Nationally acclaimed Underground Railroad experience begins 19th season

Tickets are on sale online now for upcoming dates of Follow the North Star at Conner Prairie, a nationally acclaimed Underground Railroad experience.

By Ephraim Rudolph
Follow the North Star, an award-winning participatory theater program about Underground Railroad activities in central Indiana, is now under way for the 19th year at Conner Prairie.

The experience is set in the year 1836 and allows participants to assume the role of fugitive slaves as they escape their handlers and encounter an assortment of Indiana residents, both allies and foes, on their northbound journey toward freedom in Canada.

Follow the North Star is an invitation to step back into history and into someone else’s shoes,” said Michelle Evans, an interpretation program developer at the museum who led the creation of the experience more than 20 years ago. “People walk into this program knowing that they’re safe and that it’ll be over in an hour and a half. In that time, they do experience in some small way the fear, uncertainty and hopefulness of how it would have felt to be on the Underground Railroad.”

Follow the North Star is in its 19th year at Conner Prairie. The experience is offered in the daytime to students in school groups and in the evening to the general public.

While this is an intense program meant to evoke some of the feelings fugitive slaves experienced in the 1800s, Director of School Programs Nancy Stark cautioned that this is not a replication of the Underground Railroad experience. Participants should be aware that “this is an attempt to give people a sliver of a peek into it and to give them some idea of it,” she said. “We’re not suggesting that we can show you what anyone really went through on the Underground Railroad.”

Follow the North Star is an evolution of an early-1990s African-American educational program for school groups and the public that featured a different theme and storyline each year.

“Around 1995, a member of our team recommended that we check out an Underground Railroad re-enactment that was running at a YMCA camp in Ohio,” Evans said. “We came back from that and immediately set to work writing and creating our own Underground Railroad program.”

Museum staff spent two years researching, writing and extensively testing Follow the North Star with a diverse advisory board that included historians, educators, scholars and a psychologist before the program debuted in 1998.

The story and structure of the program have remained largely unchanged throughout its span. “The biggest change was five or six years ago when we added the ‘former fugitive,’ a character who has escaped slavery and is now headed back down south to try and rescue family,” Evans said. “That was not an original character, although we talked about it at the beginning.”

Follow the North Star depicts likely scenarios that fugitive slaves experienced while traveling through central Indiana en route to northern freedom.

More than 90,000 people, including students in school groups and the general public, have experienced Follow the North Star, which is offered in the daytime to school groups and at nighttime to the general public on select dates each November and April.

“During each daytime showing, we have around 20 actors and staff. In the evening, that number doubles to around 40,” said School Programs Manager Dana Jones. “The evening program is more intense, especially in the fall, just because of the darkness and the weather. During the daytime program, it’s light out and you can see, which adds a safer element.”

In the event that their experience becomes too intense for some participants, each person is given a white headband. If there are moments when they don’t want to participate, they can put their headband on to signal to the actors that they are not to interact with them.

At its core, Follow the North Star is about engaging participants’ critical-thinking skills to bridge the realities of slavery and the Underground Railroad in 1836 with the realities of slavery and race-based social issues today, with an ultimate goal of inspiring modern-day social change.

“That’s what the debriefing session at the end is great for,” said Jones, referring to a post-program roundtable discussion during which participants can share their thoughts about the program and society at large.

“This about the bravery and determination it took as a fugitive and the risks taken by those who helped on the Underground Railroad. Those were much more dangerous risks than many people take nowadays to support social change,” Evans said. “If they could do it, we can do it.”

Follow the North Star runs Thursday through Sunday throughout the month of November, with starting times available from 6:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online and are $20 for non-museum members and $17 for members. Also available online are answers to frequently asked questions about the program.

The two-hour experience is for ages 12 and older, no exceptions. Children under age 16 must be accompanied by an adult.