Breaking Social Norms
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photo by Joshua Jacobs
Bringing the Past to Life
Bringing the Past to Life
American historian David McCullough once said, “History is the study of who we were and why we are the way we are.” Few know this truth better than historical character actor and dramatist Dee Collier, who has dedicated her life to educating others.
Dee is a third-generation Floridian and former elementary school teacher. Though she grew up in the Fort Pierce area, she and her husband have called Ocala home for the past 48 years. Dee is well-known for her first-person portrayals of women in history, as well as for weaving thoughtful and engaging narratives about their lives. For more than a decade, she has been bringing the past to life to inform and inspire others.
Dee knew her calling from a very young age. “I loved teaching school,” she says. “Matter of fact, I loved education growing up so much that I would even line up my dolls and my stuffed animals and teach them whatever I learned at school that day.
“We did team teaching,” Dee explains, referring to her former school. “I taught the science, math, and history, and the other teacher taught the English-type skills. History was always my real love. I actually thought about majoring in history in college, but I got drawn to elementary education. I love kids.”
It was during her time as a classroom teacher that Dee began to develop the hallmark of her unique pedagogy. “If [the children] were to have a book report or do a special project, if they became a character and dressed up, I knew they were going to be learning more, so I would give the kids extra credit for that. I guess that was part of my life so much that, eventually, when this opportunity came along, I did it myself.”
That opportunity came at the behest of a fellow thespian. “Thirteen or 14 years ago, I was in a play with a friend–she teaches AP European History at one of our high schools–and she was bemoaning the fact the AP kids take their test earlier in the year. She’s not going to teach them anything at that point, so she asks me, ‘Why don’t you dress up and pretend you’re somebody from World War II and come to my class?’”
“I told her I know a lot about Corrie Ten Boom,” Dee recalls. “She was a Holocaust survivor. She said, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’ I’ve done her class every year since.” From there, Dee expanded her historical character list and often used her old theatre friend’s classroom as a stage test.
When asked if she ever felt trepidation about this venture, Dee gives an easy negative. “It just came naturally,” she says breezily.
A Born Performer
A Born Performer
While some of the 26 characters Dee portrays are quite famous, many are more niche. “I really do have to have an affinity for them,” she explains. “Sometimes, I also just keep hearing a name and I go, ‘Well, maybe I’ll investigate that.’ That’s what happened with this new one I’m getting reading to delve into in the next few weeks, and that’s Rosie the Riveter.”
Regardless of the names she continues to add to her repertoire, none have had quite the impact like Corrie Ten Boom. “She was the very first one I portrayed, and I guess I will always have a warm spot in my heart for her,” Dee says fondly.
Dee has found everyone to be very supportive of the work she does, especially her husband. “He encourages me, and even though he’s not into drama himself, he does have a couple of costumes that are the husband of these people,” she laughs. “He has a George Washington costume, an Al Capone costume, and a Viking costume. Of course, he works full time as a CPA, but occasionally, he will go and introduce me as those characters.”
While Dee loved her time in the classroom, she finds more fulfillment in her current style of teaching, as it allows for more creative freedom. “That’s one of the things I really love about doing this. I really love to find out little nuggets about these people that obviously a history book is not going to give you, and people probably don’t know about it.
“The women I portray are people who have overcome huge issues in their lives,” Dee continues earnestly. “I let that be known to people, and I love to see their reactions. That clicking, that recognition, that connection with people is really exciting. I can read their faces and see that, and I think that spurs me on quite a bit, too.”
Despite all the fun she has, Dee recognizes the impact of the work she does and hopes others do, too. “People need to hear about these lives. These were incredible people. They had the same difficulties we do today, and they overcame them, so maybe other people can as well.”
The full interview podcast airs March 3, 2023.