Alumni Q&A with Ann Birney, historian and performer

Ann Birney as Amelia Earhart with a Beech SNB-5 at the Combat Air Museum, Topeka

In the decades since her disappearance in the summer of 1937, famed aviator and Kansan Amelia Earhart has continued to captivate the interest of adventurers, historians, Kansans and more. Among her most dedicated fans is alumna Ann Birney, who performs as Earhart in historical monologues delivered across the state and country.

Birney’s path to becoming a performer wasn’t intentional. She was a librarian and administrator for many years. Once she discovered the realm of historical performance, however, she found a new passion. She performs as Earhart, as well as Julia Archibald Holmes, the first white woman to scale Pike’s Peak, and suffragist Elizabeth Hampstead.

Birney calls on her research experience and talent for acting to create monologues that are both accurate and captivating. She looks the part, too, showing up in authentic costume, like Earhart’s signature boots and pants. We caught up with her to learn more about what it takes to perform as a well-known figure in front of large audiences.

Hometown: I grew up in Topeka and now live four miles south of Admire.

KU degree: Ph.D., American Studies, 2002

Current Title: Managing Partner, Ride into History (Birney-Thierer Partnership)

How do you describe your job? I am a scholar and performer with a historical performance touring troupe. I also handle the marketing, contracts, and travel arrangements. I have spent a great deal of time as Amelia Earhart.  One year I averaged four performances a week. We also coach people to select a historic figure or composite character, research their life and times, select stories, and craft those stories into a monologue of about 40 minutes, followed by taking questions in and out of character. One of our favorite coaching venues is the Nebraska Chautauqua. We are under contract to write our second book on historical performance for the American Association of State and Local History. I also manage our grassland in Wabaunsee County. Life is good.

Tell us a little about your career journey: I was a librarian for many years, then an administrator and faculty member in a library program.  I did not know that I could act, or that I could enjoy being in front of large groups of people portraying someone else. It’s amazing what can happen when other things are not happening.

If there was one thing you wanted everyone to know about Amelia Earhart, what would it be? So many things, but … she flew for the freedom and beauty of flying, but she actually earned her living by talking and writing about flying, using her bully pulpit to urge people to earn their living doing something they enjoy and not let others determine what that might be.

My guilty pleasure: Too many to name, but let’s start with visual arts—drop me off in a gallery district or at the Spencer Museum of Art.

My best advice for college students: Persevere.  Make sure your goal is your own, that it gives you pleasure.  Find people to support you in it, but know that your vision is just that, yours. Also: take risks. Embrace new opportunities. Ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and if that worst thing is far from likely or it does not involve hurting others, then do damage control, take your teddy bear, and do it. When people told us humanities scholars that we were “art” we finally started believing it. I have written and produced a well-received play about William Allen White’s neighbors, and been paid by a museum to write a first person narrative for someone else to perform.  I have performed for the Smithsonian (twice), the Federal Aviation Administration, and on Saipan (seven performances and a workshop). Everywhere from airports to zoos, even theater stages. Who would have thought????

Cover photo: Amelia Earhart (Ann Birney) explaining her upcoming flight around the world to Calamity Jane (Joyce Thierer, also of Ride into History) with Spirit and a Beech SNB-5 at the Combat Air Museum, Topeka