The Heart/Roots Project and a Pandemic Pivot

by Beth Wynstra and Mary Pinard
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

The final moment of Heart/Roots: Wabaunsee County, a new community-based play, is a poem, called “Sonnet in the Voice of the Ruin.” This moment invites an actor to embody a ruin and state,

Some of us, over time, become

once restored, what we were,

while others of us naturally stir

new ideas, art, the infinite sum

 

of dreams, made possible on a stage

by stories, breathed to life from a page.

These closing lines are a fitting end to a play inspired by stories from residents living in Wabaunsee County, Kansas. The lines also speak to the location of the 2022 premiere production of Heart/Roots, namely the ruin of a burned house on the grounds of The Volland Store, a one-time mercantile and general store that opened in 1913 and soon became the social and cultural center for the surrounding rural community. While The Volland Store fell into disrepair by the 1970s, it was transformed in 2015 by visionary philanthropists Jerry and Patty Reece into an art gallery, with a residence for visiting artists; it now features an outdoor amphitheater, built from the ruin of the burned house (hereafter referred to as the Ruin). Heart/Roots, thus, is a play steeped in local history and lived experience, informed by a specific location, and cognizant of the potential for transformation. These unique characteristics indicate that in-person engagements with space, place, individuals, and narratives would be crucial ingredients for the crafting and rehearsal of the community-based play. The original plan for Heart/Roots included such in-person elements. Yet, like so many theater performances over the last few years, Heart/Roots was a production paved with Covid-induced curves, hurdles, and discoveries. Ultimately, the road we (Mary Pinard, poet and playwright, and me, Beth Wynstra, theater historian and director) needed to travel with Heart/Roots was one that included cross-country dramaturgy, technological tools and methods, and only concentrated bursts of interaction with production team and cast. Yet these elements elicited new kinds of community-building that informed and ultimately buoyed the play in surprising ways.[1]

Seeds of the Project

In late 2018, the seeds of Heart/Roots were planted. Mary, who had been a poet-in-residence at The Volland Store, was invited to create a work that would serve as the inaugural production in the Ruin and would run in conjunction with a traveling Smithsonian Institute exhibition called Crossroads: Change in Rural America. This exhibition continues to tour museums, libraries, and universities throughout the United States today and had a 2020 visit scheduled at The Volland Store. One goal of Crossroads is to “prompt discussions about what happened when America’s rural population became a minority of the country’s population and the ripple effects that occurred.” The exhibition also poses the question, “Why should revitalizing the rural places left behind matter to those who remain, those who left, and those who will come in the future?”[2]  Mary felt a theater production would offer a compelling space to examine these questions and to bring the voices of the specific rural community of Wabaunsee County to life. She invited me, her colleague at Babson College, to join her in imagining the parameters of such a production.

We were guided by theater scholars and practitioners, in particular Sonja Kuftinec, who argues that community-based theater is “grounded in locality, place, or identity” and can “directly engage and reflect its audience, by integrating local history, concerns, stories, traditions, and/or performers.”[3] We were inspired by Kuftinec’s assertion that this kind of performance has the potential to be a “site for philosophical and ethical inquiry into the forging of identity.”[4] Indeed, theater for, about, and performed by members of a specific community has the power to bring individuals together for a special, communal experience, where these individuals might recognize their own stories and experiences on the stage. Furthermore, at this time, or “crossroads,” when the landscape of rural America is literally and metaphorically changing at a rapid pace, community-based theater offers space to reaffirm identity, reflect on stories and memories, and ruminate on future possibilities. The plan we initially developed was to travel from Massachusetts, where we both reside and teach, to Volland, Kansas, to meet community members, interview individuals, collect narratives, and conduct historical research, all to create a play inspired by what we heard and learned. We would then return to Kansas for a multi-week residency to audition actors, to rehearse the play, and finally to produce the work in the Ruin.

The COVID Pivot

The play, scheduled for a 2020 summer production, would ultimately need to be postponed, and the Smithsonian Crossroads exhibit eventually became a digital experience. This COVID moment, while disappointing in many ways, prompted us not only to rethink our creative process, but also to return to and solidify our initial impulses for a community-based production. In other words, the COVID-mandated pause (which, for our project, extended into 2022) gave us a chance to re-consider the why and how of creating a theater performance for and about Wabaunsee County and our place as both creators and outsiders to this locale. While our project would no longer be connected to the Smithsonian exhibit, we still believed a community-based theater production could remain true to the important goals of Crossroads. We also hoped that our project would offer cast, production team, and audience an original, experiential, interactive opportunity to think about and discuss the rich history and changing dynamics in rural America in general, and in Wabaunsee County, in particular.

After a two-year delay, we felt safe and ready to launch our community-based project, initially called Theater at the Ruin, in 2022. Our revised plan was to make three trips to Kansas: the first for introducing our project at several different events and venues in Wabaunsee County and to collect stories; the second for auditioning actors; and the third for in-person rehearsals, tech week, and final production. Between the first and second visit (in August and March respectively), Mary would write the play. Between the second and final visit (in June), I would direct rehearsals via Zoom. While before 2020, we could not fathom things like online rehearsals or digital story gathering, the pandemic gave us new tools and methodologies to create and collaborate. It became surprising to us how essential and helpful these technological tools ended up being for our project.

Welcome to Kansas and Story Collection

During our first visit to Kansas, which was my very first time in the state, we were deeply aware of our outsider status as we introduced the project and met with community members and potential actors, story-givers, and production team members. We held meetings and informational sessions at several different places: The Volland Store, an annual classic car show, the historical society, a local bakery, a yoga studio, an antique store, and even a cemetery. Our goal was to meet community members where they lived and worked, all in an effort for us to demonstrate our desire to listen and to learn. We knew well the dangers of outsiders creating community-based theater productions. Eugene van Erven warns that without careful and thoughtful interactions, community members can be “arguably used as pawns in a professional artist’s aesthetic game.”[5] Overall, we tried, at every meeting and interaction, to emphasize the fully collaborative nature of the experience we were launching and the goal of celebrating Wabaunsee County and christening the new performance space in the Ruin.

Our awareness of outsider-ness also helped us to consider some crucial questions for the project: Haven’t we all been outsiders at some point?  Been unsure about how to move ethically through and beyond the uncertainty and potential obstacles of difference—local, regional, personal, cultural? How then do we imagine, enter, negotiate, understand, embrace the possibilities implicit in these encounters with others not like ourselves? And how are we, in turn, shaped by them? These questions led us to consider the other outsiders who came before us, arriving and transforming the land and locale that would be central to our production. For example, we considered the turbulent unsettling initiated by European settlers who brought their own cultures, values, hopes, and unavoidable misconceptions about this place. We learned through the stories we heard and the research we conducted that the impact of this “settlement” on its own cannot be underestimated. This disruption also coincided necessarily with other kinds of unsettling developments such as the displacement of Indigenous peoples, and a maze of commerce driven by the carving into the land of more lines: roads, railroads, the establishment of fences for the burgeoning work of cattle driving and ranching, and the swift usurpations brought on by agriculture that followed on the effectiveness of the plow in breaking the prairie sod. With all of these patterns and evolutions in mind, we gingerly entered a small cattle-ranching community with an invitation for storytelling and its eventual embodiment in a play. Notions of outsider-ness would eventually form an important throughline of the stories we would hear and the script Mary would write. We also found inspiration, support, and integrity in Jerry and Patty Reece’s own outsider status and their renewing project of The Volland Store. We were able to apply many of the lessons learned from them about how best to work with—and in spite of—our position as “outsiders.”

While we were grateful for the many face-to-face encounters we had on this first visit to Kansas, technological tools aided mightily with story collection. For stories shared with us in person, such as those by two cousins in their 90s who remembered the early years of The Volland Store, or those from a middle-aged rancher and fence builder, we relied on audio recordings that were saved to a file on Dropbox, so that we both could access the recordings in the weeks and months to come. Several individuals did not feel comfortable or could not be available for sharing stories with us in person. We set up a digital story collection page on The Volland Store website. Although we missed seeing and observing these storytellers in action, their narratives, delivered digitally, were significant contributions to Heart/Roots. Other Wabaunsee County residents preferred to speak to us via Zoom, either out of an abundance of caution about the pandemic or due to scheduling conflicts when we were in Kansas. These Zoom conversations, recorded with the storytellers’ permission, proved illuminating in several ways. Some storytellers, like the owner of a yoga studio in the small, nearby town of Alma, had prepared commentary and stories. Others, like a rancher and mother, who studied Agricultural Economics at Kansas State University, was open to answering our questions and actually surprised herself with how much she could detail about the special nuances and appeals of living in Wabaunsee County and her emotional attachment to the place. We found that in these Zoom sessions storytellers were forthcoming and seemed to feel safe in sharing their narratives with us. We hypothesize that perhaps home environments or the protection of a screen made certain individuals more comfortable than they would have been in person. Such dynamics would again emerge in rehearsals.

Photo 1, The Ruin at the Volland Store, photo by Maddy Michaelis

Heart/Roots: Creation and Zoom Rehearsals

The eight monologues and scenes that comprise Heart/Roots were crafted from the stories we gathered and with additional historical details provided by The Wabaunsee County Historical Society and Museum. Mary found the recordings of story-givers especially useful since they provided her not only with narratives, but also with the flow and cadence of local speech, diction, and expression. And since a number of the most powerful stories were lyrical and informed by the rural rhythms of the land, she also pushed the limits of playwriting form. The pandemic had already jarred our process to the core, so why not allow this innovative mode even more space? Mary decided that the sonnet—a 14-line formal poem using stanzaic structure, rhyme, and metrics—would be a perfect addition to the play. It could accommodate the richness and brevity of certain stories, and it also echoed the literal contours of Wabaunsee County on a Kansas map. Suggesting the shape of a broad hand, this county map evokes those most essential capacities: to create and to work. Central to the nature of this county, the work of the human hand is thus at the core of this play, both through its characters’ experiences and in its creation by Mary as the playwright. The fact that the fingers of the human hand have a total of 14 bones also suggests a meaningful connection to the anatomy of the sonnet, whose 14 lines work themselves into poetry across a page. The final script of Heart/Roots is a tapestry of sonnets, monologues, and scenes. Like so many other elements of this project, the script was also enriched and deepened by our efforts to address and embrace the unpredictable impact of the pandemic.

In March, we were able to hold auditions at The Volland Store, with again some participants opting to audition via Zoom. It seemed that the groundwork we laid through our visits to several different community locations months earlier as well as the multiple and digital ways we collected stories helped to ensure trust in us and thus a robust audition pool. Our final cast of ten included a former mayor, a grassland ecologist, a yoga studio owner (the same one who supplied a story and who offered her studio as a story-gathering location), a cattle rancher, an undergraduate student, and a paramedic. After nearly two years of teaching on Zoom as well as directing a digital production at Babson College during the pandemic, I felt comfortable using this platform for the rehearsals between March and June, when we would be returning to Kansas for the production. Although we both remain certain that in-person rehearsals for a theater production are the ideal route, Zoom provided opportunities to build important community and relationships in ways we could not have predicted.

Like our story sessions on Zoom, actors in Zoom rehearsals joined us from their living rooms, kitchens, dorm rooms, and even ambulance bays. Almost every Zoom session started with one or more of the actors explaining where they were and sharing some detail about their environment. Our undergraduate student proudly shared his fraternity flag. Our paramedic showed how she could adjust her radio system to hear news of incoming emergencies and accidents. Our horse-owning cast member showed his pastures. While at the time we thought of these very local show-and-tells as a way to break the ice of the rehearsal or to get actors talking, in retrospect we see these moments as important for trust-building. It is a profound experience to see someone’s home or work environment and even more profound when that person is willing to share artifacts or facets of that place.

Zoom rehearsals, by their nature, are not always conducive to getting actors on their feet or for sketching out blocking. Nonetheless, we found that these rehearsals extended our table work and thus our conversations about objective, language, and timing. I readily admit that in most rehearsal hall scenarios, I am quick to experiment with and solidify movement. The Zoom rehearsals for Heart/Roots slowed down this impulse. The conversations during our rehearsals gave actors a chance to ask questions of playwright and director, to investigate and analyze each line for meaning and objective, and to discuss with scene partners interactions and relationships. Furthermore, almost every actor told us during the rehearsal process personal stories and histories that somehow connected to or resonated with moments in the script. We cannot be certain that these important conversations would have transpired in a traditional rehearsal experience.

When we consider the delicate nature of outsiders creating community-based performance, we understand how vital the talking, sharing of stories, and showing of home environments that comprised our Zoom rehearsals were to the creative process of Heart/Roots. A director, understandably, takes on a leadership position in any production. Such a position usually does not disrupt the kind of built-in, equal relationship to place that a theatrical cast and crew share. In community theater performances, when all cast and crew come from the same area, or in regional or professional theater performances, where cast and crew travel from disparate areas to a specific theater to perform, there is, for the most part, a shared connection to place. Not so with community-based theater. There is a large risk that an outsider, specifically an outsider director, might seem too authoritative or all-knowing when starting rehearsal work. This fear, we feel, could have very well come to fruition had the Heart/Roots cast and crew rehearsed in person from the very start. The Zoom moments instead allowed us to learn and talk about the place in which we would be producing the play. We built trust and ensured that when we finally could come together, for the first time, as a cast in June, we knew each other in ways that safeguarded a solid foundation to begin blocking and to begin a compressed tech week.

Heart/Roots: Final Moments and Production

Another seeming disadvantage that actually turned advantageous for our production was the fact that the performance space in the Ruin was an unseen and unknown entity not just for the cast but for us as well. Re-construction on the Ruin began after our first trip to Kansas in August and was ongoing when we were at The Volland Store in March. Although a few actors ventured out to the Ruin once it was completed in late Spring to practice their lines and work with their fellow actors, the space was a mystery to most of us working on the production. So, unlike many theater productions, where a director would have an intimate knowledge of the performance space and thus could guide a cast with this knowledge, the production of Heart/Roots was a moment where we all were discovering our performance space together. Although there were hurdles in this discovery process—such as how to work in 100-degree heat, how to shade the audience, how to manage interactions with mosquitos and ticks, how to ensure sound enhancements elevated actors’ voices while keeping a naturalness, and how to block a show with audience sitting on three sides—we navigated these challenges together. Perhaps the greatest difficulty, yet the one that became the most fun to solve together as a cast and production team, was the freight trains that ran on a track just yards from the Ruin and on an unpredictable schedule. Mary had written the “Train Sonnet” for just such a moment, where actors would rejoice and celebrate the passing train and then attempt to recreate the train sounds in a sonnet. We did not know, though, if we would end up using this sonnet or how often. Thus, in our 14 days together before the production opened, our team had much work to do and in tough conditions. We do feel that the bonds solidified—largely through technological means—enabled us to work together, to laugh together, and ultimately to produce a successful, sold-out run of Heart/Roots.

Photo 2, Act One of Heart/Roots, photo by Stephen Deets

Conclusion

The final production was a civic celebration, where long-term residents and newcomers to Wabaunsee County and the Flint Hills heard stories, made connections between past and present, and saw their fellow community members perform entirely new roles on the stage. The reverberations of the show continue. In the months following the production of Heart/Roots cast members have been asked to perform moments from the play for small and large gatherings, and a published version of the script that was on sale during the production is now available for purchase at The Volland Store. And, perhaps most importantly, the Ruin has become a vibrant space for music, with future theater and dance productions already in the works.

Photo 3, Audience at Heart/Roots, photo by Lorn Clement

 

Photo 4, Curtain call of Heart/Roots, photo by Abby Amick

Beth Wynstra is an Associate Professor of English at Babson College. Beth’s book, Vows, Veils, and Masks: The Performance of Marriage in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill (University of Iowa Press, Theater History and Culture Series) will be published in 2023. Beth has written extensively on the life and plays of Eugene O’Neill and often works as a dramaturg with professional theater companies around the country who are producing the works of O’Neill. Beth regularly directs plays and musicals at Babson and is the Founding Artistic Director of The Empty Space Theater.

Mary Pinard is a Professor of English and a poet. She teaches literature and poetry courses in the Arts & Humanities Division at Babson College. Her poems have appeared in a variety of literary journals, and she has published two collections:  Portal by Salmon Press in 2014, and Ghost Heart, which won the 2021 Ex Ophidia Press Poetry Book Contest and was issued by the press in 2022. Over the last fifteen years, she has collaborated with a range of Boston-area musicians, theatre directors, painters, and sculptors to create performances and exhibits. She was born and raised in Seattle.


[1] Please see the Volland Store website for photos and more information on Heart/Roots in rehearsal and production. http://thevollandstore.com/latest-news-on-the-ruin-and-heart-roots/

[2] “Crossroads: Change in Rural America,” Smithsonian, Accessed September 15, 2022. https://www.sites.si.edu/s/topic/0TO36000000aR1sGAE/crossroads-change-in-rural-america.

[3] Sonja Kuftinec, Staging America: Cornerstone and Community-Based Theater (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003): 1.

[4] Ibid, xvi.

[5] Eugène van Erven, “Taking to the Streets: Dutch Community Theater Goes Site-Specific,” Research in Drama Education 12, no. 1 (2007): 29.

 

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