Before the annual presentation of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination” begins, Lady Gail Ryan engages audience members, finding out where they are from and leading them in a high spirited “sing along” of Florida songs including “Where the Orange Blossoms Grow” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Down the Shell Road.”
As founder and director of the Brevard Theatrical Ensemble, Ryan is responsible for organizing the annual presentation of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination.” The production, which changes every year, features a series of vignettes portraying stories of Florida history and culture, from native society to European contact to pioneer settlement to the early space program.
A native Floridian born in Miami in 1929, Ryan’s energy and enthusiasm for the history and culture of our state is contagious.
“I was born right in the blast of the boom,” says Ryan. “I didn’t realize anything about anyone being poor because we raised our own vegetables. We lived in the sunshine. I washed my hair in the rain. We had the best time.”
Ryan’s parents and sister moved to Florida from Indiana, driving down in two Model “T” Fords and camping along the way. While camping just off of a shell road in Brevard County, the family was awakened by a noisy group of wild hogs. The Ryans moved on, settling in Miami.
“Our house was built from the lumber that (Henry) Flagler sold when he tore down the Royal Poinciana Hotel,” says Ryan. “If it hadn’t been for Flagler, we wouldn’t have lived in this marvelous house. We never had any termites because he had the original Florida pine.”
Although Ryan remembers her childhood in Florida fondly, she grew up with her heart set on seeing the world and singing opera. She achieved her goals, getting her education in Michigan and New York, and learning to speak Italian while studying in Europe.
Ryan returned to Miami, teaching there for several decades. She earned the honorific title “Lady” from the Dade County Commission for her work organizing the Miami Renaissance Fairs.
In the mid-1980s, Ryan moved to the Space Coast. She organized the Storytellers of Brevard, which evolved into the Brevard Theatrical Ensemble. Over the years the group has performed original productions focusing on women’s history, Native American culture, and American innovation. They have presented selected scenes from plays by Shakespeare, and an annual program of scary stories around Halloween.
Nine years ago, Ryan was asked to research Florida’s Cracker culture and create an original production based on the state’s pioneer settlers. The result was the first version of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination.”
Ryan says that she was sometimes embarrassed to admit that she was a Florida Cracker herself, particularly while living in New York and Europe. She has since learned to respect the intrepid people who settled Florida, and now embraces her heritage.
“I began this research, and for the first time, I really became a Floridian,” Ryan says.
After the first couple of years focusing on pioneer culture, the program expanded to include stories from throughout Florida history. Every year different stories are performed, keeping the production constantly evolving.
“There are so many stories to tell,” says Rayan. “I don’t want to be bored and I do not want my cast to be bored. I want it brand new and fresh.”
The eighth production of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination” includes stories about the Calusa people, Spanish conquistadors, and Florida pioneers. Audiences will be introduced to fascinating people such as cigar maker and citrus grower Count Odet Phillipe, writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, and aviator Jackie Cochran.
Ryan says that staging this production each year has given her a new appreciation for the diverse history and culture of our state.
“I didn’t really realize how wonderful Florida was until now,” says Ryan.
“Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination VIII” will be presented at the Library of Florida History, 435 Brevard Avenue, Cocoa, Friday, August 7 at 7:30 pm. Matinee performances will be presented at 2:30 pm on Saturday, August 8; Sunday, August 9; Saturday August 15; and Sunday, August 16.
Admission is $15, and reservations are available at www.myfloridahistory.org, or by calling 690-1971 and pressing “7.” Reservations are strongly suggested, as these performances are “sold out” every year.