The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

Panel Discussion

Playwriting & Performance in Appalachia Today

The panelists are Don Baker, Catherine Bush, Hannah Harvey, Silas House, Felicia Mitchell (moderator), Linda Parsons, and Anne Shelby. The panel spoke on October 9, 2015. FM: I’m going to speak briefly, to welcome all of you and to introduce our guests. Hannah Harvey is a performer, professional storyteller, and teacher, and she stays active sharing her Appalachian roots in performances and workshops. We also have Silas House, novelist, playwright, nonfiction writer, social activist, and op-ed writer for The New York Times , among other things, who serves as the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) Chair of Appalachian Literature at Berea College. We have Catherine Bush from Abingdon, the playwright-in-residence for the Barter Theatre, writing plays and adaptations for many, many years. Her The Other Side of the Mountain , directed by Kelly Bremner, will be performed on campus this week and next week. Don Baker, from Wise County, Virginia, The Roadside Theater, and Lime Kiln Arts and many community plays, is a writer, performer, painter, and all-round artist. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. Linda Parsons also is a playwright, a poet, and a writer of creative nonfiction. She’s an editor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I’ll never forget the first time I heard her read her poems at The Arts Depot in Abingdon some years ago. Anne Shelby lives in a home in east Kentucky that has been in her family for generations. She writes poems, essays, newspaper columns, plays, songs, and children’s books. A lesson, I might say to summarize, is write a little bit of everything because they all come together. Welcome to these writers. Each will speak for about ten minutes, and then we’ll invite you to ask questions. HH: My name is Hannah Harvey. Before I entered into the world of professional storytelling and professional childrearing—I’m a mother of two children now—I was a university professor. A lot of my research then and now dealt with the methodology of performance ethnography, which is a very fancy set of multisyllabic words that mean I collect oral histories, and I try to do that ethically. I follow a methodology that I wanted to share a little bit about with you all this morning.

I share oral histories I collect with wider audiences, and one of the reasons why this is so important to me as an academic is that performance ethnographers and performance study individuals recognize all scholarship as artistry and all artistry as scholarship. The artists who you see here are scholars in their own rights. There is much truth and scholarship that we can learn from these individuals. Riding that line of artist-scholar, a lot of the oral histories that I have collected over the past several years as fieldwork have been of coal miners in southwest Virginia. One of the pioneers of performance ethnography research was Dr. Dwight Conquergood, who said, “Opening and interpreting lives is very different from opening and closing a book” (qtd. in Johnson 14). We’re all scholars. We’re all artists. But there’s something different. There’s something weird about doing a play about the Carter family and then having the Carters sitting right there listening to you telling about them. There’s something different when you’re collecting oral histories and cracking open the life of someone who is living and breathing, and, in the case of many contemporary miners today, living and breathing and dying. These are their stories. Stories become our identities. How many of us want a good reputation? Want a good professional reputation? Want a good personal reputation? I do. Your reputation is the story that goes ahead of you. “Oh, did you hear? She’s such a great writer! Oh, you have to pick up her book!” We materially invest in the stories we hear about other people. I really don’t know you at all, but there are material consequences to the stories that we tell about one another. True or not, they become who we are in the eyes and ears of other people, and there are a lot of stories and lots of narratives about Appalachia. One of my mentors talks about representation. It’s re presentation. When I’m using someone else’s oral history as a part of a storytelling performance, or if I direct a play based on those oral histories, it’s a re-presentation of those people that has material consequences in the lives of the people I’m re-presenting to you. Performance becomes the vehicle by which we travel to the worlds of subjects and enter into dialogue with one another, which is the goal of performance ethnography. I’m not necessarily telling you the narrative that you come in wanting to hear, and so much of what we do hear is shaped by what we want to hear and what we desire. Because my performances

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