Decade-long research culminates with Appalachian professor’s newest play

Decade-long research culminates with Appalachian professor’s newest play

Alexander McCall

Georgia Rhoades spent the last 10 years researching the life and times of a woman executed in 1725.

Rhoades, a professor in the Department of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Appalachian State University, knew nothing about the woman, other than the fact that she was a cook in the house of a bishop and that one day the body of a baby was found in a trunk at the foot of her bed.

The research was in response to a commission by a playhouse in Derry, Ireland, with which Rhoades has been in partnership since 1995 in contribution to the European Union’s selection of Derry as the 2013 City of Culture.

The partnership with Derry began in 1995 when a colleague in Ireland wanted to create a community art space separate from the ongoing conflict in the area.

“She wanted to create a space where everybody from Protestant and Catholic communities could

come together and they could do art,” Rhoades said.

After its initial opening, the theater thrived as an educational and cultural hub, despite its surroundings. Rhoades said the second time she took a play overseas, the troupe couldn’t advertise it because of ongoing bombings.

“Derry is a city that has lots of storytellers, musicians, actors – it’s an art city and people are always very open and want to be a part of your production,” Rhoades said.

Rhoades’ own theater company, Black Sheep Theater, produces plays annually. The group has created 11 productions since the 1990s and has taken four sets of faculty and students to Derry in an exchange of internships and residencies, in addition to providing classes over the summer.

“The Cook” took 10 years of research partially because of this back and forth – nearly all of the elusive information was housed in the records of the city itself. In these records, information was still scarce.

“We knew a little bit about the bishop, but we didn’t know anything about her,” Rhoades said.

She used context clues and extensive period research to infer enough to chronicle the story.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about him, but one thing I knew about the bishop was that he loved his food,” Rhoades said. “I read excerpts from a diary of his, and if he went somewhere it didn’t matter what else he told you he made sure to talk about what he had to eat.”

Out of this research not only came the play, which was performed four nights this summer to full audiences, but also the inspiration for a novel surrounding the same story. The novel is an endeavor Rhoades had always intended to start, but had yet to for lack of a story to tell.

“There was so much that didn’t get to be said in the play,” Rhoades said. “I’m really enjoying thinking about how to put the inner lives of the characters into a book.”

The play was directed by Dennis Bohr, a lecturer in Appalachian’s Department of English, who saw the collaborative effort working alongside Rhoades as a learning experience.

“We’re sort of an eclectic directorship,” Bohr said.

Bohr usually writes plays and leaves directing to others.

“We’re still pretty collaborative as far as directing, but when I first started writing plays people would say ‘So, what do you see?’ and I couldn’t really say that because I didn’t have much idea of how it would look on a stage.”

The pair hopes to bring the production to Boone as a continuation of this partnership, featuring the original actors from the area.

“One of the things that’s complicated is that it’s a Derry story, and it isn’t that actors over here couldn’t do accents, it’s that their accents are authentic and they liked doing the story because it’s a Derry story,” Rhoades said.

While no plans are definite for the continuation of this production as of yet, Black Sheep is producing a new play tentatively scheduled for late February.

STORY: LOVEY COOPER, Senior A&E Reporter