June 12, 2003

 

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an interview with
Bob Inman

by Lynn Trenning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more about Lynn, please visit her main page on ArtSavant.

To find out more about about Blowing Rock Stage Company, please visit blowingrockstage.com.

To find out more about about Robert Inman, please visit robert-inman.com.

Novelist and former television broadcaster Bob Inman claims new territory with the world premiere of Crossroads, a musical comedy to which he wrote the script, lyrics and music. The catalyst for the play is an unlikely incident in North Carolina history, when a train transporting Buffalo Billís Wild West Show derailed outside of Salisbury around 1912-14. Crossroads documents the reaction of the folks living in the Potter household to this event.

This show is part of the ďNew Voices of the SouthĒ series initiated by (Blowing Rock Stage Company) Managing Artistic Director Ken Kay. How were you chosen to be one of those voices?

I went to Ken about 2 years ago and told him I was working on a play, so about 18 months ago he said why donít we just do a table reading of this thing. He got six actors together and they sat around the table and just read the thing. And he said, Ďallright, I think there is some potential here.í So we went to the next point, which was a staged reading before a live audience. We did a staged reading in August. After the staged reading he said this is something we want to do. By point it had all the songs with it. There was some tweaking of the script. Itís words on the stage when I do it; they make a play out of it.

What is your role during rehearsal?

Ken is just terrific. Heís just involved me in everything. It is a real learning experience for me. Iíve never done a play before, let alone a musical.

Tell me the significance of having the play first produced in Blowing Rock, by an established professional theatre company?

Well the big significance is most of what I know about theatre I learned right here. My wife and I started going to productions here about 16 years ago. Sitting in the audience at Stage Company productions; that has really been my education in theatre. I learned about that by just observing. So to have my first play done here, I think itís poetic justice. These folks nurtured me as someone who thought a play might be an interesting way to tell a story. Theyíve been nurturing the process the whole time. There are three people I give credit to. One is Ken, who had great input, and believed in me. The second is Ed Pilkington, a retired professor of theatre, and a wonderful actor, and my script mentor. Itís been like getting a graduating degree in playwriting. The third person is Bill Harbinson (Dean of the School of Music at Appalachian State University). I know just enough about music to get it down on a lead sheet, but as far as turning into something an ensemble can use in a play...he was my musical mentor, in helping me understand what worked musically and what didnít.

Did you visualize the set yourself?

Well I did. I had to as I was writing the thing. With a film you can do all sorts of stuff, and you just cut to another scene. With a play, you have to visualize physically what that space looks like. You have to know why people go off stage. So I had to sketch a set. The doors look similar. I didnít have a stairway but there is one. I had to have a physical layout to write the thing. That was another thing that Ed was very helpful with. He explained the terminology so I could put it in the script.

What came first, the music or the lyrics?

They kind of come together. The story comes first. It started out in script form. I knew I wanted it to be a musical, but I needed the cast of characters first. I wanted the songs to be organic. I would get to a part of the story and I would think of a line, and it would suggest the song, and the lyric would sort of suggest the melody. There is a song called ďI could have been a Cowboy.Ē At one point in Granpaís youth he was going to go to the old west and he didnít, and that just sort of suggested the song. It has that galloping melody that sort of came naturally to me.

The story is about a household of people who are in various ways limited by the small town in which they live. Have you lived in a town like that?

Well I grew up in a place a little bit larger than Crossroads; Elba, Alabama, and itís a town of about 4,000 people. It was one of those places where you knew everybody and everything about everybody. You could really watch what made human nature tick. The [town of] Crossroads is literally a crossroads, much smaller than Elba, but with the same sensibility. There is no place to hide in a place like Crossroads or Elba.

What about this story lends itself to the musical comedy format?

There are some quirky characters who do some quirky things but there is a serious side to it too. All these people are pursuing dreams. Iíve seen enough musical comedies and I thought this just feels like a musical comedy. So much of what I do, I donít know what Iím doing, I donít know how Iím doing it. I just go on gut, wherever my instinct leads me.

Do you see this as a universal story, or as a southern story?

Oh I think itís universal, and I particularly took out initial references to North Carolina. I think it can happen in Kansas, or North Dakota, or South Carolina. This idea of people pursuing their dreams, or not pursuing their dreams can happen anywhere. All of my books take place in the south, but I donít think they are southern books.

Granpa has the most dramatic life change in the play. Why did you choose him for this role?

I love older characters. Iíve had a number of them in my books. There is a lot of wisdom in older people. I donít think of older people as being limited by their age, in terms of their horizons. To me itís never too late until they start piling the dirt on top of your coffin. There is always the chance to go for something. And I just rejoice for this guy going for something.

In ďThe Heavenly Telephone Line,Ē Lomax tries to convert Granpa to using the technology by describing it as an agent of Christian Conversion. How did that idea come to you?

The lead-in line for Lomax, is that a thing isnít inherently bad or good, itís how you use it. That applies to everything from the wheel to cyberspace. Of course this is a very foreign thing for Granpa. Heís stuck in the past. It is how you use the things that are part of your life.

Lomax is a black man in a white household who is treats him like family. What inspired to you to create that character?

I grew up in a deep south community that was very much, for its time - the 50s and 60s - a very moderate community. It was south Alabama, but it was not racist south Alabama. It was a segregated society, but black people and white people grew up in Elba elbow to elbow. Plus, I was an army brat for part of the time, and my dad was called up for active duty in Korea. I went to school with black kids and white kids and I grew up thinking we were all just people. I thought of this household as a warm family atmosphere. Theyíve got their differences, but I thought of it as a place where Lomax could be himself. And there is a sense of responsibility. Granpa saved Lomaxí life.

The presence of a cowboy in their house shakes up everyone in the Potter household. What dreams do cowboys inspire?

Itís more about dreams in general. The cowboy is making a living sublimating himself as someone else. Yet he has his own secret yearnings. He is willing to admit to the woman he is attracted to that he has this dream and she encourages him to go for it. Itís not so much a dream about being a cowboy, but more about taking a chance, breaking out of the mold, being your own person, or as my grandma used to say, hitching your britches.

Tell me the roles signfied by the three generations of the Potter family.

Itís a typical household for that period of time, when there was a lot of generational interaction, and generations of people lived near each other. When folks got old, it was the job of the family to take care of each other. You took care of your aged people yourself. I grew up kind of that way. We were always right there. We were a big rowdy family, and we were storytellers. I grew up surrounded by people who thought I was kind of special. That is that kind of this household. It really means a lot to Nell to live in the same household as her Granpa. Plus, she represents that thing that Granpa fears the most; the future.

Miss Eva is still called Miss Eva even though she is a widow and a mother. Why is that?

I guess that probably is, at least from my own particular experience, southern. A matron in the home would be called Miss Eva in that time and place. Perhaps that is true in other parts of the country like the Midwest. Itís a sign of respect. It would be pronounced Mizz.

In the script, jazz is spelled J-A-S-S. Why is that?

Itís the old fashioned way. When I saw the Ken Burns series on Public Television, (I learned that) in its very earliest form it was called Jass. So in this time period, 1913-14, to be thinking of jazz at this time was pretty revolutionary. It was just growing out of Ragtime and becoming its own form. This was right before World War I, and things were just getting ready to change a lot in America.

Tell me why you titled the show ďCrossroads.Ē

I thought of this as being a crossroads in a physical sense and a metaphorical sense. It is a crossroads in peoples lives. They are at a crossroads whether they know it or not. And they are at a cultural crossroads. Thatís life, we are always at a Crossroads.

~ Lynn Trenning
June 12, 2003

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