Know offers ‘gnarly’ stories and songs

Know Theatre's Underground bar becomes a cozy tavern in the woods during 'Darkest Night at the Gnarly Stump,' which continues through Dec. 17.

Nov 23, 2016 at 12:04 pm

click to enlarge Paul Strickland provides music for a new play. - Photo: Nora Canfield
Photo: Nora Canfield
Paul Strickland provides music for a new play.
Know Theatre’s Underground bar is quite the place for storytelling. Last fall it became Andy’s House of [blank], a new show by Paul Strickland and Trey Tatum that was spawned during Know’s adventurous, episodic Serials! (also presented in the below-street-level bar). The Underground is the quarterly home for True Theatre, where everyday people give voice to stories about real experiences on a designated theme. And of course it’s the favorite hangout for performers and audience members — storytellers one and all — during the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

It’s about to happen again, as the Underground steps into the role of a “real” location, albeit by magical means — a cozy tavern in the woods. Director Brant Russell, who teaches at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, will stage a brand-new play, Darkest Night at the Gnarly Stump by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, commissioned by Know. He says, in a press release, that “the Gnarly Stump might be a dive bar in Kentucky, but it’s also a metaphorical space that welcomes us all: It’s where we confront our prejudices, comfort each other and embrace what we once thought impossible.” The show opens Saturday and continues through Dec. 17.

“When nights are long at the close of the year, we all gather together to create and tell the stories of our lives,” says Know’s artistic director Andrew Hungerford. “So while Gnarly Stump isn’t a ‘holiday’ show, I think it’s perfectly suited to the season. It’s an opportunity to find comfort in the dark, a reminder that none of us is alone. And like any gathering of friends, it’s bound to be a good time.”

A year ago, when Russell staged The Hunchback of Seville at Know with CCM student actors, he and Hungerford began talking about storytelling traditions. Both were attracted to Appalachian tales and ghost stories. Hungerford proposed their ideas to his playwright wife Martin and her writing partner Hynek. They crafted a ghostly fairytale. “I call it True Blood meets Justified with some of Conor McPherson’s The Weir thrown in,” Hungerford says, chuckling. He also references the musical One, a theatrical piece of recollection set in a tavern.

“What we ended up with is a play set in a bar in the middle of nowhere in Appalachia, where residents gather on the dark nights of the year to share stories, a sort of midwinter eve, with a storytelling and song tradition that this town has,” he says. “It’s upended when an outsider comes in and her sister’s gone missing and she’s looking for help. Then the story starts to take a turn.”

To add atmosphere to the work by the show’s six actors, music seemed necessary, and Hungerford knew who he wanted: the aforementioned Strickland, whose folksy Trailer Park Trilogy has entertained Fringe audiences and who created the musical aspects of Andy’s House of [blank] last fall. In addition to composing five songs for Gnarly Stump, Strickland has created “underscoring,” lush accompaniment to set the tale’s mood. He’ll perform on guitar with Linsey Rogers on fiddle.

“I was given the script very early in its inception,” Strickland says. “There were places marked in it like, ‘Song here — maybe about this?’ It was really just a fun challenge to inhabit that world. It’s been a long time since I’ve written straightforward Appalachian Folk music. There’s a lot of three-part harmony and a lot of fiddle.”

Strickland is no stranger to collaboration, but working with Hynek and Martin, who are based in Los Angeles, was a completely new process, one that involved considerable back-and-forth. The first pieces he composed were assessed as “lovely songs but for some other play.” He describes one of those early numbers as “a very straightforward Gospel piece with a series of half-diminished chords, because it was about ‘in between’ things.” 

He’s immensely pleased with where he ended up.

As is Hungerford. “Paul is an amazing resource and it will be great to have these original songs to go with the show,” he says. “Rather than a typical musical, this is really a play with music. The storyline is there and the music serves some very specific needs defined by the story. But it’s really about crafting ways to play within that world.”

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]