Photos by Norman Ng
In rural Union County, S.C., between the railroad tracks and a burned-out mill, sits a tin-sided warehouse that for years contained only dusty remnants of the region’s dying textile industry.
But for a few weeks last summer, the lonely building surged with new life. Inside, an unusual collection of children, mothers, retirees, out-of-towners and others gathered to produce, of all things, a community play.
There was the 61-year-old mill worker in her first production, the teenage actor portraying one of the county’s locally famous African American residents and the retired banker selling tickets from a once-vacant downtown storefront.
And in the middle of this unusual scene, pacing a wooden stage built in the center of the cleaned-up warehouse, was Chicago director Richard Geer.
For the past decade, Geer (GC93), who earned a doctorate in performance studies at Northwestern, has directed similar plays in about a dozen economically depressed communities. Other graduate students’ dissertations might sit on a library shelf and collect dust, but Geer has been bringing his thesis on community storytelling to life in small towns across the country.
His Chicago-based company, Community Performance Inc., provides drama professionals who help direct, write, light, choreograph and score the plays. The communities contribute the cast, crew, stage — and the stories that become the scripts.
In Union, through a play called Turn the Washpot Down, the goal was to rally spirits in a county of 30,000 that had seen its economy bruised by textile layoffs and its reputation stained by the notorious Susan Smith child drownings nine years ago. Organizers hoped to create an annual event that might someday draw tourists, businesses, even new residents.
“There are so many bad things going on,” says Katie Holden, a college student who came home for the summer to perform in the play. “This is something really good.”
Geer’s work has brought new hope to troubled towns, earned the respect of professors who trained him and even garnered a write-up in People magazine. But he says his approach to drama is far from revolutionary, pointing to a tradition of community storytelling that dates to Biblical times.
“It goes back to the roots of community,” he says. “What we call art was once indistinguishable from ritual, politics and how values were communicated. What community performance attempts is to create a group where there maybe wasn’t one before — or in the case of Union, where the identity had been degraded — by structuring a group of stories that are common to everyone involved.”
That doesn’t make the task of a putting on a play any easier.
For weeks last summer, a cast of more than 100 gathered in the metal warehouse in Union, with temperatures sometimes so hot you could pop popcorn, according to one actor.
Mercifully, with opening night only days away, the play’s organizers rented a massive air-conditioning unit to cool the murky space. “Please keep the doors closed at all times,” a handwritten sign on the front door pleaded.
On the night of the air conditioner’s debut, its noise, however, didn’t do much to soothe Geer, who was rehearsing the players.
One of the main singers was absent, an actor had recently broken an arm in a stage fall and Community Performance playwright Jules Corriere had to fill in for those parts.
Geer wiped his brow and chided actors and crew members who were ignoring his cues and talking among themselves. “Are we doing one show right now, or are we doing a hundred shows?” he said. “We need to do one show.”
They quickly turned their attention back to Geer, and he eased up. He signaled for fog to start blowing across the stage, and the first scene began.
‘Go into Theater’
Geer hadn’t always planned on a career in theater.
Growing up in California as the son of educators, he wanted to be a scientist. But a bout with meningitis — and a caring doctor — turned him toward medicine, making healing an important part of his future life’s goals.
After high school Geer began premed studies in, of all places, the University of Ghana in Africa — where his father had taken a job running an international school for an aluminum company. But again Geer’s life took another turn. He had a dream where he saw the words “Go into Theater,” and he soon returned to the United States, where he enrolled in the drama program at San Diego State University.
After earning a bachelor’s degree there in 1970, Geer pursued a master’s degree in theater at the University of Minnesota. But when he graduated, Geer says, he didn’t have the “strength to go to New York City and bang on doors.”
Having the same name as the film actor, although spelled differently, has helped him get his calls returned faster and has made it easier for people to remember him. But ultimately, he jokes, he is always a disappointment wherever he goes.
While in Minnesota, he met and ultimately married his wife, Adrienne, who had three children from a previous marriage. After his studies he — and she — decided to move to Steamboat Springs, Colo., looking to help run a fledgling family lodging business.
But it didn’t take long before Geer was back in theater. He founded the Steamboat Repertory Theater and soon realized the power a play could have on a community.
In 1981, with snow scarce and the ski resort town struggling, Geer staged a version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that emphasized themes of individuals coming together. The actors performed in a borrowed church sanctuary because their previous venue — a train depot — had been condemned.
“They loved the play,” Geer says of the community. “It moved them. It was one bright spot.”
The theater soon ran out of money, however, and Geer started bouncing around the country between regional theater gigs and visiting professorships at colleges and universities. At one point, while directing at the Denver Center Theatre Company, he had another dream. This time the words that came to him were “It’s your job to change the definition of theater.”
To achieve his goal, Geer needed to pursue a doctoral degree. While teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he learned about the performance studies program at Northwestern. In particular he was impressed by an article written by Dwight Conquergood, associate professor of performance studies, who described using a play to teach Hmong refugees in Southeast Asia about public health.
“That’s what I wanted to do,” Geer says. “I wanted to use performance as a modality so that a community could heal, grow and transform itself.”
In 1989, at age 41, he started classes at Northwestern and recalls being particularly electrified by the lectures of Leland Roloff, now professor emeritus of performance studies. Roloff, who mingled performance art and Jungian psychology, was to Geer “like light pumping into places where I was thinking but didn’t have the vocabulary to think with.”
Roloff taught Geer that certain ideas and images — archetypes — could speak deeply to an audience. He also showed him the power of story in human experience.
“Richard was influenced by two courses, Psychological and Archetypal Approaches to Literature and Performance Art,” recalls Roloff. “Richard, as they say, ‘got it.’”
Roloff is not surprised by Geer’s venture into community theater.
“This is a most natural extension of Richard’s presentational abilities for creating moments of consciousness,” he says. “In this he follows Mary Zimmerman [C82, GC85, 94], a former student, whose Metamorphoses is currently thrilling audiences in New York City [Northwestern, spring 1999]. Richard has that same kind of genius, the gift of dramatizing the unforgettable image and the persuasive word.”
While at Northwestern, Geer discovered the laboratory for his experiments: a small town in southern Georgia named Colquitt.
At a conference he met Joy Jinks, a Colquitt resident who was involved in arts projects in the poor rural community. She was looking to stage a heritage play to encourage economic development, and he agreed to help if it was based on oral history, not just a dry recitation of facts from a single perspective.
The production, which would be called Swamp Gravy (the title refers to a local concoction in lean times of fish, vegetables and rice), took stories from the local community and added song and dance. The play debuted in fall 1992 and was a hit.
Now, 10 years later, Swamp Gravy, with a new script each season, plays to sold-out crowds in a formerly unused cotton warehouse that underwent a recent $620,000 renovation. The local arts council that produces it now has a $1.6 million budget, runs a bed-and-breakfast and leases out space to shopkeepers on a revitalized town square.
“I can’t say enough good things about him as a director,” says Karen Kimbrel, executive director of the arts council for Colquitt and surrounding Miller County. “What he gave us has changed lives and changed this community.”
Staging the play became the subject of Geer’s dissertation, but he recalls it wasn’t easy getting the approval of his adviser, Frank Galati (C65, GC67, 71), a Tony Award–winning director and professor of performance studies. After Geer turned in his first draft, Galati told him that it needed more focus — and not to come back until Geer had found that focus.
Geer calls this command a “whack upside the head,” but it helped him hone his dissertation. It was also in keeping with Galati’s teaching style.“He was the kind of lecturer who would stand in front of the class and dazzle us,” Geer says. “He showed you the glimmer of the possible.”
With his doctorate behind him, Geer was soon taking his brand of theater to other towns.
Among the successful projects were Scrap Mettle SOUL in Chicago and Pieced Together in Newport News, Va. Both are ongoing productions.
When Geer was in Newport News, he met Corriere, the playwright, who at first worked for him as an actress. “I find that he is a true collaborator,” she says. “He doesn’t say ‘no’ very often. He’s willing to try new ideas and try new people. He absolutely thinks a play should be inclusive.”
Geer and Corriere came to Union about three years ago at the invitation of Art Sutton, whose radio stations in the Carolinas and Georgia mix country music with local news and sports. He had seen Swamp Gravy and hoped Geer could produce a similar success in Union. Sutton picked up most of the $200,000 tab to hire Community Performance and stage a play.
Union was a place in need of theatrical escape.
Unemployment was in double-digits as of last summer, fueled by layoffs in the textile industry that had once helped build the community. A number of the county’s shuttered mills have been demolished, or in the case of one mill near the warehouse-turned-theater, torched by arsonists. Only a brick smokestack and charred rubble remain.
The national media attention stirred by Susan Smith still causes painful memories as well. Just off the two-lane highway into town is John D. Long Lake, where Smith admitted drowning her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons. A simple stone monument, surrounded by small stuffed animals, is a lasting reminder of the tragedy.
No one in Union expected a play to fix the community’s problems overnight. But organizers remain hopeful the production can stir tourism and economic development.
“The great gains won’t come in the first year, but if you can sustain it, they can come, judging by the success in Colquitt,” says Betsy Vanderford, a Union resident who helped produce the play.
As is standard for Geer’s productions, Union’s play started with the gathering of community stories. Geer, Corriere and local volunteers started collecting the tales of people around the county, and Corriere wove them into what became Turn the Washpot Down.
It’s a series of vignettes and songs based on memories and legends of Union County life. There are stories of hard times, and there are stories of redemption.
The title refers to a tale from one resident about slaves who would secretly worship in the woods. They believed if they placed an upside-down wash pot on the ground, it would capture the sounds, keeping their worship undetected by slave owners. In the play, a wash pot is used as a metaphor for revealing personal stories, no matter how painful.
The play is laced with textile industry motifs. “Textiles are all I’ve known in my life,” says Betty Jo Simmons, a mill worker in her 60s who made her stage debut in the production. “That’s where my mother and daddy provided us with a living.”
A key thread is the struggle of Leroy Worthy, one of three African American men who in 1964 helped integrate a mill in the county for the first time.
Worthy faced segregated facilities and heavy resentment from white co-workers. But he rose to become human resources director at the mill and even was elected mayor of one of Union County’s small towns, which was nearly all-white.
Onstage, high school student Michael Smallwood played Worthy. During a short break in the action, Smallwood spotted Worthy in the audience and gave him a hug.
“This will be really good for Union,” Worthy said. “It’ll rekindle the ‘we care’ spirit.”
One of the closing scenes featured the unfurling of a quilt painted with scenes from the town’s history. The cast members clutched the edges of the fabric, undulating it slowly while they sang “Amazing Grace.”
With opening night only a couple of days away, Geer smiled and told the cast, “Almost there.”
Opening a Window
The week before opening night, Ola Jean Kelly, a retired banker helping coordinate the project in Union, sold $10 tickets out of a sparsely furnished office on Main Street.
By opening night, excitement was high, and the first weekend was mostly sold out, even with competition from the Miss Union County pageant and a couple of prominent weddings.
The outside of the theater was dressed up with a bright yellow and green sign. A concession stand sold popcorn, drinks, hats and shirts. A freshly built handicap ramp led to the main entrance.
Inside, Geer gathered the cast in a circle around the stage. They clasped their hands and bowed their heads for a pre-show prayer.
Nine planned shows, plus two extra performances, would eventually sell out over the next three weeks.
Union’s production appears to have a promising future. Organizers planned to perform another run of Washpot and then start work on another script, but without Geer’s company.
For a few years Colquitt also has been producing its show without Community Performance. Geer’s “greatest gift is planting the seed,” says the Colquitt arts council’s Kimbrel.
Geer says it’s up to the individual communities how they want to proceed after the initial staging. “It’s a lot costlier to utilize us,” he acknowledges. “If the community feels it has the strength to succeed on another course, more power to them. That enables us to move on to other communities.”
Still, he remains involved in some of his original projects, including the Chicago and Newport News productions. Scrap Mettle SOUL in Chicago, for instance, has been performing in neighborhood parks, churches and other venues since 1994, focusing on themes of immigration and gentrification, a contrast to plays in more rural areas such as Union. Increasingly, the troupe of about 80 has been traveling around the Chicago area to perform, including appearances during New Student Week at Northwestern.
Geer also is talking to other towns about new productions. In January Scrap Mettle SOUL performed in the London community of Southwark and in the Leith neighborhood in Edinburgh.
When Geer first got into theater, he savored the spotlight falling on him. Now, he prefers allowing the “light through,” a term used by Roloff, his former professor.
“What I want to be is a window into which light can pour onto other ideas, people and communities,” Geer says. “Each of us has an opportunity to be a window.”
Rick Rothacker (J94, GJ95) of Charlotte, N.C., covers banking for the Charlotte Observer.