The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII
Baker, Bush, Harvey, House, Mitchell, Parson, & Shelby 47
of theatre from glitzy Broadway to De Perez Grande to Timbuktu has these qualities: stirring, reaffirming, inspiring, mind-blowing, challenging, and all. Like most of us, I wanted to change the world or, at least, my little part of it. As a member of Appalshop, I was a true believer in the empowerment of celebrating local culture, homage to place, voice, tradition, history. I would encourage any person wanting to write plays to know her or his audience; and by that, I mean write for somebody, someone you know personally. It’s that adage. The more personally you speak, the more universally you’re understood. Understand who you’re talking to, and then, you can tell your story. We all know that live theatre has not been a mainstream of local cultures in the mountains, or, for that matter, most rural or inner-city communities. Not that there aren’t thriving theatrical traditions here: storytelling, preaching, singing, playing, dancing, to name a few. All of these traditions rely on simplicity of staging, direct approach—no fourth walls—stand-up comedy, honesty in delivery, playing at playacting, and being fully in the surroundings and moment. But you’ve got to reach an audience; and if you’re a populist, you’ve got to reach the people, the masses. The masses in Appalachia are pretty far-flung. If you want to get to them, you’re probably going to have to go to them, at least at first. They may come to you later, if you play your cards right. Or as an alternative, location shouldn’t become a tourist institution. To build an audience is so much more than increasing the subscription series or selling more season tickets. It’s to build trust. So much of the audience that I wished to reach would never have considered the option of going to live theatre for various and sundry reasons. They didn’t feel comfortable. They felt out of place. They didn’t know what was expected of them. They felt condescended to. They didn’t understand. To spend that kind of money, they were going to have to be sure that it was worth it. They didn’t know the drill. They think it’s pretentious. And so on. These are often foolish notions, but sometimes they’re very accurate. To put it crassly, “How do we get those folks to buy what we’re selling?” Playwriting and performance are all about telling, hopefully, a good story; but it’s also about identifying your audience, and for me, identifying with your audience. Know who you’re talking to. The best way to talk to somebody is to speak their language and to do it in comfortable terms. You remember my saying my mother was an English teacher. She was a generous, kind, and non-judgmental
woman; but she was determined her children were not going to speak like hillbillies. Without meaning to or knowing she was doing it, she was reinforcing a negative cultural discrimination against anyone who spoke bad grammar. Hillbillies are not too smart. We all know that good grammar don’t make you smart. Bad grammar doesn’t make one dumb. But we do often judge people by the way they speak and separate from them by the way we speak, not only with grammar, but syntax, idioms, and dialect patterns. I chose to use this bad grammar and syntax as one way of showing who I was siding with, to make our conversations collusions, conspiracies, in hopes that would make the terms more comfortable, in hopes of lowering the walls. Also, it didn’t hurt to address a wrongful stereotype at the same time. Being smart with bad grammar ain’t the point. Getting next to those you’re trying to reach is. Of course, this assumes you’ve already done the hard part: found the story, found the voice, written the story as a performance, and become the story. Hopefully, then it will rally the people to conscience and action. LP: This morning the irony and magic of Facebook informed me that today is Jo Carson’s birthday, so we continue to honor her. My title is “The In-between-ness of Theatre in Appalachia.” In my new play, Under the Esso Moon , the main character is “in between.” Vera Lee Phillips is turning thirteen in the summer of 1964, when the Beatles have burst on the scene and she is awakening to the charged world of men and women. Living in an apartment with her mother, Bobbi, and stepfather, Tell, above the Esso station, she manages seeing her newly married father every couple of weeks. Meanwhile, she walks the gauntlet of the mechanics below and an increasingly violent life with Bobbi and Tell. Neither part of one family or another, neither a child nor yet a woman, Vera Lee is drawn to a deeper knowledge of sexuality but fears its power. At an age younger than twelve, I was Vera Lee in all of her “in betweenness,” living over an Esso station outside Nashville; and I still wear that feeling like a second skin. And, like Vera Lee, her name rooted in veritas , I left my mother to live with my father and stepmother in Knoxville, searching for some truth of family and safety. My personal 38 th parallel was the Cumberland Mountains, which I’ve traveled over a lifetime, from parent to parent, in war and tenuous truce. The irony of driving over the Cumberland Plateau, the crossroads between middle and east Tennessee with its uncertain weathers and steep drops, has never been lost on me.
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