When seasoned actors get together to learn a new show, there is very little stress involved. Having done dozens of shows in their lifetimes, they know what it takes to learn their lines. How long it takes, how to set up a rehearsal schedule, the best method for memorizing lots and lots of lines. Then throw in the music if it’s a musical. Seasoned musical theatre actors – still not phased. They know how to sing, how to harmonize, how to make the most of music rehearsals, and pluck out their parts on a piano when they are at home practicing by themselves. But in late 2012, seven of Atlanta’s finest actors were asked to do something they had never done before – play their own accompaniment.
“Smoke on the Mountain,” originally a book by Connie Ray and conceived by Alan Bailey, is a comedy about the Sanders Family leading a sing-along in 1938 at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina. Not many churches, especially those conservative/traditional churches in rural parts of the south, were quite ready for bluegrass, gospel renditions of such songs as “Church in the Wildwood” and “Wonderful Time up There.” But the Sanders family was ready to perform that way, and had been doing so for years. Reuniting for the first time since 1933, the Sanders bring to the audience a warm sense of family and fun. And as they share their stories, they bare their souls and provide some insight into what makes them tick.
Many of you may have seen this show before. It is one of the most performed shows around. Blaine Clotfelter of Marietta saw it 20 years ago, and the idea of performing it has stuck in his mind ever since. Big problem, though: first, a local theater has to make the decision to produce the show. Then you have to audition. Then you have to get the part. And oh yeah, you have to be able to fit it into your work and family schedule. And as you get older and busier, the opportunity seems less and less likely. So if all of the “planets” mentioned above don’t align, what do you do? You produce it yourself, of course!
Enter Southside Theatre Guild in Fairburn. A movie-house in the 1950s, since 1973 Southside Theatre Guild has been producing live shows for South Atlanta audiences. Blaine reached out to Jeff Cooper of McDonough, Gloria Wright of Fayetteville, and Ed Richardson of Peachtree City (all co-cast members in “Forever Plaid” performed at Southside in 1996 and most recently in 2012) to begin assembling a cast. Shortly thereafter, Tina Cooper (Jeff’s wife), James Wojnowski, and Joely Pittman Layton, Blaine’s sister-in-law who had recently moved back to Peachtree City after 10 years in New York City, agreed to participate. The most difficult part still remained – a director.
Says Blaine, “I know lots of actors. I know some musicians. I only know a couple of directors, and one (Gloria Wright) is in the cast. So I crossed my fingers and called Chris Shellnutt.”
Chris and Valerie Shellnutt of Fairburn are strong supporters of Southside Theatre, and have been involved in dozens of productions there. Blaine knew Chris, but had never worked with him before. But Chris’s reputation as an accomplished actor and gifted director are well known in Fairburn and surrounding areas. A veteran of stage and screen, the true success of the show was dependent upon Chris’s availability and willingness to take on this challenge. When approached, Chris had serious reservations. “I was truly hesitant at first, but I am so glad that I agreed.”
The most daunting task, however, still remained. Along with the more traditional piano, the music in the show calls for several bluegrass instruments including guitar, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass. Blaine knew how to play guitar, as did Joely. Gloria and Ed could play piano. But the show calls for each cast member to play an instrument in the majority of songs, so standing at a crossroads the cast had to commit to learning instruments that they had never played before. Jeff Cooper drew the upright bass straw. He immediately called a local instructor who came to his house for a few lessons to teach the basics.
Then hours and hours of practice followed as Jeff reviewed what he had learned, playing along with the soundtrack in some cases. “Learning to play the stand-up bass in such a short period of time was certainly challenging, mostly because I’m not an instrumentalist but a vocalist. I do think that learning a new skill like that when you are older (I just turned 50!) helps keep your mind active. So often we just say, ‘well I don’t know how to do that so I can’t do that part.’ I actually learned to tap at 40 so I could play the Gene Kelly role in Singing’ in the Rain,” Cooper said.
Similarly, Ed Richardson and Blaine Clotfelter volunteered to learn guitar and mandolin, respectively. With too little time to learn more than one new instrument, Danny Beck (banjo) and Carly Rider (fiddle) were the reinforcements called upon to round out the ensemble. Each actor/musician has indicated, though, that it is very difficult to hide the pride they are experiencing with taking on such a monumental task in only 9 months and actually pulling it off. Ed Richardson – “I chose a role that was different than one I typically play, and I learned guitar not just to play around the house, but to play in front of a live audience and sing at the same time – this is definitely one of the biggest challenges on stage I have ever faced.”
But as we all know, the rewards of working so diligently on something like this are well worth the sacrifice of practice, practice, and more practice.
The cast is looking forward to entertaining audiences at Southside Theatre August 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, and 18. Tickets can be purchased at www.joseyproductions.com. Or you can call the Smoke on the Mountain box office at 770-680-7354 for any questions you may have. Chris’s final thoughts on the finished product? “The show is simple on the surface, some great old songs and a few testimonies mixed in. But what makes the production special for me and probably most people is the heart and soul of these unique characters. Our performers are amazing vocalists, but they are also all experienced actors as well. They understand the characters they are portraying and pour all their years of stage work into making the characters real live friends and relatives that lived in the south in the 1930s. This warm, loving family comes through in our production which makes you enjoy the songs more, feel the spirit, share a few laughs and enjoy a great evening of entertainment.”