Journalist, author and poet Carl Sandburg moved his family to Connemara, a 246-acre estate in Flat Rock, in 1945. There, he wrote more than a third of his published work. During those years, he also liked to hang out with the actors of the Flat Rock Playhouse. That company, the State Theatre of North Carolina, located near the writer’s house — now the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site — had purchased an 8-acre lot in the village of Flat Rock in 1952. “He would do poetry and sings songs, and he was friends with Robroy [Farquhar], the founder,” says Lisa Bryant, Flat Rock Playhouse producing artistic director.
The relationship between the playhouse and the author endures as the theater company has performed Sandburg-inspired plays for decades as part of the Sandburg Summer Stage series, an ongoing collaboration with the state historic site. Past productions included Rootabaga!, The People’s Poet, Sandburg’s Lincoln and The World of Carl Sandburg (aka the “MUSICARL”). But this year, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (of which the Sandburg Home is part), Flat Rock Playhouse created two new original productions — Spink, Skabootch and Swipes in Rootabaga Country and Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Express, both onstage at the amphitheater of the Sandburg Home through Saturday, Aug. 13.
Apprentice director Ethan Andersen took on the task of creating Rootabaga Express, the new MUSICARL. “The first thing I did was go to Rootabaga Stories, Sandburg’s children’s book,” he says. “It was just deciding which six stories I wanted tell in this version — there are so many more we could have chosen — and then letting my imagination go wild.”
The whimsical characters that sprung from Sandburg’s mind lend themselves to theatrical treatment. Andersen’s musical follows the story of Gimme the Ax, who takes a train ride to “a magical, mystical world.” In one story from the production, three boys shrink to the size of bugs. In another, the Rusty Rats save the Creampuffs and do a boogie with the moon, according to a press release.
Andersen came to the playhouse’s apprentice program five years ago while in college. The 14-week summer session offers students opportunities to develop skills in performance, directing, designing, technical work and administration. Currently underwritten, it includes room, board and a stipend. “In addition to the summer camp feel, they get professional experience and exposure,” says Andersen. Now a graduate based in New York City, he agreed to return to the playhouse this summer as the head of its apprentice program.
A professional job — serving as a music director and conductor of the Saturday Night Fever tour — allowed Andersen to live-record to songs for Rootabaga Express. “I was on tour when I was writing it, so I had lots of musicians at my command,” he says.
Part of the apprentice duties, along with working on big shows like The Music Man, include the Sandburg Home performances. “The power of Sandburg’s words and his imagery and his joyfulness … by the end of every summer, without fail, that’s one of the things they come to love the most, cherish the most and miss the most when they’re gone,” says Bryant. She, too, started as an apprentice at the playhouse in the 1990s.
When Bryant set out to pen Spink, Skabootch and Swipes, which takes its title from the nicknames Sandburg had for his children, “I was able to find a couple of things written by Sandburg’s wife [Lilian “Paula” Sandburg], and his granddaughter [Paula Steichen Polega],” she says. “I also wanted to incorporate a little of the history of Carl Sandburg, so while [the audience] is being entertained, there’s still an understanding about why he wrote the Rootabaga stories.”
The reason, Bryant explains, is that Sandburg wanted to create an American fairy tale. Prior to the 1920s, most children’s stories were based in European traditions. “He started with a story about a fox that lived under the kitchen,” Bryant says. That led to the expression, “Tell us a fox!”
One goal for the producing artistic director was to make the new play more kid-friendly than its predecessor. Meanwhile, Polega, when contacted about the use of Rootabaga Stories, requested that her grandfather’s humanitarian point of view be represented in the program. If it sounds like a tall order, both Bryant and Andersen rose to the challenge.
For Bryant, the characters of Spink, Skabootch and Swipes served as ambassadors into Sandburg’s imagination, introducing a new generation of readers and theatergoers to those iconic tales.
It was not too long ago that Andersen found himself at that same threshold. “Before I got to the playhouse, I didn’t know any of [Sandburg’s] work,” he says. “Even in his silliest stories, there’s so much heart.”
WHAT: Flat Rock Playhouse presents Spink, Skabootch and Swipes in Rootabaga Country and Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Express
WHERE: The Amphitheater of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, 81 Carl Sandburg Lane, Flat Rock, nps.gov/carl
WHEN: Spink, Skabootch and Swipes is performed Wednesdays and Fridays, at 10:15 a.m., through Friday, Aug. 12; Rootabaga Express is performed Thursdays and Saturdays, at 10:15 a.m, through Saturday, Aug. 13. Free