Love and murder: Barbara Bates Smith brings Ron Rash stories to the stage

A VOICE TO THE PAGE: Barbara Bates Smith says her greatest talent is knowing a good story when she reads one. Her longtime stage partner Jeff Sebens, left, adds, "Every show we do, she makes a connection with an audience that is deep and emotional. After every show, there’s always people who reach out to her about the unique experience." Photo courtesy of Barbara Bates Smith

For a quarter of a century, Barbara Bates Smith has been adapting works of literature for the stage. Four years ago, she took on on her first Ron Rash piece. The short story “Lincolnites” centers on a Southern woman whose husband is in the Union Army. When a Confederate soldier arrives to her home to confiscate her chickens and horse, the wife offers herself to the soldier in order to keep the animals. The result is far from what the Confederate has in mind. Let’s just say a sewing needle is involved.

Smith found the story to be a page-turner but didn’t realize how special it was until she performed it for a group of high schoolers in Elkin. Admittedly, such a crowd created some initial jitters for Smith. But midway through the performance, when she looked out onto the group, she discovered that — much to her joy and relief — “nobody was fooling with their handheld devices. They were at rapt attention.” Smith performs A Rash of Stories at N.C. Stage Company Friday, July 22, through Sunday, July 31. The shows benefit Downtown Welcome Table, a food and fellowship ministry run by the Haywood Street Congregation.

Rash, who was named the John Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University (and has received a series of literary awards, including the Frank O’Connor International Award and two O. Henry prizes) is best-known for his novels Serena and The World Made Straight (both made into films). But it’s his short stories that continue to inspire Smith. In addition to “Lincolnites,” she has adapted “Burning Bright,” “Casualties and Survivors,” and “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth” into her production. From a lonely widow finding love with a stranger, to a married couple working through communication challenges, to a car salesman convinced he needs to re-create the crucifixion on his church’s front lawn, the stories are a combination of humor, compassion, love and suspense.

“We’ve worked with Barbara for several years,” says Steven Hageman, executive director of N.C. Stage, who is volunteering the space for the production. “She’s done several benefits here.” He adds that her talents as an actor, paired with her dedication to the community, make opening the theater to her a no-brainer.

According to Smith, what led her to initially volunteer at the Haywood Street Congregation was a newspaper article describing it as a place of holy chaos. Every Wednesday, more than 500 people come through its doors. Smith has contributed her time to the organization in a variety of ways, including Story Circle, a weekly gathering at the congregation that encourages people to share their narratives in a group setting. “They are the most dynamic and diverse and profound group I’ve ever worked with,” she says.

Often mislabeled a storyteller, Smith attributes this to the fact that she is indeed telling great tales. But unlike storytellers who adhere to the unscripted, oral tradition, Smith’s works are meticulously edited, memorized and performed. Unlike plays or films, which may reinterpret a piece, Smith neither adds nor rearranges the author’s words. “It’s just tightening,” she says. The process involves reading through the material a number of times and underlining the story’s critical points. “I don’t think about what I’m leaving out,” she says. “I think about the most important points and how they link.”

In between each of the four stories told in her latest production, longtime stage partner, manager and musician Jeff Sebens plays and sings a variety of songs on his dulcimer, banjo or guitar. From traditional gospels to more contemporary tunes, the music acts as both an interlude and prelude to the next story.

Variety played a large factor in the pieces Smith selected from Rash’s five short story collections (the author has since released a sixth — Something Rich and Strange). “‘Burning Bright’ and ‘Casualties and Survivors’ are love stories,” Smith says. “Maybe not your traditional love stories, but love stories of a sort.”

“Lincolnites,” she says, delves into darker matters.

But of the four stories performed, “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth” holds a special place in Smith’s heart. “People say [Rash] only writes dark and scary and violent stories,” she says. “Well, we laughed and laughed after reading [that one].” When she met Rash at a literary festival and relayed the experience, he told her, “Well, I can write funny, too.”

But Smith says, “I haven’t found another [funny] one like it, yet.”

WHAT: A Rash of Stories

WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane. ncstage.org 

WHEN: Friday, July 22 through Sunday, July 31. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Opening night tickets $35; all other nights $15-25

 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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