Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I didn't set out to become a playwright; in fact, I would have been content to be an ardent fan of other people's theater. The first play I ever saw was in the 40's when some of Prof. Fred Koch's students down at Chapel Hill ventured into my region with some homemade sets in the back of an old truck for the purpose of "bringing the arts to the backwoods." I was among an audience of about one hundred mountain kids who sat gape-mouthed in a dark auditorium at Sylva Elementary and watched a group of travelers find the mysterious kingdom of Shangrila. The only memory that I retain now is the final scene in which the villagers waved at the departing plane that flew low over Shangrila, filling our little auditorium with the roar of its engines. Afterwards, I went back stage, amazed to see the village being dismantled (it was cardboard) and loaded on the truck. I asked about the plane, and a smiling young man showed me a piece of cardboard and a big electric fan. When he plugged the fan in and stuck the cardboard into the spinning blades, I again heard the roar of the plane as it dipped in farewell over the village of Shangrila. At that moment, I became a devoted fan of theater - an art that could transform a musty old room into an exotic realm filled with prophets, kings and airplanes.

When I was a teenager, I found myself backstage at "Unto These Hills" on a Saturday night where the cast of the outdoor drama were participating in "Canteen Night." I guess it was a party of sorts and the place was filled with music, illicit beer and "impromptu theater." On this particular night, the actors were producing a strange play called "Theater of the Soul" and when the curtain opened, I saw three actors sitting in bizarre chairs. I discovered that the action was taking place "inside a human heart" and two large drums (temponi) backstage mimicked the beat of the heart. Red crepe streamers that radiated from the ceiling were "nerves" and when the actors touched them, the heart beat faster. A telephone rested on a broken Greek column in the center stage and the actors could communicate with the brain by talking on the phone which also affected the heart's rhythm. The actors were called Reason, Emotion and The Eternal Self (who slept throughout the play). As I watched the actors argue and fight, wrecking the scenery and plunging the stage into darkness, I found that I had once more been transported - this time, to the interior of a human heart! My God! I remember that my friends at the Cherokee Canteen were not particularly impressed, but I was in a kind of religious stupor for hours. The next day, I rededicated myself to the theater and decided to go to college and become... a drama major.

My grandfather had his doubts about my going to college, and when he learned that I was interested in theater and the arts, he was alarmed. Over the next four years, he would repeatedly suggest that I change my major. "Be a bookkeeper," he said. "You wear a white shirt and sit in an office with a fountain pen in your hand. I'm not even sure that there are jobs for people who do that theater stuff." The college shared his viewpoint. "It is advisable to combine your interest in theater with something more .... realistic ... like teaching. I did that.

For thirty years, I taught English, speech and drama in high schools and colleges. I also directed in colleges and community theaters. I loved every minute of it and would have been content to teach/direct for the rest of my life. However, when I began to lose my hearing, I discovered that I could neither direct or act. I guess there was a bit of desperation in my decision to try to write a play. At least, it would maintain a connection with the theater. Because of my deafness, I gave up teaching and became a storyteller - an ideal profession for a playwright.

My first play was "The Uktena," a strange mime/ritual based on a Cherokee legend. It had a large cast, bizarre sets, complicated lighting and sound effects. I was lucky to finally get it produced in Atlanta at Horizon, and eventually, it was brought to the Cherokee High School.
Then, I did "The Raindrop Waltz" which began as a one-act and ended up as a two-act. It has been produced more than any play I have written (over 300 times). Next came "Land's End" which consisted of three dramatic monologues: "Nance Dude," "Jesse Racer" and "Coy." I soon discovered that "Nance Dude" had a life of its own and has been produced throughout this region with the actress, Elizabeth Westall in the title role. Next came "Birdell," another dramatic monologue that has ties to local history (Fontana Dam, the destruction of Hazel Creek, TVA, etc.) An actress named Bobbie Lee Curtis has been performing the title role for the past three years. "The Prince of Dark Corners" was an ordeal. Another dramatic monologue, it attracted the attention of a filmmaker, Neal Hutcheson and ended up on PBS as a film. The actor, Milton Higgins has attracted considerable attention for his portrayal of Major Lewis Redmond, the outlaw. At present, I am working on a dramatic monologue based on the life of Mother Jones and I am optimistic about its future.

Now, let me get to the point of this post. Folks, it is lonely being a playwright in western North Carolina. Now, I don't want to sound like I'm whining, but I'm looking for someone to talk to, especially another playwright. I guess it would be asking for too much to qualify that by saying that I'm eager to talk to another Appalachian playwright who writes about Appalachia. Now, I know a few playwrights who aspire to be Neil Simon clones and they are writing plays that are set in a New York apartment, or maybe a sidewalk cafe in Paris. That don't cut it. I'm looking to converse with a dramatist who sets his plays in the mountains and even has characters who talk in genuine mountain speech about mountain issues and dilemmas. Okay, I'm asking for too much, so let me compromise. I'll settle for someone who is interested in Appalachian drama, and just possibly might be interested in arranging for a production of one of my plays or least seeing one. Hello? Anyone there?


  1. A fascinating saga, Gary! I've always loved just reading plays -- and am attempting to dramatize the historical sub story of my most recent book. Unfortunately, finishing the current book and beginning the next one keeps getting in the way.

    I look forward to seeing your work at the next opportunity!

  2. Hey is no wonder you are one of my Heroes, you are so talented!I'll see you in 11 days!

  3. Well Gary, we're all glad you didn't take your grandfather's advice. I'm guessing you'd have made a damn poor accountant!

  4. My granddaughter, who lives in Franklin, has a lot of interest in all Appalachia life. She was born and raised in Macon County. She graduated from WCU in Dec. 2008 as a History major. She is a good writer, but young, and does not have the mentor needed to push her along. She loves drama! I'd love for her to meet you, if I can arrange it.

  5. Alice,
    Is it possible that she might attend a writers' breakfast in Bryson City at the Calhoun Inn on Sunday morning, May 31st at 9:00 a.m. It is a small group and usually, all we do is gossip and eat. The food is good and the atmosphere, casual.