Brother Wolf takes an epic poem back to the mountains
Escaping the smog of the backed-up intersection at Elm Street and Washington Avenue through the plate-glass entrance of Triad Stage, I’m assaulted by smells surprisingly rustic. The culprits: bristly, sawed trees blocking a conduit to the lower lobby and obscuring the lingering smells of scrubbed patrons and fresh paint familiar during the two years I worked there.
I’ve entered the house that artistic director Preston Lane and managing director Rich Whittington built. Behind a set of dark painted doors set against pale yellow lobby walls, the technical staff is recreating an amalgam of Lane’s Appalachian youth, something of a cross between imagined reality and authentic mythology.
It was in those woodsy mountains of Western Carolina that a relative of Lane’s ‘— a great aunt ‘— created her own religion, built a church and died digging a baptismal pool. Cradled by those high peaks that seem to materialize at a bend in the heretofore-flat road, he heard jack tales and Bible stories.
One story he never heard, even at his high school in Boone, was Beowulf. Instead, he bypassed the notoriously dense required reading in favor of its Cliff’s Notes study guide.
Greensboro residents can consider themselves lucky that Lane, the artistic director at Triad Stage, held out for Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s innovative translation of the epic published in 2001. He ran across the book while thumbing through the poetry section of a bookstore in Fayetteville, searching for e.e. cummings. Beowulf was misfiled.
The play evoked in its way remnants of his Appalachian upbringing.
‘“One of the things that first struck me about the piece was that it was set in pre-Christian Europe but the writer is from post-Christian Europe,’” Lane said. ‘“So, there’s that sort of religiosity driven through the piece. Also, I grew up hearing Jack tales and got this real sense of oral storytelling.’”
The chance discovery of the poem is one of a number of serendipitous moments Lane refers to when talking about ‘“Brother Wolf,’” his Appalachian adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon classic making its debut at Triad Stage in March. The play, which also features the musical stylings of Polecat Creek’s Laurelyn Dossett, is another iteration of a cultural graft created by Anglo-Saxons settling in North Carolina’s mountains centuries ago. It’s a society of hardship, god-fearing and tall tale telling that writer/director Lane knows well ‘— both sides of his family hail from the environs of the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
Up in the rehearsal hall on the second floor of the downtown theater ‘— Lane’s home away from home ‘— he and the fight choreographer Jim Wren are working out the specifics regarding forest fauna. Two actors, dressed in street clothes for now but slated for raccoon regalia, support Grin Dell’s Maw on their shoulders as she faces down Brother Wolf. The raccoons are sweating a little, trying to hold their pose as Lane and Wren work out an elaborate sequence.
‘“It’s every actress’s favorite scene,’” he quips. ‘“You get to sit on a pile of guys.’”
Lane is sitting behind a long folding table with his script open in front of him. He’s dressed in jeans, sneakers and a patterned shirt pushing the infrared end of the color spectrum.
For a while he stays in the background, sipping Diet Coke while Wren directs Michael Abbott, who plays Brother Wolf, to fire an imaginary gun into the air above Maw Dell’s head.
Abbott is lying prone, towered over by Beth Ritson as Maw Dell. While he works out the action with the gun, a dialogue question emerges.
‘“There’s ‘God’, ‘God’, then ‘Oh God’, then ‘God’ with a question mark,’” says the assistant stage manager.
‘“Hmmm,’” says Lane. ‘“I wonder if the playwright has some sort of religious trauma.’”
Seconds later Abbott is lying on the ground.
‘“God. God ‘… God,’” he says.
‘“Um ‘… that’s an Oh God,’” interrupts the assistant stage manager.
‘“Omigod,’” Abbott sighs, dropping his head back to the ground.
Lane and Abbott met during a production of ‘“Bus Stop’” last season and found common ground in their shared Appalachian heritage. It was a part of both their lives that neither had been able to explore onstage.
‘“When you become an actor they try to take all the regionality out of you,’” Lane says.
Abbott was cast as the title character from the beginning. He’s got the look: full beard and hooded eyes, but is working out some kinks in the character’s invincibility department. During breaks he heaves himself around on a pair of crutches required by a minor foot injury.
Before long Lane gets up out of his chair, paces over to the action and rolls out his routine, half Broadway and half vaudeville. He takes eight yards of muslin currently being incorporated into the scene, rolls it up and stuffs it into his shirt. The he pulls it out slowly, like a magician wowing an audience.
I’ve never seen this bit before, but I saw plenty like it in the seasons I spent here. It’s vintage Lane, a born performer who confines most of his antics to an audience of peers.
Writing, however, is a different animal.
‘“Writing is a lonely pursuit,’” he says, ‘“and I don’t have the discipline to be lonely.’”
Fortunately for this undertaking, he had a partner in songwriter Dossett.
‘“Whenever I lost faith in the process, she was there,’” Lane says.
And she’s been there, along with Riley Baugus, from the beginning of the playwriting process in early 2005. A renowned bluegrass musician, she and Lane found they shared a similar epiphany when both (separately) saw the Red Clay Ramblers perform in a Sam Shepard play.
‘“One of the ways we’ll find to bring theater to a wider audience not just in Greensboro but in the United States is to explore this interaction between popular music and the theater,’” Lane says.
It is one of the ways he’s trying to turn Triad Stage from just a highly respected regional theater into one that can redefine the boundaries of the art form.
‘“I really want us to do plays that deal with adventure and challenge conventional ideas of what theater is,’” he says. ‘“This is really going to be different than your standard play and the interaction between music and theater is key to this.’”
Baugus slips into rehearsal as the fight call wraps up. He’s carrying what looks like a suitcase in matte black. From inside of it he pulls a fiddle and bow.
‘“It’s going to be more like a concert behind a show,’” Baugus says, comparing working in theater to working on the film Cold Mountain.
Baugus boasts some serious folk credibility as a native of Walkertown, NC with more than 20 years of professional musicianship under his belt. Lane describes him as the real thing.
‘“His knowledge of music and the region is invaluable in the rehearsal hall.’”
This is Dossett’s first time composing music for theater, although her song ‘“Leaving Eden’” appeared on the BBC.
‘“Normally I write songs for myself,’” She says. ‘“And the songs I write here definitely have constraints. The songs definitely have to sound old and they all had different songs to do. In a way it was easier because I didn’t have as many choices.’”
All of the tracks on the soundtrack save one are traditionals or tunes penned by Dossett. Track 10 is ‘“Weapon of Prayer,’” a tune written by fire-and-brimstone balladeers the Louvin Brothers. It suits the play, an action-adventure dunked in old time religion.
The Louvin Brothers learned their piety in the southern end of the Appalachians, in Alabama. It would be around the same time Lane’s great aunt was making her personal stand against gender discrimination in the Protestant churches around her home.
A couple of generations later Lane is building a church, and this time an audience is invited. The church is not part of a worldview but part of a world ‘— theater, script and all that he has created.
It’s full circle for the writer and director intent on making an imprint’— right here in Greensboro ‘— deep enough for the theater to be born again.
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.