Nearly 80 years after his death, John Dillinger remains one of Indiana’s most captivating characters.
The daring bravado he displayed during robberies, his ingenuity in escape and his sometimes ruthless tactics still make him one of the most infamous Hoosiers.
But behind the legend are the nooks and crannies of his life, which most people never have heard.
The bank robber’s life will be examined by storyteller Sally Perkins in a new program, “The Charm, the Harm and the Daring of Dillinger.” Part of a series focusing on Indiana history, the performance will take audiences from Dillinger’s childhood to his 14-month campaign of eluding law enforcement.
“To make a great story, there has to be an identification with the characters. That was the challenge with the Dillinger story,” she said. “It’s not like I’m telling the story of a great hero, some coach that took the basketball team through the trials and tribulations and saved the day. It’s not that type of story.”
For Perkins, Dillinger’s intrigue is in his role as the trickster. “Trickster” tales have been passed around for as long as cultures have told stories, from Native Americans to the ancient Egyptians and the myths of the Norse gods.
In Dillinger’s case, his continual thwarting of police and federal agents fit him nicely into that role.
“There’s a lot of history and the stories of the robberies, there’s that excitement in itself. But there was this element of how to do that without simply giving a book report on John Dillinger,” she said. “Seeing him as a trickster helped frame the story.”
Perkins was commissioned by the Indiana Historical Society to do the piece on Dillinger.
She has been telling stories since she started volunteering at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health about eight years ago. She has a background in rhetoric, teaching public speaking and performing on stage, which made storytelling a natural progression in her life.
A member of Storytelling Arts of Indiana, Perkins previously was commissioned to create a story about the historic Central Avenue Methodist Church. That experience helped her with the Dillinger story, she said.
“The Charm, the Harm and the Daring of Dillinger” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday at the Indiana History Center, 450 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis. Tickets cost $10 in advance or $15 at the door; they can be bought online at storytellingarts.org.
How did you get the opportunity to do this story?
The Indiana Historical Society does this once a year. It hooks up with Storytelling Arts of Indiana and commissions a storyteller to do a story on some topic of Indiana historical significance. I got a call that asked if I wanted to do an hourlong story on John Dillinger, and I thought it sounded like fun.
How have you put the story together to make Dillinger an intriguing story for the stage?
I got the assignment in late May, and I spent up through mid-September doing research. I went to the Indiana Historical Society’s library to look at as much original materials as I could. That was just the research phase. Over that time, a theme eventually came to me. I started playing around with it. I started to see him as a trickster, and I began to look at some of the trickster stories. That became the frame that I started to see the story around. That became my literary device for deciding how to make this intriguing.
What has been the most enjoyable part of going through this process?
Probably the most enjoyable part is the crafting stage. When the research was done, it became this challenge of putting it together to find what the story was here. That was the most fun, because the ideas just start coming. I’m very visual in that stage — I do storyboards, I draw a lot of pictures to get there. It’s the creative part, the invention.
What is it about storytelling that you enjoy so much?
I love being able to take an audience in my hand and completely move them someplace else. I have an hour with this story, so I get to take the audience somewhere completely different they never would have gone otherwise. I can stir them up a little bit, make them think about the human process in some capacity, and then bring them back to their lives. That’s an incredible pleasure.
What have you found to be the keys to tell a great story?
There are so many things that are involved in that. One of the greatest things that makes a story work and cause an audience to remember and care about it is there has to be a strong element of suspense. But you have to identify with the character. The suspense is built into this story. But identifying with them, that was the creative challenge to me. And I think I got it to work.