Monday, July 11, 2011

Headwaters at the Sautee Nacoochee Center

[cross-posted at the CRADLE blog]

Over the weekend, I had my very first Moonpie thanks to Lisa Mount, the producer and director of  Headwaters: A Goodly Portion of Our Songs & Stories, and the wonderful people at the Sautee Nacoochee Center in Sautee Nacoochee, GA. I hear that I really needed an RC Cola to make the experience complete, but I think the excellent performance more than made up for the missing drink.

I had been invited down to Georgia (music cue: Charlie Daniels Band The Devil Went Down to Georgia) by Lisa Mount, and it just so happened that my wife needed to attend a meeting just down the road in Cleveland that same weekend, so I was thrilled to make the 2-1/2 hr trip from Asheville.

Sautee Nacoochee is an unincorporated community in northern Georgia. The performance space is a 1930s'era gym that has been converted into a large, open stage surrounded on three sides by 100 seats. On the Center's campus is also the Center Gallery, devoted to the work of artists who live within 50 miles of Sautee Nacoochee, a conference room, a history musuem, dance and art studios, and an environmental education resource center. The newest addition is a museum devoted to the folk pottery of Northeast Georgia. According to the SNCA website, "Because of the extensive arts programming offered in recent years, Sautee was designated one of the "100 Best Small Art Towns in America" in a book by the same name written by John Villani." Deservedly so!

Lisa Mount, who was named "one of the 100 Most Influential Georgians" in 2008 by Georgia Trend Magazine, gave me the "nickel tour." In addition to her work with SNCA, she is very active nationally as a consultant with Artistic Logistics, for whom she has helped such non profit arts organizations as Childsplay, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Cornerstone Theater Company, the Neo Futurists, the Network of Ensemble Theaters, and the Maryland Ensemble Theatre. Her seemingly boundless positive energy made me and everyone else feel welcome.

This was the fifth summer for Headwaters. Every two years, there has been a new version written by well-known playwrights Jo Carson and Jerry Grillo, and this year was a compilation of what might be called the "greatest hits" of the first two productions. Next year there will be a new play called Didja Hear? about "what we can and can't (and will and won't) hear." (Carson's book Spider Speculations: A Physics and Biophysics of Storytelling [published by TCG Publications] is a must-read for anyone interested in this sort of community storytelling.)

I loved the production, which was performed by local performers, including a wonderful band for the numerous songs. There also were shadow puppets and a whimsical framing device about two bears rescued by a local theatre producer from the bear park who have been conscripted to write scenes of the various stories they are provided. They are motivated by Moonpies...  The stories are a mixture of tall tales, local history, and personal remembrances, all very much connected to Sautee Nacoochee. As the Director's Note said, "Headwaters could only happen here, with these people -- it is theater of, by, for, with and about this community."

I was particularly struck by Nadir Mateen's powerful story entitled "Honor & Dignity" about an African-American educator with a doctorate in education who, when Georgia desegregated, found himself forced to fire all of his African-American teachers himself (after all, no white person would be willing to be taught by a black teacher) and as a reward remain employed in the system (he was 18 months from retirement), or have the white administrators do it and be out of work. He decided on the former, feeling that it was important for at least one black person to remain in the system, and after he had fired the teachers, he was given a job teaching math at the reform school, which he did for the 18 months until he was able to retire. Mateen, who has an MFA in acting from the University of Florida, delivered the story with understated power and emotional depth.

Other highlights included a hilarious story entitled "Foot," about a woman whose brother gave her an old prosthetic foot as a joke present, and she decided to put it sticking out from underneath the hood of her car as she drove around town, which lead to unexpected consequences and a wonderful statement about our legacy perhaps being those things that made other people laugh. Lisa Mount's song "Hold Fast to the Laughter" brought that point home.The ensemble delivered a simple and powerful rendition of Stephen Foster's haunting song Hard Times, and a Elsie Nelson told the story of a "woods colt" (and illegitimate child) and her travails through life.

The production was beautifully paced, and staged simply and evocatively with just enough spectacle to keep things interesting but not to overwhelm the stories. It wasn't slick, it was authentic, it felt rooted in place. It is a marvelous example of the kind of production that I hope to encourage people involved in CRADLE to create.

To everyone involved in Headwaters: A Goodly Portion of Our Songs & Stories, thanks you so much for an inspiring evening, and Lisa, thank you so much for the invitation, and for providing another example of how rural and small communities can be places of vibrant, authentic art.


Laura Axelrod said...

Congrats on eating a Moon Pie. I drove through Georgia today and bought one at a rest stop. First time I ate one this year. We have them in Alabama, so it was more like the snack of last resort for me. Are there no Moon Pies in North Carolina or have you avoided eating them until you had to do it? ;)

Your experience sounds great. I'm curious. Did you find Georgia different from North Carolina? The cultural and linguistic differences between the Southern states fascinate me, especially between the unincorporated/towns/cities. I'm sure that is something you've had to contend with in Cradle.

Scott Walters said...

Laura -- We have them here -- I just hadn't had one. But as I was leaving, I made a contribution, and my reward was a Moonpie.

As far as the difference btw GA and NC, it's hard to say -- Asheville, where I live, is such an outlier as far as NC is concerned, much more liberal and quirky. But the people my wife and I were staying with own an alpaca farm, and they and their friends were wonderful. I could have hung out with them for days and days. The audience at the show seemed similar to any other audience I've been in. I get a sense -- and perhaps this is wishful thinking -- that there is less of a commitment to the more materialistic aspects of US culture, a greater connection to the land.

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