The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

Gipe, Mullinax, Stanley, & Turpin 23

production called Swamp Gravy are still being performed on an annual basis. When residents of a community perform their own stories, the performance becomes what Carson called “a religious experience—a community experience with real roots in it—when stories have this kind of reality for the players and the audience” (Carson and Greer 117). In 2004, Carson traveled to Harlan County to assist in the religious experience about to take place there through Higher Ground. By this point, Robert Gipe and his students had collected 200 stories from Harlan County residents. Carson came to help transform the stories into a playscript for a theatre production. In addition to Jo Carson, Higher Ground has had the assistance of a number of other theatre professionals over the decade; as collaboration between theatre professionals, academics, and the residents of Harlan County has been a hallmark of the Higher Ground Project. However, community ownership emerged early and gradually claimed increasing “ground.” With the latest production, Higher Ground 5: Find a Way , the professionals served only as mentors for community members who took on the roles of writers, directors, designers, and choreographers. From the beginning, Higher Ground’s positive impact on the community has been evident. By summer’s end in 2005, eighty community residents were recruited to be a part of the first theatre production. The significance of this is highlighted by Gipe when he says, The diversity and size of the cast assured two things: good attendance for the performances and that before anybody sang a note or spoke a line that people would see that our divided community did not have to be divided. Our cast, just by walking out on stage together made a dramatic statement against what had long been a foregone conclusion—Harlan Countians couldn’t get together on anything. (“The Door” 7) That first production ran for nine shows, all sold out after the first performance. Clearly something unusual was happening. When he looks back at the success of that first Higher Ground production, Gipe says simply: A non-traditional theater audience came both to weep—cause the play had its rough parts—but also to celebrate. It was about us, by us, for us. After the first couple performances, people started calling their kinfolks in who had moved away to come watch it. [. . .] And our cast became a whole new type of community organization. Church, school, family are most people’s identifiers in Harlan County—and

workplace, for those who have work. The Higher Ground cast did not want to break up when that first production was over. What I had stumbled into without a plan became a decade of community engagement. (“The Door” 8-9) This is what Schinina means when he says, “The aim of social theatre is not the aesthetic result, but the process of building relationships through creative communication” (24). What Gipe describes also illustrates the promise of Thompson and Schechner that social theatre creates “a performance that can transform the practitioners, the participants, and the public’s existing knowledge and experience” (13). Some of the original cast members have appeared in all five Higher Ground productions; families have appeared; young children have grown up in Higher Ground and been replaced by more young members of the community. When Gipe uses the term “diversity,” he’s not exaggerating—his family of Higher Ground members cross what Gipe calls “the bounds of race, socioeconomic strata, age, and county section.” When those Harlan County community members took to the stage in 2005, and with each play since, they had remarkable scripts to work with. In the time I have remaining, I want to pay tribute to the artistry of those musical dramas. The five Higher Ground productions share a similar structure. Each play has a long list of characters, ranging from thirty-three to forty-five, depending on the play, who are assisted in telling the stories by a chorus of additional cast members. The entire cast remains mostly on stage during the plays, coming forward individually to perform particular scenes. To facilitate the cast size, multi-level platforms are arranged on a thrust stage, allowing the audience to surround the performers on three sides. Skilled choreography allows for dynamic group movement as well as the continual creation of stage pictures as the cast rearranges itself throughout the play. The music is abundant and vibrant. Each play uses multiple, episodic scenes organized into two or three acts. A scene may be only a few lines long, or it may continue for a few pages. While varied subjects are touched upon in multiple stories throughout the five plays, each play has a distinct focus, which is highlighted by a coherent narrative that threads through the play in scenes which are interrupted by and framed by complementary, smaller narratives. The focus of Higher Ground 1 is floods: real and metaphoric. Act One contains a series of scenes connected with actual flooding: scenes entitled “Gentle Rain,” “More Rain,” “Rising Water,” “Flood Stage,” and

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