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Lost Nation Theater Lets Annie Oakley Set the Record Straight

Maura O’Brien, playing Annie Oakley, sits on the set of Lost Nation Theater’s “Both Eyes Open: The Story of Annie Oakley” during a rehearsal. The preview performance is Sept. 8, followed by a run through Sept. 18. Photo by Wayne Fawbush.
“Sharpshooter” and “equestrian” are the two images most people have of Annie Oakley; however, “Both Eyes Open: The Annie Oakley Story,” running from Sept. 8 to 18 at Lost Nation Theater, shows much more about this strong, remarkable, multi-talented, modern woman who died almost a century ago. 

“People really don’t know her story and how powerful she is and all that she went through,” said director Kathleen Keenan. “It’s great to have this woman and her energy and spirit in our lives right now. We really need to feel that kind of leadership, that kind of yes-you-can-do-it, live-life-on-your-own-terms spirit.”

Playwright Jeanne Beckwith said that Oakley wrote a series of newspaper columns about her life. Although Oakley never compiled them into a book, Beckwith used the concept of Oakley “writing a book to set the record straight” as the unifying thread in the play. In addition to Oakley’s columns and letters, Beckwith drew on a large volume of material. She said that accounts often contradict each other and that Oakley and her husband Frank Butler, themselves, were prone to embellishing stories.

Born in 1860, Oakley grew up in poverty and learned to shoot to hunt for the family. After her father died, she was sent to live at a poor farm, from which she ran away when she was 15. She entered a shooting competition with touring champion Frank Butler, and to everyone’s astonishment, she beat him. The two fell in love and married perhaps a year later (there is no definitive record). 

“It was Butler’s show to start with,” said Maura O’Brien, who plays Oakley in the one-woman play. “He stepped aside and made her the star.”

Beckwith said that Oakley was five feet tall, 100 pounds, tiny and adorable, and — Keenan adds — she charmed audiences. Shooting and riding horses were only two of her talents. She was also a seamstress — making her own conservative-styled clothes to avoid being confused with the risqué performers at vaudeville shows — and a skilled businesswoman. Although she made a lot of money, she and Butler donated most of it to foundations and to supporting an estimated 10 to 20 young women through school.

“She was also an amazing bicyclist,” Beckwith said. “She could shoot a gun while riding a bicycle with no hands.”

Being a woman in a field dominated by men during the late 1800s and early 1900s brought plenty of challenges. Oakley died in 1926 and performed until shortly before that.

“She lived and worked in a rough world,” O’Brien said. “There were a lot of schemers … There were people who would take advantage of you, so you needed to keep your wits about you. You needed to keep both eyes open.”

Unlike most sharpshooters, Oakley didn’t close one eye while shooting; she shot with both eyes open, which, as O’Brien noted, is how she had to live.

Keenan said the play has its origins in 2020 — the first year of COVID — when it became clear theaters weren’t going to be opening again soon. To cut to the quick on a longer story, Keenan and fellow artistic director Kim Bent started working with Beckwith, who has written a few dozen plays and worked with Lost Nation before, and with O’Brien, who has performed in more than a dozen past LNT productions. With Beckwith as the writer, the four collaborated on ideas for how to create a limited-cast play that could be livestreamed. Bent came up with the title.

After many discussions, revisions, readings, and consideration of audience feedback from a staged reading in 2021, this world premiere play about the outspoken, five-foot-tall woman who consistently stood her ground — including standing up to William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers — came together. Theatergoers can expect to see sides of Annie Oakley they never have before.

“Both Eyes Open: The Annie Oakley Story” runs at Lost Nation Theater, in Montpelier’s City Hall Auditorium, Sept. 8 to 18. Evening performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available at lostnationtheater.org or call 802-229-0492. The theater has a state-of-the art Synexis air purification system; however, patrons are asked to wear masks. Except for the preview on Sept. 8, all shows will also be livestreamed.