There are smiles that light up a room, and there are smiles that light up an entire stage.
Heather Honeycutt's smile can do both, and she has put it to good use in Liberty!, the Official Outdoor Drama of Tennessee, presented in the Fort Watauga Amphitheater at the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, Tenn.
The 17-year-old actress has participated in the drama for six seasons. This year she portrayed Elizabeth MacLin, a young frontier woman who caught the eye of young Landon Carter. The two married and rose to great prominence. The town (Elizabethton) and county (Carter) were named for them.
In 2009, Heather was selected to be the first face seen by the audience when Liberty! traveled to Nashville to headline the Tennessee History Festival.
Drama producer Jon Ruetz says, "There's an old saying in theater about 'taking the stage.' Let me tell you: in 40 years of watching and participating in theater, I've never seen anyone take the stage like Heather did in Nashville. She walked out in front of a standing-room-only crowd, far from the comfort of Elizabethton, full of poise and grace. I've never seen more emotion and charm in six little words than when she came onstage and commenced with 'Let me tell you a story...' It was an unforgettable moment. Our Northeast Tennessee home could not have had a better representative."
Heather describes her character as "very dignified and ladylike. Portraying Elizabeth has helped me be more cognizant of our history, and our responsibilities as citizens. I've learned so much."
She says her favorite part of the drama is "the time right before and after the men go off to King's Mountain, where they win a surprising victory at a dark hour in the struggle for American freedom (and became known as the Overmountain Men). It's so emotional, something I never really understood on a personal level until I did this. I have gained and grown so much thanks to being here."
She continues, "These people built the country that we know today. Their decisions and actions directly affect us. What would have happened if the brave men and women so many years ago had not believed in freedom so strongly? What if the many volunteers had not believed in fighting for it? We really do owe these people everything, and they deserve to be honored."
Heather and her parents, Norm and Leisa Honeycutt, moved from Florida to Elizabethton when Heather was two years old, so her memories of "home" center on Northeast Tennessee.
She recalls, "In 2005, I took part in a play that a group of home-schooled students put on called A Salute to America. We all had to choose influential people in history to portray and give information about. While I was in costume, my mother and I saw a man at a store who struck up a conversation and told me that he thought I would be interested in the drama at Sycamore Shoals, so I started to keep an eye out for auditions."
Once Heather joined the cast of Liberty!, she says, "I learned an incredible amount of local history that I didn't know and had met too many wonderful people not to come back the next year. The same pattern continues each year, and I'm sure it will until I'm old and gray, God willing."
Heather's family returned to Florida in 2006 and lived there for almost two years. Each summer, they made the trek back to Tennessee so Heather could participate in the drama. "There was just no way that we could not do that," her mother says. "Heather loves it too much. It means so much to her."
Happily for Heather, her family moved back to Northeast Tennessee in 2008, and she says, "We're here to stay" (borrowing a line from from one of the songs in the show).
The Honeycutts are an example of what Jennifer Bauer, manager of the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, calls "Liberty! families." Heather's mother has spent many hours at a sewing machine, volunteering to help make costumes for the drama. And, at any given time, Heather's father is helping with any work that needs to be done.
"Each winter, our Liberty! families come back together for auditions and rehearsals: children, adults, mothers and fathers," Bauer says. "Some of the children and teens joined the drama when they were literally babies in their mothers' arms. Many of the adults return, remembering when they were cast members as children. It is emotionally overwhelming, knowing just how important it is to so many of them - to share this story of their home and their ancestors, with the many guests that come to Sycamore Shoals to hear it.
Bauer continues, "Through their sacrifice of time and hard work, they help create a monumental production, and honor those whose stories they tell, and ensure their efforts are never forgotten. Without Liberty! families, like the Honeycutts and other volunteers, the drama could not possibly take place. All these wonderful folks are the heart and soul of our story - one of the most important stories in our nation's history."
Heather says participation in the drama has drawn her to a career choice. She wants to be a teacher, to make sure other young people don't miss out on the great stories of early America.
"Before I became a part of Liberty!, I knew nothing about my own hometown's history and I thought that was a shame. All those years of history classes and I can't remember reading anything about the Overmountain Men or the Watauga Association," she says. "It's not that students don't want to know. It's almost as if they've been brainwashed by what they've been taught in school, and that they think there is nothing else, nothing more to the story."
She adds, "As a U.S. history teacher, I would like to teach students about the area in which they live. So many people are as oblivious as I was to the wonderful and important things that happened right here on the ground they travel every single day."
A rising senior at Happy Valley High School in Elizabethton, Heather enjoys acting, reading, sewing and playing basketball.
Editor's Note: Performances of Liberty! will resume in July, 2011. This month, you can see some of the re-enactors when the Overmountain Victory Trail Association recreates the march of the Overmountain Men from Abingdon, Va., across King's Mountain to South Carolina (every year in September).