The Missouri State University Theatre and Dance Department opens the 2016-17 school year with Jenny Laird's Ballad Hunter, directed by Melanie Dreyer-Lude and performed in the Craig Hall Balcony Theatre TONIGHT (Friday Sept.23); Monday through Friday Sept. 26-30; and Monday Oct.3rd all at 7:30pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:30pm Sept.25 and Oct.2.
Set in rural Appalachia in 1937, Ballad Hunter is the tale of three generations of women — Hetty, Gussie and Lotta — living their lives in a remote mountain area in the early decades of the 20th century. Director Melanie Dreyer-Lude says putting this production together has been a "pretty terrific" experience. "It's a lovely story; I call it an 'Appalachian love story.' It has some beautiful music, and it tells a tale of faith and loyalty." Also, "it has a great surprise at the end that's very effective."
Fifteen years earlier, the appearance of a mysterious stranger—an Alan Lomax*-type musicologist and folk-music historian comes to the area seeking to record the region’s traditional ballads. (*Yes, I totally brain-froze on Lomax's name during the live interview... things like that happen on live radio.) Says Melanie Dreyer-Lude, "he was only there for a very short period of time and then he walked away and vanished. And part of the story is what happens to him." The fact is, he ended up bringing irrevocable change to the mountain, because while he's there Lotta was conceived, and a tragic explosion at the local mine killed nearly all of the men.
Fast-forward to 1937, and an idealistic young representative from Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration (REA) named Cecil has arrived to sell the mountain residents on the wonders of electricity. Melanie calls him "a lovely character who comes to visit, much like the 'ballad hunter' came to visit. He wants to bring electricity to the rural area. He's a populist, a political activist in his own special way. He feels passionately that every American should have the opportunity to have electric lights." But this outsider’s presence eerily echoes the past, and long-buried secrets of the women’s lives are illuminated.
One major element of the play is the level of mysticism and superstition shared by the mountain residents. Hetty, for example, is "very superstitious," says director Melanie Dreyer-Lude. "She has this lovely, rather amusing gesture in the show, which is that she wipes her feet twice before she enters a room--and that's just for good luck. They're in a place where dirt is everywhere, so it's isn't (for) hygenic (reasons)--it's a superstition."
Dreyer-Lude expresses a strong interest in Ozarks culture, and says this is something that attracted her to Ballad Hunter, which she calls "a tribute to rural Appalachia." Not that Ozarks and Appalachian culture are "duplicates of one another," she admits, "not by any stretch. But there are some similarities. And we even had someone from the MSU Music Department who specializes in traditional Ozark music helping us, and it's been a lovely education for me."
Staging this show in the intimate space of the Craig Hall Balcony Theater has been "quite a challenge," says Melanie Dreyer-Lude. "It's a show that was written for a much bigger theater. But the set designer, Robert Little, has performed some serious magic in the set design. It's pretty incredible."
And she calls her student cast "terrific. I have a range of ages from sophomores to seniors, and they're all doing astonishingly good work.
Note: There is no late seating in the Balcony Theatre (in part because scene changes frequently must utilize the entrance/exit spaces of Balcony Theater). Tickets are $14 Adults; $12 Students/Seniors; $8 in advance with MSU ID. Call 836-7678 or visit www.missouristatetix.com.