this particular show I have three "Huckleberry Finn" pieces that I do. And the Huckleberry Finn that I do here, Pap, Huckleberry Finn's father, makes an appearance and he's a horrible person. He uses the n-word. I haven't had any problems here in Charleston, but I've got to be careful doing those pieces where people have no idea what Twain's work is about. They have no idea how nonracist Twain was.
Q: Do you think Twain would have a lot of fodder in today's contemporary world to use for material?
A: I'm not sure he would find much funny about what's going on right now in our government with the polarization. He didn't have much good to say about politicians to begin with. They were the lowest of the low as far as he was concerned. I don't think he'd find much humor because I think he'd tell you ... that even though politicians in his day were selfish, greedy and stupid, now they've lost their way completely. I think he would also be flummoxed by the direction religion has gone. I think he would tell you that the way he sees the world going right now is not for the betterment of the people.
Q: Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn?
A: Oh, that's a tough one. I have to go with Huckleberry Finn.
A: He had less and made more with it.
Q: What do you hope audiences walk away with after seeing your show?
A: You're going to run the gamut in this show, from laughing hysterically to crying. And if you feel both of those things at one time or another then I've succeeded. I think they should walk away feeling that they've just enjoyed the presence of a great man and know him a little better. And they should read more and be enticed to read Mark Twain.
Nick Reichert is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.