What it’s like to be in a community play


I live in a community in which storytelling is a big deal. In fact, Jonesborough, Tennessee, is known as the Storytelling Capital of the World. The International Storytelling Center is right across the street from our courthouse. Storytelling night is a regular thing with the locals. And collecting stories is a passion for many of my neighbors. Our community art center holds classes on how to collect stories from people, and we have a monthly radio show/podcast that is all about, you guessed it, telling local stories.

Now, when I say stories, I’m not talking about fairy tales or things people have made up. I’m talking about real life stories, the kind your grandma used to tell you about her childhood, or that your dad told you about his army days. Stories about real things that happened to real people, most of which live in my community. And some of those stories end up in community plays written by Jules Corriere, a local author/playwriter whose award-winning talent is an powerful contribution to this genre of performance art.

I had the honor of participating in her latest play, We Did It Together. It’s comprised of many individual stories assembled into one comprehensive theme about community building. It starts with stories of individuals who lived in the 1960s within a segregated community, takes the audience through personal experiences of trial and hope, and culminates with a story of the election of our town’s first African American alderman. Incidentally, Ernest McKinney was elected to our town council on the same day in 1968 that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That story is in the play, too.

I haven’t participated in a play since I was in high school, about 40 years ago, although I have enjoyed playing parts in what was formerly “A Night With the Yarn Exchange” and is now the Storytown Podcast. The play was a new experience for me and it started with auditions.

Auditioning

Now, I hadn’t been out in the community much for the last couple of years, first because of COVID and then because of my own chemotherapy restrictions. So I was overjoyed to see a couple of women in the audition room, in addition to Jules, who I knew from the radio show. Jules had parts of her script printed and ready for various roles in the cast, and when it came time, she chose a few of the people present and assigned us roles to read. I read through three scenes before I was finished, the last of which was an exposition about Irene, a Cuban American woman who escaped to the U.S. during Castro’s takeover of Cuba. It was a difficult part to read, and a lot of lines to memorize. Something for a more experienced performer. I remember thinking when I left that it wasn’t the part for me.

And then, a few days later, I got the email announcing parts. I’d gotten Irene! I was a bit surprised, but it didn’t matter. Table reads were scheduled for the following week.

Table reads and lines

Before I started working on this play, I didn’t even know what a table read was! It turned out that everyone in the scene sat at a table and read through their lines. Jules and our director, Richard Owen Geer, listened and took notes and sometimes gave us information to help us know our character better. It was easy and fun and I knew I was going to like being in this play.

Then the real work started. On the days I didn’t have to go to rehearsal, I ran through my lines and tried to memorize them. It was harder than I thought and I worried that I’d never learn all of the pages I had to know. I asked some of the other cast members how they did it, then followed a very helpful tip to copy my lines every day. All seven pages of them! Some other great advice was to record them and listen to them all the time, but I never got around to that. Just writing them down was enough, at least at first.

Rehearsals

Then we got into real rehearsals, practice that included some of the props. I found that my lines didn’t come as easily on “stage” as they did at home. But the more I did it, the easier it got, and I had a lot of fun along the way. On Saturday mornings our time was spent in music rehearsal, which I really enjoyed. I took Chorus all through junior high and half of high school and always liked it. This was much like my ancient choral practices only with less formality.

My husband and I even helped paint and work on the set. The play was held in our local art center, a small stage in a room that seats about a hundred or so people. Our set was made to look like the interior of a tobacco farm, since many of the stories in the play focused on life in Jonesborough in the mid-20th century when tobacco and cattle were big business.

The Big Night

Finally, it was opening night. By the time we were ready to perform for an audience, I found myself involved in more than the Irene role. I was singing in the all-cast performances, playing an extra as a cow and a nosy neighbor/churchgoer, and doing odd extra things like holding stage spotlights and one-line walk-ons. It was a lot of work, much more than I ever imagined! And we had great audiences for the entire opening weekend.

I don’t have many pictures to share and none of me in the Irene part. What I have is mostly from other cast members or art center employees who shared them. Thank you to Skye McFarland for taking them!

This was a rehearsal in which my part was a neighbor. I think this was my favorite role. To the right is our choreographer, Kevin Iega Jeff of Deeply Rooted Productions in Chicago.
This was one of the all-cast songs on opening night. We had a sold-out performance!
Another scene from opening night. My friend Marcy (in the black and white dress in front) played Elsie, a woman who established a church in Jonesborough and was ordained as its only female minister in 1964.
The opening act in our final dress rehearsal. I included this because you can see how the set was laid out. During the play we were all over it, going up and down the ramps, acting at the little table in the far right of the picture and all over the stage!

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