Back in mid-August, Leah and I went down to Abingdon, Virginia for the Barter's Festival of Appalachian Plays and Playwrights. It was a trip I was very excited to make, as I said in a previous post. I've wanted to be a part of the festival ever since someone forwarded me a link to their submission page about two years ago... I mean, come on, I thought. I'm definitely an Appalachian playwright. I live in the middle of nowhere and have virtually no health insurance. How much more Appalachian can you get??
But it took me two tries to get down there, to hear my work read amongst the historic taverns, restaurants, and cobbled streets of Abingdon. At least, that’s what I was expecting. But the Barter Stage II is not a historic proscenium theatre with balconies and such -- across the street at the original Barter stage one could find those trappings. No, the Barter Stage II is very much a modern, black box, thrust stage with a myriad of new stage lights hanging above the audience’s heads. For a backdrop, the stage had a massive painting of mountains rolling on endlessly and a huge emblem of the festival logo. A pretty nice showing, all-in-all.
And the performers all did a wonderful job. I definitely felt as though my work was done justice. All of the moments of intensity were given ample build and the pauses were in the right places (very important). They also brought out the comedy in a hard script. I was thankful for that, and I think the audience was, too. As much as I love "The People at the Edge of Town," it isn't an easy story to tell, so I really appreciated the work and time given to capturing its nuances.
The feedback sessions at Barter following a play reading seem to be notorious for being brutal. I was told of one playwright who left after her reading and wouldn’t speak to anyone for a week straight. Thankfully, I felt like I was generally spared from such harsh criticism. I mean, you can't please everyone in playwriting, so I think what you have to find is a majority consensus in appreciation -- if you're doing that, you're on the right track, at least in my mind.
And I did have a majority consensus, especially from those who were born and raised in Abingdon and the surrounding areas. There truly is a historic weight that follows these mountains and its people, almost as if the vast timespan the mountains have been existence were a palpable entity sitting on the shoulders of all those who have grown up here, suffered here, and still not left. I don't know. It's a hard feeling to communicate. One of the professional panelists at the reading, who works as an Appalachian Studies professor, noted that there is a prevailing sense of fatalism in people who live here, and I do think that's part of it, although not all of it. I don't even know if fatalism is the right word – I don’t think we're that cynical. To me, it’s more like an acceptance of being ignored and forgotten, despite our proximity to a whole host of metropolitan areas. We’ve come to terms with being the weekend getaway that you wouldn’t want to see on Monday morning. Kind of like, “Come see the leaves, but don’t stick around to see the coal trucks, potholes, poverty, and rampant drug addiction.”
I don’t mean to rant, but the difference in viewpoints was very apparent to me as I anonymously sat listening to my feedback discussion. But that was the point of the festival – to get Appalachian voices heard. So I think it was definitely a success in that respect, and almost every other.
Going forward, I’ll be teaching a playwriting class through the Preston Arts Council at the Szilagyi Center in Rowlesburg, WV every Saturday from October 22 through November 5th. I’m also still submitting to everything I can – the O’Neill, PlayPenn, GPTC, you name it. I even applied for a fellowship at Princeton. That would be amazing to get.
So… Onward. To work, to writing, to submitting, to parenting, to life. And never in that order.