Town Hall

Virginia Tech residency and adventures

Now that Mission Drift is finished (or as we in the TEAM like to say – “finished” -) developing and is moving into the performance and presentation stage, we can turn more of our attention to a few irons we’ve got in the fire. The next such iron is Town Hall, a collaboration between the TEAM and a terrific company based out of Portland, Oregon called Sojourn Theatre. Sojourn specializes in theatrical events that couple excellent stagecraft with community engagement, and the few occasions we’ve been able to get our gangs into the same space at the same time have proven very fruitful and highly enjoyable. The idea for Town Hall came from the town hall meetings in August 2009 when health care was the hot topic and all of a sudden the debate became absolutely frenzied and people began bringing guns to public discussion forums. Not firing them, not even necessarily talking about them, just brandishing them in plain sight. As is their right to do. Town Hall will wrestle with how we make decisions in a democracy.

But more on Town Hall in future posts.

This post is about our adventures in southwest Virginia, where last week Rachel and I met up with Michael Rohd, the artistic director of Sojourn, for a 5 day residency.  We had a very full schedule, a tightly packed agenda of classes to teach, meetings to attend, rehearsals to hold and a workshop on devising to give, but somehow no idea what to expect.  We knew that we would be working closely with a group called Building Home composed of undergrad and grad theatre students at Virginia Tech and members of the Blacksburg community who don’t make theatre pieces, though I was admittedly confused about what they did do and what we would be doing with them.  And as is always the case when traveling to a new place to develop a brand new play, we just couldn’t know what we would learn until we learned it. This post is about some of the things we learned in Virginia.

First though, a breathtaking parenthetical. Something I didn’t learn per se but was thrilled to witness: We were nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains just in time for Peak Leaf Week. Such foliage! Sadly I didn’t have any sort of camera with me, a realization that broke my heart more with every damn beautiful tree we came across. So here is a photo of that area that I stole from the internet to give you an idea of what we walked out of our hotel into every day:

c'est beau, n'est pas?

See?

Come on.  Come on!

And in this Bob Ross-ian setting, what did we learn? Well for starters Building Home arranged for us to sit in on several community meetings to see first hand a small group of folks wrestle to make plans and strategies and allocate resources for a whole community containing many different interests. All extremely exciting for Town Hall devo purposes, but less fit for the post which is about adventures.

The music, the music was adventurous. Two of the members of Building Home are local Old Time music prodigies. Old Time music is a cousin of Bluegrass music, but far less, um, popular. Somehow Old Time music has maintained a rich tradition in the Appalachian mountains but hasn’t grown past it’s regional roots. It often involves a fiddle and definitely utilizes the banjo (the banjo being the only instrument of any note that developed in America).

Anna and Elizabeth, our two incredible musicians-in-residence for the week, gave us our utterly unforgettable introduction to this music.  On our last night in town we took our rehearsal to Floyd, a small town about 45 minutes away from Blacksburg.  We kicked off the evening at Anna’s big beautiful farmhouse for a potluck dinner. The first room we entered was filled with the kinds of  stringed instruments used in making mountain music and several old Victrolas. We even stumbled across two wax-cylinder players, one of which said “Edison” on the side. Upon learning that I was allowed to play with this priceless relic of American and recording history, I joy-freaked out. And that is the state I maintained for the rest of the evening.

We had come to Floyd that night to witness the Old Time Music and Bluegrass Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store, but the most enlightening moment of music of the evening for me happened at the Pot Luck. Anna and Elizabeth introduced us to the cranky. Crankies are a form of musical story telling that I could describe here, but instead of bludgeoning the magic of the moment with a description that I don’t have the patience to try to find, here is a video that is worth 10,000 of my words. That is Elizabeth singing and Anna turning the crank.

Cranky One from Rachel Chavkin on Vimeo.

There was a second, equally breathtaking cranky on paper instead of cloth telling a story too sad to print here. After we had asked our fill of cranky questions and eaten our fill of beef stew, it was time to hop the short hop into town for the festivities. Before we even stepped foot into the Country Store, we squeezed into the capacity-crowd barber shop next door where there was a group of local musicians jamming. Anna and her fiddle popped down onto the couch and wordlessly joined the jam session with band members that appeared on average 2-3 times her age, and after a song or two she drafted Elizabeth to join.

Eventually we made our way next door. The Floyd Country Store is the first retail establishment that I’ve felt an emotional connection to in a long while. The totally inefficient layout, the clothes (Rachel hasn’t taken off the flannel shirt she purchased since), the ceramic butter dishes that say “never too much butter”, the pumpkin milkshakes and the CD’s of local recording artists.

Michael, Brian, Rachel, Leo, Carly

None of us knew how to dance the kind of dancing that happens at a hoedown like this, flatfoot dancing it’s called, but that in no way impeded our zeal.  And no one chided us for our incompetence, they grabbed our hands and dragged us out on the floor and gave us pointers as we went. Rachel’s main dance partner of the night was a farmer named Leo (pictured). As you could probably guess from the photo, Leo was a terrific and enthusiastic dancer who just happens to be in his 80’s. He made us all look slow. [The picture, L-R, Michael Rohd (Sojourn), me, Rachel, Leo, our fabulous intern Carly, and in the background is the band that almost gave me an asthma attack they were so much fun.]

And it just so happened that on this particular night a group of Afghanistan war vets on a perpetual anti-war bicycle tour of the south were in attendance. They had already played a set (they’re also a traveling bluegrass band!) that I regrettably missed, but the owner of the country store made sure to grab me for an introduction with the head of the group later in the night. His name is Jacob, he had long hair tied in a ponytail, a fair number of tattoos, was barefoot, and had served three tours in Afghanistan as a paratrooper. He was quietly charismatic and wildly articulate, and he mostly spoke about healing vets and opening a space to talk about war. You can follow their journey here, buy their CD or lend your support in any way you’d like. And if you’re in a town when the stop through, go visit. They are doing wonderful work and are not to be missed.

We were among the last to leave that night as is our way (The TEAM: ’til the end of the party!), and we hit the highway at 6:30 the next morning in what would be a 12-hour door-t0-door road trip home. The residencies for Town Hall will take TEAM and Sojourn members to Kansas City, Iowa, and Washington DC in the coming weeks, all of which promise to be exciting and hold their own adventures – particularly the Iowa Republican Caucus in early January – but the words of a woman I met at the end of the week in Shawsville, VA ring in my mind.  Her name is Ruby and she is a 90-year-old life long Virginian. After she and I bonded over coffee and donuts for an hour at an early morning meeting and we were saying our goodbyes, she held my arm and said, “Y’all come back now”. That, Ruby, is a fine idea.