Carden’s Kephart highlights playwright scene
by Rob Neufeld
Also see Casey Blake feature on Gary Carden in AC-T
Gary Carden has been doing landmark work in Jackson County for many years; and Andrew Gall, producer of Carden’s new play, “Outlander,” at Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville, nourishes local playwrights with premiere productions.
“Outlander” runs Jun 2 – 16.
If you were to develop a larger case for the recognition of Western North Carolina drama,
you might mention Paul Green, Thomas Wolfe, the Carolina Playmakers, Olive Tilford Dargan, Hubert Hayes, John Ehle, Romulus Linney, oral history productions, and the current avant-garde scene.
For page and screen permanence, Carden puts his plays into books and DVDs.
See his book, “The Raindrop Waltz and Other Plays” (2001); and his DVDs, “The Prince of Dark Corners” (starring Milton Higgins, 2007); and “Nance Dude” (starring Elizabeth Westall, 2009).
“Outlander” will be in book form soon, containing the allure that starts with the first words: “Them dogs, they belong to Bill Cope.”
The speaker is rugged, banjo-playing mountaineer Granville Calhoun, standing atop a ridge in Swain County, introducing the story to come—about that odd person, Horace Kephart, the librarian, who’d fled St. Louis to dive into what he’d dub “the back of beyond” in his best-seller, “Our Southern Highlanders.”
“Outlander” presents a community drama that shifts between narrations and vignettes in a distinctive Carden way. The form allows for a lot of local lingo and knowledge; and shows how Kephart progresses from fool to decent guy to force of history in the 1920s and 30s.
The life and work of Kephart is a controversial subject. Some revere him. He wrote great books and spearheaded the National Park Movement. Others expose his bias. Everyone has to figure out what they think about his personal demons.
Carden’s evolutionary view of Kephart nonetheless stamps the flawed genius as an embarrassing interloper.
“What kind of crap have ye got this year, Paint?” Calhoun asks a neighbor farmer within Kephart’s hearing.
“Not much, iffen the truth be told,” Paint answers. “Them triflin’ boys o mine done took off fer fereign parts to work in one of them mills, so there’s jest me ‘n the old wormen to work the bottom.”
Kephart interjects nerdily: “Pardon sir, but would you mind explaining what you mean by… (KEPHART peers at his list.) …well, “triflin’,” for example.”
Gall, Parkway Playhouse director since 2004, has been talking with Carden for three years about writing a full-cast play. When Carden came back with “Outlander,” he surprised Gall by saying he’d added songs, written and composed by Frank Lee, leader of the old-time music band, The Freight Hoppers.
It was right up Gall’s aisle.
Gall had used musicals at the start of his term at Parkway Playhouse to grow ticket sales and fund a renovation that included air conditioning, new seats, and improved acoustics.
With that accomplished, he turned his attention to local playwrights and held onto his instinct that musicals were a big opening for theatre directors seeking to win audiences and balance the books.
“A good production of ‘Annie’ is going to do great things for your box office,” Gall said in an interview with the Citizen-Times. But now, “people wait for ‘The Sound of Music’ to be in heavy rotation on TNT.”
“I think that musicals are great, and variety is great,” he added. “One of the things I’m trying to develop is a major musical that is written locally and would be on par with ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
On July 31, 2008, Parkway staged Jeff Messer’s musical, “Esley: The Life and Music of Lesley Riddle,” in its world premiere; and in 2010, “The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” written by Brenda Lilly and Ken Stone, and directed by Michael Lilly, with music by Jan Powell, and lyrics by Ken Stone.
Several local playwrights of musicals and dramas were featured in the 2011 season. The current season promises not only Carden’s “Outlander,” but also “Between the Tackles,” a football buddy comedy by Britt Kaufmann and Stephanie Stark Poling—plus some blockbusters: “9 to 5”; “Big River”; and “Romeo and Juliet.”
“We’re in the business of trying to defy expectations, give people something that feels good and that will interest them,” Gall said.
In the bluesy song, “Progress,” in the current production of “Outlander,” Gall, as director, has decided to include a pageant of mountaineers and outlanders, both old-time and contemporary, in the staging. At the June 3 show, he has scheduled an after-performance “Talk Back” session.
“Gather ‘round people, I want to express,” the song begins. “I’m here to tell you folks that more is less.” Appalachian chests fill with voice power in Burnsville.
Learn about “Outlander” and other Parkway Playhouse productions at www.parkwayplayhouse.com; or call 682-4285.
Visit Gary Carden’s website at www.tannerywhistle.net.
Actors Jeff Douglas Messer (foreground) and Rob Storrs (background) appear as historical luminaries Horace Kephart and Granville Calhoun, respectively, in the Parkway Playhouse's world premiere production of Outlander. Photo by Zachary Johnson.