The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII
Regional Theatres & Academic Partnerships
The panelists are Kelly Bremner (moderator), Bill Gregg, Nick Piper, and Rick Rose. The panel spoke on October 9, 2015. KB: Good morning. This morning we have three panelists who are heavily involved in professional regional theatre in the region and are also in some way attached to an academic institution. The Barter is attached to Emory & Henry, and Southern Appalachian Regional Theatre (SART) is attached to Mars Hill. We’re hoping to have a conversation this morning about what it’s like to be doing professional theatre in the region, the state of regional theatre in Appalachia, and the benefit of academic partnerships. I was struck yesterday morning when Derek Davidson was talking about all of the wonderful theatre happening in professional theatre companies and also his listing of the seasons of a variety of colleges in the region as well, talking about them all as part of the same theatre community. BG: Good morning. I’m going to give you a little background on SART, as well as a little bit of background on myself, because I was one of the founding members of the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre Company in 1975. I had just graduated from Mars Hill College as an undergraduate in theatre, and it was my first professional gig, as it were. I’d been in this game a while at Mars Hill, and our first season consisted of three plays. According to their mission statement, Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre “is dedicated to presenting theater of the highest professional quality thereby enriching the southern Appalachian region through artistic programming, education, and outreach.” In the beginning, the goal was to produce plays for, by, and about the people of the southern Appalachian region—to bring theatre to them, to tell their stories and to tell them with integrity and with a great deal of pride and a sense of self-worth without stereotypes. We were tired of Li’l Abner ; that’s what it came down to. We really wanted to move on into a world that wouldn’t present us in the worst light possible. I grew up in western North Carolina, in Weaverville, North Carolina, primarily. My grandparents were from Madison County. I was a first-generation college student. I came into this, not thinking I would be in theatre; but certainly, I have been in theatre now for over forty years.
In 1975, the Madison County Bicentennial Committee was developing plans to celebrate 1976; and the college’s Theatre Arts Department and James W. Thomas, the founder of SART, were putting together the plans to start this particular theatre company. This certainly gave students the experience and the connection with Mars Hill College (now University) to bring the faculty to a place where we would have a professional theatre connection to launch our students into the world of professional theatre. James W. Thomas, C. Robert Jones, and Dr. Virgil Gray were the first three people who were in charge of SART. I was the first company manager, stage manager, and one of the first members of the acting company, so I’ve worn many hats at SART over the years. I was there for three years, and over that three-year period of time, we did a play called Ark of Safety . Ark of Safety was based on C. Hodge Mathis’ short story by the same title and comes from a collection of short stories that are housed now at East Tennessee State University, as a matter of fact, Tall Tales from Old Smoky (1975). It’s a Hatfield and McCoy story that we commissioned Howard Richardson, who wrote Dark of the Moon in New York, to write this for us. It was such a great success. That first season also consisted of Black Comedy, the Shaffer play, as well as The Fantasticks . The goal was not only to bring Southern Appalachian stories to the stage but to also present quality professional productions of other plays to the people of the region. And that was pretty successful in the beginning. It worked very well for us; and each year, we tried to do another play. In 1977, we did a production for which I also, again, served as a company member and stage manager called The Ballad of Frankie Silver . The play is based upon a true local story in Yancey County, North Carolina, where a young woman is accused, tried, and convicted of murdering her husband; the true-life case was based largely on circumstantial evidence, but led to Frankie Silver’s execution in Morganton in 1833. Oddly enough, we’ve done more research over the years and discovered that my great-great-great grandfather signed the bill of indictment for Frankie Silver. This production of the story was written by Susan Graham Ervin Helms. She was the sister-in-law of Senator Sam Ervin of Morganton, who researched Frankie Silver’s case, following his retirement. He, being an attorney as well, went through a careful examination of all the original
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