Cindy Gray of Bristol, Tenn., says, "My family has been so positively impacted in so many ways by the arts, especially the theatre! We have met so many wonderful people, made lifelong friendships and have so many wonderful memories!"
She recalls, "About 13 years ago, I was going through a divorce and my daughter Meaghan, age 8 at the time, was so painfully shy. She had to change schools and begin making new friends and was really struggling. I don't know what prompted her to ask, but she wanted to know if she could audition for a part in Rumplestiltskin at Theatre Bristol. I never dreamed that she would get a part, much less actually get out on the stage, but I agreed. The director not only gave her a part but even wrote her a line or two so she could really get the experience. She was hooked! After that, she got me into the world of theatre as well. We both were in South Pacific, The Sound of Music and, more recently, in Cabaret and Smokey Joe's Cafe."
She adds, "The arts have brought Meaghan out of her shell -- and me as well. I actually sang a solo in Smokey Joe's, something I never dreamed I'd do. It was a really exciting time for this 51-year-old! I give much thanks to everyone involved in keeping the arts alive and well in Bristol and the surrounding area. Thanks to A! Magazine as well, for keeping the arts at the forefront in people's minds. Congratulations on your 15th anniversary! I know I can't wait to read each edition when it comes out!"
Theatre: Going for the Gold
Reece Wheeler is a junior Fine and Performing Arts Honors Student at East Tennessee State University. Married with one child, he was born in Bristol but grew up in Bluff City. He graduated from Sullivan East High School before moving to Johnson City where he lives today. He plans to pursue a higher degree and one day open his own production company.
He says, "The arts have done a lot to change my life. I can honestly say that I owe everything I am today to art and its influences. One instance I remember vividly is going to see [legendary mime] Marcel Marceau at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol. His ability to tell unique and complex stories through movement astonished and followed me through the years." The experience later earned him gold medals in drama competitions.
"In high school I was surprised to find there was a forensics team that competed state-wide. That fostered my passion for the dramatic arts. A combination of forensics tournaments and community theatre at Theatre Bristol gave me the competitive edge I need to succeed. As a junior I took second at the state tournament in Duet Acting and was also in the running for first in Storytelling as I had upset the favorite earlier in the year. To my disappointment, I was allowed only one category in the final competition."
Reece continues, "Going into my senior year, with all the time I put into academics and wrestling, it was hard to really focus on preparing for the upcoming forensics season. Before I knew it, the district tourney was a week away. I frantically tried to find something I could easily memorize, yet was powerful enough to take a state championship. I was looking over the categories, leaning toward my norm of Storytelling and Poetry, when I came across Pantomime, a category held only on the district and state levels, so I had overlooked it early on. I was reminded of Marceau's performance and how much it had affected me years ago. A week later I was on a bus headed for the district tournament. I didn't speak the whole day, not because I had decided to be a mime, but because I was meditating on the physical motions. Going in, I didn't know what to expect. I had worn a suit to the tournament as I always had, as all the competitors had. I found it extremely restrictive, stifling my movements. But I swept the tournament, taking first in each round of competition.
"I was relieved to have more time to prepare for the state tourney. That included buying a black unitard, like Marceau's, and slipping on my jazz shoes. At the tournament I was asked many times if I was competing because I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It was strangely satisfying to see the shocked look on the faces of my competitors when I removed my shorts and shirt, revealing the unitard. I was 'dead-on' and the news traveled fast. Before long, everyone wanted a picture with me, even the coaches. The finals rolled around, and the Pantomime room was full of spectators. This was strange, as it had been seen as a dying category, soon to be cut from the line-up. I nailed the final performance and took the gold. The next year Pantomime saw almost twice as many competitors. I wrote a routine for a friend still in high school and coached him to a state championship as well. Since then I have always remembered the importance of body language and movement in every project I have undertaken."
Theatre: Hooked on Shakespeare
Evalyn Baron, Director of Outreach at Barter Theatre, says, "We change people's lives every day here at Barter with all we do. There is evidence of it in the letters we receive, on the faces of the people who leave our shows, and in so many other ways."
Part of Barter's Outreach work this season was fulfilling a National Endowment of the Arts grant from the Shakespeare in American Communities program. Baron explains, "We were required to go to 12 under-served schools in our region and conduct workshops on the language and poetry of Shakespeare. It didn't take long for 14 schools to enroll in this program and, before I knew it, I was driving at dawn into Buchanan County, Wise County and others, to spend days talking with students about iambic pentameter. Aside from getting lost a lot on coal mountains (my GPS was not to be trusted), I had some of the most inspiring experiences of my entire theatrical career."
She says there are "too many stories to tell all," but one or two stand out:
• The tall, handsome boy (whose only reading had been technical manuals and the Bible) realizing that a Shakespeare play could actually be considered a tech manual for life. Comparing the plays' poetry to modern rapping, understanding how human passions are the same through time, "hooked" this student on Shakespeare for life, or so he said in his follow-up letter to me.
• At another school, one boy's mother, enraged that he was missing his trade class to attend a Shakespeare workshop, came into the auditorium yelling his name. He excused himself quietly, took his angry mother into the hallway, and returned to the workshop shortly thereafter. Later, the teacher told me that she never expected the boy to return. But return he did, and he was the most involved, concentrated student I worked with. The more he understood how Shakespeare was not as alien as he had thought it was, the more he "got it," the brighter his eyes glowed with excitement. I loved that boy for the discoveries he was making.
Baron adds, "There were times that it felt like I could see the light bulbs turning on over the kids' heads. If anyone reading this ever doubts that the arts make a difference, please come with me the next time I take Shakespeare, or any other form of live theatre, to the coal fields or anywhere else that it's in scarce supply!"
Theatre: Second Chance for Dream of a Lifetime
Gary Kimbrell, Project Manager for Food City and President-Elect of the 2010 Virginia Highlands Festival, says, "I flunked out of college in 1965 -- probably because I was more interested in learning my lines [as an actor] than dissecting a frog. Back home, I did some acting and directing with the Little Theatre in Statesville. One evening after a performance of Spoon River, a play I directed and acted in, I was offered a scholarship to the North Carolina School of the Arts. I sat there on the stage and cried, for that same day I had received my draft notice. With the military, families, and jobs, I turned away from what I wanted to do and conformed to 'what is best.'"
In 2002, when Kimbrell and his wife Susan moved to Abingdon, he says, "We immediately fell in love with Barter Theatre and are now patrons. In 2009 the Barter and Evalyn Baron began offering adult acting classes. Susan said I had to do it, and I did. Now I am in my second class. You asked how it has changed me. It has taken me from someone who had a dream and let it go away to someone who has a dream and now can begin to fulfill it. Who knows -- maybe someday I can be a walk-on at the Barter."
Theatre Becomes a Tradition
As part of a family reunion at their summer home in Fancy Gap, Va., Don and Ginger Osborne from Randleman, N.C., took their two grown sons, their wives, and a 10-year-old granddaughter to Barter Theatre to see 1776 in 2003.
Ginger recalls, "The performance was incredible! Everyone experienced complete exhilaration -- from the opening scene with 'Sit down, John!' until the huge American flag fell on the final curtain. Deep emotional feelings -- pride to be an American, 'love of country' and sincere gratitude for the price our forefathers paid -- swept the entire audience."
She continues, "Little did we know it was the last time our entire family would be together at the Barter." Her husband became ill and died shortly thereafter. "I cannot begin to tell you how devastating this was to our family. We are still in 'recovery mode' but, without doubt, one of our fondest memories is being together as a family for the wonderful performance at the Barter Theatre. It has now become a tradition for our family to vacation together at our home in the mountains, including a trip to Barter Theatre. This tradition has played a significant role in our healing process."