It’s hard to write about the unincorporated town of Sautee Nacoochee, Ga.—the home of the Sautee Nacoochee Center for arts, heritage, environment and community, which serves as headquarters of the Headwaters community story project—without resorting to the overused word “nestled.” It just fits. Surrounded by a moody landscape of gentle hills that seems straight out of Harlem Renaissance novelist Jean Toomer’s Cane, the area well deserves the charming name that residents use to refer to it: “our goodly portion of beautiful Northeast Georgia.”
Since 2007, director and arts leader Lisa Mount, in collaboration with the late poet/playwright Jo Carson (whose dozens of community story projects include Swamp Gravy in Colquitt, Ga., and Higher Ground in Harlan County, Ky.), has engaged in what she terms a “restoration-of-soul project” for Sautee Nacoochee, which has a population of just over 3,000 and is about 95 miles north of Atlanta. The plays have explored everything from birth to death and all the places in between, to paraphrase the subtitle of the second Headwaters production. They have done so by incorporating song, dance, tall tales, puppetry and a large helping of irreverence.
This year, with the last performance of the collaboratively written Didja Hear? on July 21, the series will come to an end with its most challenging subject matter to date: an exploration of “the things people in northeast Georgia can and can’t hear, and do and don’t want to hear.”
The play includes the story of a group of White County high school students whose desire to form a gay-straight alliance in 2005 led to protests by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, catapulting the students to national prominence and, ultimately, bringing together the community. “While they were still divided over whether or not a gay-straight alliance was a good thing,” Mount wrote of her neighbors in 2006, “they were clear that ‘we’re not that’”—meaning not the type of people exemplified by the grandstanding bigots from Topeka.
In many respects, Mount has been working up to this final production from the beginning of the project, building the community trust necessary to focus on what Headwaters playwright and journalist Jerry Grillo, who co-wrote each of the shows, called “one of the hardest stories” of recent memory in the community. Last year, when they were creating Didja Hear? (each production receives a revised second staging the summer after its premiere), there was some concern about opening old wounds within the community. A great deal of care was put into the scripting—certain words weren’t used, certain stories weren’t told. Even the Westboro Baptist Church was referred to as “Eastboro.” To the Headwaters writers’ surprise, the show sold very well, and the story was fully embraced by the community.
The plays that make up the Headwaters trilogy reflect Jo Carson’s approach to community-based play structure. Carson, whose work was the inspiration for Headwaters and who had a hand in writing each of the scripts, famously utilized a patchwork quilt of stories collected from community members rather than a single linear narrative. A description of Didja Hear? shows how this approach may have helped the community to incorporate the story of the high school students into a larger sense of itself. Overall, the play seeks to “portray the fiercely independent spirit of mountain people” through the stories collected from area residents, including “a moonshiner whose ‘heritage’ demonstration gets a visit from a pair of ATF agents…a deaf girl who wants to learn Japanese, and an older woman whose hearing is diminishing but who still connects to her community.”
Explained Mount, “We’re telling several stories of people who stand up for what they believe in, by protesting on the square, and by organizing to combat anti-gay bullying in the schools.” And finally, just for fun, “we’re imagining what dogs say to one another, and what we can learn from them.” This is classic Headwaters—a mixture of whimsy and gravity, pride and suffering, all held together by cussedness and a respect for the multiplicity of perspectives and personalities that make up a community.
“Simply recounting a painful story just opens up old wounds,” Carson wrote in her seminal book Spider Speculations. “To be about healing, I need to reframe it.” That meant that she would seek to change not what happened, but instead “how you think about it.” Placing the gay-straight alliance story firmly within the tradition of the “fiercely independent spirit of mountain people” does just this, turning a painful hot-button issue into one with the potential for solidarity.
“This is a fragile and beautiful place,” Mount says of Sautee Nacoochee, “and we do all have to live together.” Indeed, the very structure of the plays that make up Headwaters shows how such cohabitation is possible through the happy juxtaposition of a broad array of stories and emotions. As a result of this generous approach, said Headwaters playwright, director, and community story veteran Gerard Stropnicky, the talkbacks that followed performances of Didja Hear?—which could have simply been platforms for angry debate—instead “involved tears and the sharing of stories, and it gave the community a chance to take the next step.”
This is not to say that differences no longer exist—of course they do, and they always will. As Mount said in an interview with Atlanta’s gay magazine Project Q, LGBT people “are not the same as everyone else. We have a culture and we are different, but we live in a context. What this play is able to do is show gay lives in context in a tiny rural part of Georgia. I don’t think anyone has done that.” Certainly no one has done it in such a spirit of fun.
So why, after laying all this groundwork to gain the trust of the community, is Headwaters ending after its final performance of Didja Hear? on July 21? Part of the reason is Carson’s death in September 2011. Carson was Mount’s close friend and primary artistic collaborator for more than 20 years, and coming, as it did, in the early stages of the creation of Didja Hear?, Carson’s death made the development of the show production that much harder. Grillo and Stropnicky stepped in to continue writing the play, but in a year that also saw the death of Mount’s mother, it became clear that an artistic sabbatical was necessary.
But while personal events informed the decision, there was actually a long-term plan in place to wind down Headwaters. Mount says that the decision reflects “a deeper belief that some things should be projects and not institutions—and projects have a beginning, a middle and an end.” Such an approach allows a greater sense of closure, she feels. “Planning to have an end, and then ending it, is far more satisfying than just pulling the plug and saying ‘no more.’ We’re already beginning to savor ‘the last insert-event-here’ of many things, and I’m beginning to realize that this final year is where we have the room to evaluate what we’ve done, because we’re not expending energy on planning the next one.”
In that spirit, Mount is planning, in collaboration with Stropnicky and Swamp Gravy co-founder Joy Jinks, a day-and-a-half gathering in Sautee Nacoochee for theatre artists involved in community performance-making.
When I asked Mount, Grillo and Stropnicky to describe the impact that Headwaters has had on the Sautee Nacoochee community, no one was willing to say more than that it remains to be seen. But all pointed toward the effects on those who were involved in the productions. Each mentioned a former military wife named Birdie James, who joined Headwaters out of a desire to find something to do while her husband was deployed overseas. In the spirit of Headwaters, I will allow Birdie to tell her own story (with a little editing and rearranging à la Jo Carson):
“When my marriage dissolved in 2010,” James says, “I took the opportunity and encouragement from Lisa and [Cornerstone Theater member and Headwaters puppetry designer] Lynn Jeffries to apply to Cornerstone’s 2011 summer residency program—a four week jump-in-the-deep-end intensive in community-focused theatre. I was accepted as 1 of 15 out of an international pool of applicants, in part because I had come to the work as a community participant as opposed to being college educated in traditional thea-tremaking. I also came highly recommended by members of the Headwaters artistic team.
“I wasn’t sure, having just given up my entire life, save a car and my dog, if I could afford to go, even though Cornerstone offered me a scholarship. Unbeknownst to me, Lisa raised $2,000 from our cast, crew and artistic team so that I could participate; she said it was the only time in her fundraising career where no one said ‘no.’ So, off I went to be trained by Lynn in modernized Balinese-style shadow puppetry, as well as to work alongside a pantheon of community-based practitioners.
“In the years following, I’ve continued a deep relationship with Headwaters by becoming part of the artistic team and serving as a paid local artist, designing, constructing and collaborating on a multitude of puppets. In 2012, my artistic partner Spencer Durham and I founded Be Heard Collective, an arts organization in Dahlonega, Ga., committed to the growth of our local arts community.”
Reflecting on such stories of artists who have been touched by Headwaters, Mount reframes the end of this phase as the beginning of other creative projects. “Headwaters came into being when there was a vacuum in theatrical programming at the Sautee Nacoochee Center. By discontinuing Headwaters, we are trying to create that vacuum again to allow other seeds to grow.” The sowing done by Headwaters can be expected to bear harvests for many seasons to come.
Scott Walters is a professor of drama at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the founder of the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE).