As we approach the halfway point of our 15th anniversary season, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Triad Stage’s Core Values. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t think about these values all the time. I do. I try to examine every decision we make at Triad through the lens of these values. But what I’ve been thinking so much recently in relation to these values is where they came from, how they were a key part of our original business plan, and why they keep me so creatively connected to the idea of making an artistic home in the Triad.
It’s odd to think that when Rich and I first decided that the Triad was going to be the home to our seemingly crazy idea of leading a next wave of regional theaters, the internet was in its infancy. I didn’t yet have a mobile phone or an email address. Rich was finishing up his MFA at Yale and I, for a few months, was working as a front desk clerk at the then-largest Holiday Inn in the world and living in a pretty dreadful apartment off of what was then High Point Road. I worked odd hours because I’d never actually had a job outside of the theater and when they asked me what shift I wanted to work, my first thought was: Costume history! A shift is a ladies undergarment! And my second thought was: Swing Shift starring Goldie Hawn! So I blurted out swing shift and found myself working 8 PM to 3 AM.
Rich would come down to Greensboro and we’d work on the business plan together on my Brother word processor that seemed almost state-of-the-art with its five inch screen and floppy disks. (I still have a box of those floppy disks and often imagine the horrible love poems and bad attempts at novels that might linger in some technological Neverland.) It was on this word processor that I remember writing out those first 10 core values. Now I can view them on a tablet, a laptop, a smart phone, a desktop, virtual reality goggles, and my watch. In the years since the first of our dreaming, technology has certainly changed. But our values haven’t.
We’ve refined them at times, but the heart of these core values remains consistent. I’m always thrilled when audience members stop me after a show and talk about how that particular performance seemed to relate to one of our core values. In a world where theater is so frequently commoditized, I’m lucky to have found myself blessed with an audience that believes the WHY we do something is far more important than the WHAT we do.
And today—perhaps it’s because I’m drinking my coffee from my souvenir Andalusia: Home of Flannery O’Connor mug—I’m thinking quite strongly about our core value of A Southern Voice. Some assume this core value means we only do work about the south. That’s obviously not true as we’ve done work from all across the US, and from Europe, South Africa, and Australia. But I would say that we are a Southern theater—geographically, there is no denying that—but in spirit and value we are Southern as well. We are a regional theater that believes that the word regional doesn’t mean smaller or insular or provincial.
But what does being a Southern theater mean? I know it doesn’t mean quaint, nostalgic, or chauvinistic. I think it means being local, organic, and rooted. I hope it means truly belonging where you are while engaging with others who are rooted elsewhere so you can share, learn and inspire each other. I think being a Southern theater means exploring what the South can teach us about the rest of the world and, in return, what the rest of the world can teach us about who we are.
A couple of weeks ago Laurelyn Dossett and I, on the way the way to visit the self-taught artist Mary Paulsen, went on a two-lane road trip east and somehow discovered the beautiful Lake Waccamaw we’d zoomed past a thousand times on the interstate. That is part of what exploring the South means. On MLK day I had the honor of being on a diverse panel at the International Civil Rights Museum discussing concepts of truth. That’s part of what exploring the South means. And this December in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, I met a young Mexican woman whose brother had recently moved to North Carolina. And that, too, is part of what exploring the South means. For me, exploring the South means an ongoing quest of exploring who we are where we are so that we can make where we are the best it can be.
And for the next couple of months on both our stages in both our cities we’re going to be taking two more journeys in that quest. Both are new plays about the south. Both have a female as a key part of the creative team—Janet Allard as playwright of VROOOMMM! and Laurelyn Dossett as composer for RADIUNT ABUNDUNT. Both feature all female casts. And both are directed by the two southerners in the MFA directing class at Yale in 1996—myself and the constantly inventive and always hilarious David Karl Lee.
Thumbing our noses to the snow and ice, this past weekend our technical rehearsals for VROOOMMM! started and continue in spite of all the inconvenience caused by the weather. The actors and director are all housed in downtown Winston, but we got just about everyone else from Greensboro over on Thursday night and put them up in a hotel till the thaw of yesterday. And while the weather was pretty frightening outside, the excitement was burning up the track at the Hanesbrands as six fantastic women race around the stage playing men, women, mad scientists, karaoke artists and Richard Petty in Janet Allard’s stock car racing comedy.
Janet went to school with me and is now teaching playwriting at UNCG. I’ve long admired her work and especially this play because it is irreverent and surprising. It is satirical but not condescending as it explores an upstart female driver in the world of NASCAR. I love the way it pokes fun, but I also love the way it treasures the history. In a sport where the tradition is as much under threat from commodification as theater, it’s great to find an anarchic comedy that roots itself in a real love of racing.
The director, designers and actors are creating a wild world of quick changes, pits stops and intrigue as they bring to life Janet’s play. Director David Lee is one of kind and I can’t think of anyone better to drive this comedy to the finish line. It’s a play that is far more than just an ode to racing. It’s about women breaking barriers, about family traditions, celebrity, corporate shenanigans, love, and the drive to succeed. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done at Triad Stage and you don’t have to be a NASCAR fan to enjoy the ride.
As a student at UNCSA, I used to drive back to Winston-Salem from the mountains on the weekends when I wasn’t in rehearsal. My old Ford Fairmont only had AM radio and I could barely pick up a station from West Jefferson for much of the trip. It was always a joy when I’d get to listen to a live broadcast of a NASCAR race. And as I drove past the Wilkesboro Speedway, I’d toast the mother church of NASCAR with my Sun Drop (big Dale Earnhardt fan in my youth) before I’d lose the radio signal, switch over to a bluegrass show from Statesville and head back to school for a late Sunday Shakespeare rehearsal.
And, I suppose, that all of that, too, is part of what exploring the South means to me.
P.S. – One of the greatest thrills of producing VROOOMMM! has been the partnership with the amazing Victory Junction. I’ve loved getting to find out about the incredible work this Triad treasure does for children and families. Our first rehearsal was at the camp in their state-of-the-art theater and all of us came away so proud to be working with these fine folks making dreams come true. Check out photos of our first VROOOMMM! rehearsal at Victory Junction!