The stage dimmed. A spotlight hit the lone performer, dressed in a dark gray pinstripe suit. Armed with a finger gun and an array of voices, Indiana’s most notorious bank robber was alive again.
In front of a packed house at the Indiana Historical Society, Sally Perkins took the stage and transformed from professor to John Dillinger.
Dillinger—an Indiana native and the FBI’s number one public enemy in 1934—was known for robbing dozens of banks, escaping jail twice and outsmarting police forces across the Midwest.
Perkins—a Butler University rhetoric and public speaking adjunct professor—is known for bringing personality and stage presence to the stories she tells.
Perkins slunk from one side of the stage to the other, adopting caricatures of Dillinger’s real-life troop of hoodlums.
Perkins’s performance, “The Charm, the Harm and the Daring of Dillinger,” is part of the Sharing Hoosier History Through Stories series. Founded about 15 years ago, the series is a partnership between the Indiana Historical Society and Storytelling Arts of Indiana.
Each year, the organizations choose a topic related to Indiana’s nearly 200-year history and find a storyteller to bring an original story to life.
The organizations, looking for a popular subject the public could connect with, settled on the story of Dillinger and looked to Perkins to tell his tale.
When she was commissioned to write an original true-to-history piece about Dillinger, she did not know too much about him.
Dillinger was as much of a mystery to Perkins as he was to the police.
“All I knew was that he was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery,” Perkins said. “I sensed that it was going to be quite the project.”
She spent a month and a half looking through archives at the Indiana Historical Society, digging through documents, police reports, old newspaper articles and photos to find out more about the criminal.
Perkins had done it all before.
She started storytelling almost by accident eight years ago.
When Perkins saw an opportunity to tell stories at Riley Children’s Hospital, she was quick to volunteer.
A friend of hers in California had a daughter in a children’s hospital, and the opportunity stuck out to Perkins.
“This was my way of doing something to help,” Perkins said. “I couldn’t be there for her, but I wanted to connect with her in some way.”
She thought she was just going to be reading books. Instead, she found out that she would learn stories to tell the children.
Perkins has a background in music and theater, so the adjustment from reading to telling the story was not as scary as it could have been, she said.
“I knew from there that I loved telling stories,” Perkins said. “I wanted to pursue this in any way that I could.”
So she joined storytelling groups and started picking up as many performance opportunities as she could.
In 2009, Perkins was one of two Indiana storytellers to receive the Frank Basile Emerging Stories Fellowship. Through the fellowship, she was able to premiere an original story.
Her story about poodles and their owners takes themes from everyday experiences, a technique Perkins often uses to create stories with which audiences can relate.
“You have to find those snippets of your life that would make good dinner conversation,” Perkins said. “You have to start paying attention to your life.”
And so she put her attention on Dillinger’s life.
On Friday, Perkins recounted the story of the man who went to see his family while he was wanted in several states for robbery.
As helicopters swept the area and police raided his sister’s home just miles away, Dillinger went to find his family he had missed while he was gone.
Those details make it easy for audiences to feel something, Perkins said. Erin Kelley, the Indiana Historical Society’s director of education and community engagement, said Friday’s debut was the largest in the series’s history.
“This subject really resonated with people,” Kelley said. “Dillinger is a very dark and interesting part of Indiana’s history, so people were excited to come out and find out more about him.”
Kelley assisted in choosing a topic and a storyteller for the performance, along with Ellen Munds, executive director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana.
Finding the right storyteller for the performance is crucial to selling the show, and Perkins’s energy and ability made the selection process relatively easy, Munds said.
“A good storyteller has their own style,” Munds said. “Sally has her own style, and she is good at not only entertaining but really connecting with different audiences.”
Perkins will perform the Dillinger piece four more times this year throughout Indiana, funded in part by the two organizations.
In the meantime, Perkins will keep looking for the little snippets of her life that would make for interesting stories on stage.