The Hippo


Apr 18, 2019








See Unlaunch’d Voices: An Evening With Walt Whitman

Where: Nesmith Library, 8 Fellows Road, Windham
When: Tuesday, July 8, at 6 p.m.
Admission: Free, registration recommended

An evening with Whitman
Impersonator stops in Windham next week

By Kelly Sennott

 Walt Whitman believed poetry should be appreciated not just by academics, but also by the common man. 

That’s one reason Boxborough, Mass., actor Stephen Collins felt Whitman might be the guy to tackle in a one-man touring show, something he vowed he’d do when he saw Jeffrey Hyatt’s portrayal of Henry David Thoreau at the Concord, Mass., Center for the Performing Arts years ago.
“I thought it was so overwhelmingly wonderful, and decided it was something I wanted to do,” Collins said in a phone interview.
Collins was a massage therapist at the time — one of his many careers before devoting himself full time to acting and lecturing — but in his mid-40s, it wasn’t as fulfilling as it could be. 
So he decided to re-invent himself. He wanted to recreate a big name in literature, so he started with Emerson, immersing himself in the writer’s work, in his life.
But something wasn’t right. Emerson seemed too esoteric, not accessible enough for audiences, brilliant as he was.
He was still enamored by the idea of building a lecture and theatrical performance based on literature’s greats, as he told one of his massage clients at the time. His client gave him another suggestion.
“He said, ‘You know what, I’m going to tell you who you should do. Walt Whitman. I think there’s a strong resemblance,’” Collins said. 
Collins studied literature at UMass Boston, but he hadn’t read Whitman since high school. So he read and re-read his poetry, archived letters and biographies. 
“I absolutely fell in love with the voice — it was a strong, democratic, sympathetic voice, a towering figure of American literature,” Collins said. “He was way before his time.”
He teamed up with Michael Keany, a director he’d worked with before who helped him build the script for the show using poems, letters and anecdotes, some of which came from Horace Traubel’s nine-volume biography (though about 90 percent of the show are words by Whitman himself). Collins’ first performance, called Unlaunch’d Voices: An Evening With Walt Whitman, was in 1998 at the Hancock Church in Lexington, Mass. 
It was a success, so he kept going.
Collins now has seven different one-man shows, including those that highlight the works and lives of Robert Frost, Shakespeare and Socrates, but Whitman is his favorite; he estimates he’s done the show about 1,000 times. He takes the characters to retirement homes, to libraries, to colleges — in 2005, he was a guest at a 150th anniversary Leaves of Grass celebration in New Jersey. 
He’s made the rounds in Massachusetts, but he’d like to circulate Whitman around southern New Hampshire, as well; he makes an appearance at the Nesmith Library in Windham on Tuesday, July 8, at 6 p.m.
“I love the Civil War part of the show. He’s recounting his experiences ... in makeshift hospital tents, cheering up the soldiers who were having their arms and legs amputated. In his early career, he was egotistical and self-absorbed, but his experience with the Civil War made him more humanistic,” Collins said.
Lots of people don’t know that about Whitman — or that he was gay.
“It was tremendously difficult to be a gay man in the mid-19th century,” Collins said. “There’s a part of the show where in one of the poems, he describes an experience, walking along the beach with his lover.”
This, perhaps, has been the most controversial bit in the show; he once had a high school principal ask if he might drop the homosexual material for a school performance. But Whitman was a big critic of censorship.
“I wanted to portray the truth of his life,” Collins said. 
Collins is a very busy guy; the day of the interview, he was about to leave to lead a tour and lecture around Robert Frost Farm in Derry, and the night before, he had driven to Connecticut to perform Socrates at a retirement community. He has about nine hours of memorized material in his head, and he’s working on a new show, a celebration of Irish poets, playwrights and writers.
He feels lucky to finally be doing something he loves; even during the interview, offstage, he quoted literature’s big names.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ Of course, I think that’s wrong. I’m the classic example of a late bloomer,” Collins said.  
As seen in the July 3, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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