WALKING THE LINE BETWEEN BAD TEETH AND MOONSHINE
Preston Lane writes, directs new ‘redneck’ play
There is a fun, pervasive and provoking stereotype that comes with being a mountain dweller. The rustic, barefooted moonshine-makers have been parodied for decades. But anyone who has ever visited east Tennessee, or even Boone for that matter, has seen that there are elements truth and fiction in the label of “hillbilly.”
Tackling the delicate line between stereotype and unique reality is Preston Lane, Triad Stage artistic director, in his freely adapted but original play Tennessee Playboy, a music-filled, edgy comedy about the small town of Bulls Bend, Tenn. and a “hero” who admits to killing his own father.
“The play has a hard, dark edge,” Lane said, calling it a “redneck romance.”
“It’s a comedy, but it’s really ridiculous if you think about it. It’s about people who fall in love with a man because he killed his father. It’s kind of a far-fetched, wild idea.”
Lane added it’s also an odd, perhaps twisted, dedication just in time for Father’s Day.
One would think that the eloquent Yale graduate would be too detached from such a rough and sometimes tacky world to write on its eccentricities; however, Lane once again surprises his Triad audience with a few tales of his own mountain upbringing and the relatives from which he drew some of his inspiration.
“I’ve always loved to make fun of east Tennessee,” said Lane, who grew up in western North Carolina, just 15 miles from the Tennessee border. “There’s been a whole line of Lanes in east Tennessee and I’m proud to be the last,” Lane joked. “Firmly committed to being the last.”
Lane’s childhood memories played a small role in helping to shape the characters and setting of the play.
“Some of my extended family are some wild and crazy characters,” Lane said. “Growing up in the Appalachian mountains was surrounded by a lot of loud and crazy characters. I feel like the play definitely comes from not only the original source, but also from my own experiences.
“I had a relative married into my family — briefly, thank Heavens — and she was a huge inspiration for Widow Quince. She was a very brass woman who was a little foul-mouthed and used to tell me wild lies. She actually told me once that she had a poodle and she had taught it how to smoke a pipe and do a cat dance, and that it was going be on TV.”
Readers will recognize that lie in one of Widow Quince’s lines. She’ll be the character sporting the bright red beehive hairdo.
What Lane lacks in memory, he makes up for in familial tales.
“My mother will tell me all the stories of her relatives and I put them in my plays — that’s what I do,” Lane said. “I ask my father anything, and he clams up and he says, ‘I’m not going to tell you anything because you’ll put it in a play.’” Lane says his east Tennessee relatives (from his father’s side) were always, “a little bit more redneck” than his western North Carolina family (from his mother’s side). “A little bit more fun-loving, too,” he adds.
“Growing up, we used to be scared of east Tennessee, [we] rolled up the windows and locked the doors,” Lane continued.
“My favorite memory was in high school.
My driver’s ed teacher would give me the greatest advice. Anytime you’d come to a stop sign or a yellow light or anything, she’d look at me and say, ‘Use yer own judgment.’” Another anecdote Lane recounted included a passed-on tale (sworn to be true) of a boy in the area that once wrote on his driver’s ed practice exam, under Sex: Male__ Female__, next to Male, “Once. In a roller rink in Mountain City, Tenn.”
“That summed up east Tennessee,” Lane laughed. “Sort of anything went.”
As for what Lane’s family thinks of his play, which he wrote last summer, Lane says his parents haven’t read it yet, but they tend to be supportive.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said, “but coincidentally I’ll be out of the country [in England] when they come to see it.”
A LINE BETWEEN TRUTH AND TYPECAST
One of the difficulties that Lane encountered in writing his script is the fragile line between endearing fact and aloof fiction. Of course, there’s always a little bit of truth in every stereotype coupled with a lot of exaggeration. The trouble is knowing how much exaggeration is too much, but without falling victim to political correctness either.
“I don’t want this play to be filled with buffoons,” Lane warned at the cast and crew’s first rehearsal meeting on May 14, “but filled with people who are really hungry for something.
“They don’t quite know what it is that they want to make their lives better, so they’re chasing after crazy things. That’s what we all do. And that’s where all great comedies and tragedies come from.”
But the play is still a satire, Lane added about how the play “caricatures the characters.”
“It sort of cartoons them a little bit,” he said, “and in doing so you accentuate certain things. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve tried to really embrace the satire of the piece.
“But the reality is moonshine really happened in the Appalachian Mountains and still happens. Moonshine is a big part of some people’s Appalachian culture and to ignore it to be politically correct isn’t truthful, either.”
PRESTON LANE: PLAYBOY OF THE EAST?
So, are all of these tales simply “of a friend,” leaving Lane free to artistically recount his own dashing young adulthood? Absolutely not. For one, he certainly did not kill his father like the real “playboy” of the play. And the inspiration for the play and lead character actually come from one of his favorite plays, Playboy of the Western World, by Irish playwright John Millington Synge.
“I loved that he was so in love with Ireland and so in love with the people, but he also recognized that there’s some truth in all stereotypes,” Lane said. “And he also recognized that one of the best ways you can love people is to gently make fun of them. And so I pride myself on trying to do that — though I’m still working hard on the gentle part.”
Lane says that part of his desire to adapt the play was to more appropriately localize it for an American audience who could better understand and identify the mountain stereotype before they could that of the Irish.
“There is a trap when you encounter Playboy of the Western World in that it becomes magically delicious,” Lane joked about the play’s strong Irish characters and their hard-to-understand accents.
When it came time to choose the “fictional” setting for the new adaptation, Lane once again took to his family history for inspiration and revisited his father’s old hometown: Bulls Gap, Tenn.
“As a ‘Hee Haw’ fan growing up, I was absolutely thrilled to know that Archie Campbell was a part of Bulls Gap,” Lane explained. “So, when I started thinking about doing this play, I drove over to Tennessee — I hadn’t been there in a long time — and drove into Bulls Gap and nothing had changed.
“The amazing thing is I went there on a Sunday and there was nobody there. There were no people. Everything was closed. It was like a ghost town. And I thought, ‘If I was on the run from the police, this is exactly where I’d want to be. I changed the name [in the play] to Bulls Bend [to protect the innocent].”
BUILDING A HILLBILLY TRUCK STOP
The entire play, set in the 1970s, takes place in a long-forgotten truck stop where a young man shows up after killing his father.
“It’s a town where nothing exciting has happened in years,” Lane said. “It’s a town where nobody has done anything out of the ordinary… except possibly kill a few of their husbands.”
Working to build a set that truly embodies the spirit of truckers as well as the isolated Tennessee town and its barefoot residents is a Triad Stage technical team headed by Production Manager Ryan Retartha and Technical Director Chad Hain.
Part of Hain and Retartha’s responsibility has involved gathering the appropriate materials and vintage objects to ensure the set looks as real as possible. Because the play takes place in an area and time period that many audience members may remember, authenticity is dire.
“With 1975 in east Tennessee, people are really going to be nitpicking the details,” Retartha said. “There is great attention to detail that we need to pay to make sure that everything is not just period, but also relatively native to that part of the country. Our audience will call us out on that kind of stuff.”
Retartha said they took to the Triad’s local thrift and antique stores to find many of their items, and then scoured craigslist and eBay for the rest.
But some items such as vintage motor oil, which is considered a collectible item, posed some expensive difficulties. Other ’70s vintage products setting the scene are RC Cola cans and bottles, Nehi bottles and a rusty old gas pump sporting the cool price of 60 cents a gallon.
“I was shocked at how many [old gas pumps] were on craigslist,” Hain said.
“It’s kind of fun to make things as real as possible,” Hain added. “We love buying cool, old stuff.”
Retartha’s favorite real-life touch is the 400 square feet of synthetic grass they’re putting down on about the first three feet of the stage’s edge, close to the audience’s feet.
Instead of the usual complicated scores that come with great musicals — an intricacy that would be out of place in Bulls Bend — the music for the play comes entirely from an onstage jukebox.
“Growing up in Boone, I remember when Pizza Hut opened,” Lane said. “It was very exciting for us. They had a jukebox and I loved to be able to go to the restaurant and pick my own soundtrack for my meal, so that’s a huge memory of my childhood. was really excited by the idea of creating a jukebox soundscape for this play. Country music is so much a part of the Appalachian Mountains, so much a part of east Tennessee, so it felt just right to be able to celebrate that music by making it a part of the story.”
The jukebox is not only a part of the set and sound design, but it also sets the play’s tone and occasionally comments on a moment, all while allowing the characters to express their dreams and inner thoughts.
Lane says even if the characters don’t have the words to express themselves, they can do so by “simply dropping a quarter and pressing three numbers.” If only it were so easy.
Tennessee Playboy runs at Triad Stage, 232 S. Elm St., June 9-30 before taking to the road to Boone. Opening night is June 14. Tickets are $20-$48 depending on date and seating. Call 336.272.0160 or visit triadstage.org for tickets or more information.