Friday, April 29, 2011

Column: Past times

From basement to center stage: The origins of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre are steeped in area history and folklore.

R. Rex Stephenson (left) and Emily Rose Tucker are two of the creative forces behind the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, which will open its 32nd season this year.


R. Rex Stephenson (left) and Emily Rose Tucker are two of the creative forces behind the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, which will open its 32nd season this year.

Members of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, based at Ferrum College, perform

Courtesy of BRDT

Members of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, based at Ferrum College, perform "Blue Suede Shoes: A Musical Revue of the '50s," which was co-written by Stephenson and Tucker, in 2009.

The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre (BRDT) at Ferrum College is preparing for its 32nd season. Having heard that the theatre's performances were originally history-oriented, I decided to follow my inclination for looking into the origins of things.

I was fortunate in being able to arrange an interview with R. Rex Stephenson and Emily Rose Tucker, two of the creative (and very busy) forces behind the company.

R. Rex Stephenson, director

Stephenson, 67, was born in Muncie, Ind., and has devoted his entire life to the theater arts as a playwright, educator, actor and, most importantly, a seeker and nurturer of new talent.

After receiving his Master of Arts from Indiana State University and doctorate from New York University, Stephenson began his career in teaching and writing children's plays. In 1973, he responded to a newspaper ad for a speech and drama instructor at Ferrum College, where he has spent his entire career. He became a full professor in 1989.

After several years of teaching, Stephenson was approached in 1977 by Associate Dean Roy Talbert, who had come across some historical materials regarding black history around the time of Booker T. Washington. Talbert thought they might be more suitable for adapting into a play rather than a book.

Stephenson was initially reluctant to get involved since his writing had been limited to children's plays. Talbert persisted and rightly conjectured that he could obtain grant money from the Virginia Commission of Humanities and Public Policy to support a production.

Stephenson eventually took the assignment and gathered a group of students to review the materials and improvise a 30-minute play. His experiment in "group theater" harkened back to the 1930s when actors would gather in an off-site location (In this case, they rented a 4-H club for several days.) to improvise a play, this one based on historical materials provided by Talbert and other historians.

Stephenson was so nervous about his first "adult" production that they had their first showing at midnight in the basement of the theater, thinking that the audience would be very small. As it turned out, Talbert had invited many of his fellow historians and friends and with 90 people in attendance, it turned out to be a great success.

The play, "Too Free for Me," is based on the true story of Indiana Choice, a Virginia slave who, in 1851, sued for her freedom and that of her three children. She was represented by Jubal Early of Civil War fame..The play is still performed at the BRDT, high schools and other venues. It received an award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education in 1995.

Stephenson has directed more than 150 plays, wrote/produced more than 25, and acted in more than 100. He has written four other plays about Franklin County history:

  • "Charity for All" deals with the Reconstruction Period.
  • "Roar of the Silence" chronicles a race riot in 1892 when 100 buildings were burned.
  • "The Witcher-Clemens Feud" portrays a courtroom shootout that resulted in five deaths in 1860. It was the subject of a previous Past Times column.
  • "Southern Soldier Boy" follows one Franklin County veteran through the Civil War.

Stephenson also has been the producer, writer and director of the Ferrum College Jack Tale Players since 1975. Jack Tales, as dramatized by Stephenson, are folk tales of the Blue Ridge Mountains that appeal to audiences of all ages.

Fast-paced action, energetic actors, innovative staging and lively music led to the group gaining special recognition by Ferrum College in 2010. The college took note of the Jack Tales Players' 35 years of production and the role they played "in perpetuating Blue Ridge music and stories ... and served as a training ground for acting students ... as well as making them ambassadors of culture and good will to the larger community."

Emily Rose Tucker, music and artistic director

Tucker, 29, is an accomplished pianist from Potter County, Pa. She attended Alfred University in New York and received a master's degree in music from the Union Institute & University of Vermont.

While she was teaching music and drama in public schools, she auditioned in Philadelphia for the BRDT and initially came on as a summer intern in 2001. In her second year, Stephenson wanted to make use of her music background to help with arrangements for "The Prince and the Pauper."

Their collaboration was successful and they went on to work together on several other musicals including "The Just So Stories," "Jonah and the Big Fish" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." Not all playwrights and composers work well together, but as Tucker notes, she "speaks Rex" and they trust each other's artistic capabilities to make the right adjustments wherever necessary.

Tucker has also collaborated with Ferrum drama students in making use of group theater and unique creative processes where the students play a major role in collecting and researching historical information, interpreting its meaning and improvising methods of presentation and scripts that would best appeal to BRDT audiences.

In her first foray into a historical play, Tucker and a number of drama students interviewed several long-time Franklin County residents to gather oral histories. Those transcribed narratives, along with photos and assistance from the archivists of the Blue Ridge Institute, provided raw materials for the development of a script. As part of the creative process, the students had to find a way to transform the material they had gathered into a play that the audience would enjoy.

"The students decided that looking at how technology changed Franklin County over the last century would be entertaining" said Tucker, citing as an example how new roads and the automobile brought residents together.

Following Stephenson's lead in "Too Free For Me," she asked the students to work all night in developing a draft script that became the basis for "A Look at Franklin County History."

While the BRDT focused on regional history plays for its first five years, the need to broaden its audience base, and the lack of grant money, moved it toward the interpretation of more traditional plays and the Jack Tale Players.

The BRDT has much to be proud of in its 32-year history. Last year's box office totaled more than 7,000 tickets sold.

As Stephenson and Tucker noted, theater is collaboration.

The enjoyment of their working relationship, the desire to please their audience and an appreciation of Blue Ridge history (both factual and folklore) is evident.

The people of Southside Virginia and the Blue Ridge are fortunate to have Ferrum College and the members of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre as "ambassadors of culture and good will to the larger community."

The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre's 2011 schedule can be found at blueridgedinnertheatre.com.

For information about the BRDT's plays, visit www2.ferrum.edu/applit/bibs/bibrex.htm.