Certain artists can be cagey when asked about their creative process, becoming protective of their approach lest they lose an edge in an already competitive field. John Crutchfield is not one of these people. To peek into the playwright/actor/director’s mind, one only need visit his website, where he reveals that what moves him to write is “invariably a question (usually connected to a particular experience) that [he has] to solve before it destroys [his] sanity.”
For his one-man play, The Jacob Higginbotham Show — which premieres on Thursday, Aug. 20, and runs Thursdays to Saturdays through Sept. 12 at The Magnetic Theatre — inspiration struck circa 2006 when Crutchfield first moved to Asheville after the end of what he calls “an emotionally disastrous relationship.”
“I felt quite helpless and irrelevant and old — and I suppose Jacob Higginbotham became a kind of alter ego for me,” Crutchfield says. “He’s an indomitable optimist, full of romantic longings and an almost Kierkegaardian faith that things will work out. He chooses to see the beauty in the very midst of life’s absurdity and hopelessness, and he believes that his view of things — however naive it may be — actually matters, or will matter, someday, to someone. In short, the question he poses for me is the reality of love.”
Following Higginbotham as he goes around making spontaneous marriage proposals, Crutchfield’s latest play is built upon a small selection from a much larger unpublished work in prose called The Intimate Journals of Jacob Higginbotham. The book comprises a series of short, somewhat improvisational texts in the voice of the titular character, whom Crutchfield first performed as at N.C. Stage Company’s former open-mic event, No Shame Theater. Crutchfield recalls getting an especially enthusiastic response to his efforts, which encouraged him to continue experimenting. Subsequent bits and pieces were presented at the Juniper Bends literary reading series at Downtown Books and News, the Men’s Dance Festival at Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival and The Magnetic Theatre’s open-mic event, Magnetic Midnight.
“But these were all short pieces, maybe five minutes each, essentially staged readings,” Crutchfield says. “Although I had a sort of costume I usually wore, and I often memorized the texts and improvised some choreography to go along with them.”
The main task for creating an actual play based on the Higginbotham material was to find a plot or through-line that Crutchfield hoped would sustain audience interest for a full-length show. The goal was to accomplish that without compromising what he calls “the bizarreness of the character and his world, the nonsequiturs and digressions, the convolutions, the cul-de-sacs.” Crutchfield transformed essentially literary elements into theatrical ones, which he says has “been perhaps the most interesting challenge of the project.”
What’s remained constant is the play’s Asheville setting — or at least a version of Asheville. The city is both the geographical setting, a specificity that extends to street names, and also what Crutchfield refers to as the play’s “spiritual milieu,” a combination that makes it nearly impossible for him to imagine Higginbotham in any other place.
“He’s an eccentric, but he’s in a place where he can still almost pass for normal, where his naïveté and his dreams can live and even flourish,” Crutchfield says. “In a smaller, more conservative place, he would simply be an outcast. In a larger place, like New York (or Berlin for that matter), he would be eaten alive.”
No throwaway reference, the German capital has been Crutchfield’s home for nearly two years. There, he and his stage-actress wife raise their daughter in a bilingual household. When he’s not writing, doing translation work or playing music, he has a part-time position teaching creative writing and theater and, appropriately, researching artistic processes at the Institute for English Language and Literature at the Freie Universität Berlin.
While working on The Jacob Higginbotham Show, the alien environment and feeling of exile helped Crutchfield focus and taught him important things about himself — in particular what he calls his “American-ness” and “Southern Appalachian-ness.” Meanwhile, Berlin’s extraordinary theater radically expanded his conception of what’s possible onstage.
This broadened mindset manifests itself throughout the play, but from the very beginning Crutchfield knew he wanted to have a DJ onstage to score the show in real time. During the performance, local composer and performer Mary Zogzas will be fully visible to the audience and interacting with Crutchfield. Zogzas doubles as sound designer and expands the show’s sonic possibilities. Rounding out the team is Jason Williams, whose role as lighting designer is fairly straightforward but whose numerous past collaborations with Crutchfield give the star immense confidence in realizing his directorial vision.
Though his family’s long-term plan is to move back to Asheville, which Crutchfield says “really is home,” he’ll return to Berlin following the play’s run. There, he’s considering remounting the production this fall (most likely without Zogzas) and thinks that, despite the mountain-specific setting, foreign audiences would still get something just as meaningful out of the material.
WHAT: The Jacob Higginbotham Show
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Thursdays-Saturdays, Aug. 20 to Sept. 12, at 7:30 p.m. $18 advance/$21 at the door