50 years. A lot has happened in 50 years. Fifty years ago it was 1964 and Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States. Kellogg’s Pop-tarts were introduced to the world, as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Ford Mustang began production. The average household income was $6,000 per year, a gallon of gas cost 30 cents, and a postage stamp cost 5 cents. While presidents have changed, Star Trek has gone through multiple series and feature films, prices have risen, and cars have changed, the Trail of the Lonesome Pine Outdoor Drama has remained. I attended the special 50th Anniversary and Reunion in the small country town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and met a group of people with a passion, vision, and talent I never expected.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Outdoor Drama is based on the novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine written in 1908 by John Fox, Jr. The story follows a long-standing feud between the Tolliver and Falin families and the growing love between Jack Hale and June Tolliver. Since the first season in 1964, the outdoor drama has grown from a simple stage and wooden benches to include several buildings, dressing rooms, a sound system, and comfortable outdoor theater seating. Lonesome Pine Arts & Crafts, Inc. owns and operates the outdoor drama along with the June Tolliver House next door. In 2013 the drama celebrated its 50th anniversary with a large reunion of all current and former cast members in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.
Usually as a traveler, I am an outsider. I am a person from another state, another decade, another part of the country coming into a town, usually for the first time. But on this particular day, I was not entirely an outsider. You see, my mom grew up in East Stone Gap, just minutes from Big Stone Gap. In 1970 and 1971 she performed in the outdoor drama, just as many high schoolers did from the region. I did not grow up in Big Stone, but I did grow up about ninety minutes away in another small country town. So, while I was not exactly a part of the reunion, I was not exactly an outsider, either. This changed things for me.
The events of the day began with a reunion dinner that, of course, included fried chicken. Dozens of former cast members returned from all points of the globe and across the country to visit with old friends they had not seen in years and to admire how much the outdoor drama had changed. When it first began in 1964, the outdoor drama was nothing more than a wooden stage in a field right in the heart of town. Slowly, over the course of decades, a bigger stage was built, stadium seating was added, overhead lights were installed, an audio system was put in place, and the drama continued.
As everyone else enjoyed their food and conversations, I sat around listening to the stories. One man told me about how visitors used to bring lawn chairs, patio furniture, and blankets because there was nothing else. At one point, they had simple wooden benches for people to sit on. Today, they have modern stadium seating. Another told me a story about the performers having to dress in the basement of the June Tolliver house because, at the time, they did not have proper dressing rooms. But while the girls got to use the basement, the boys would hang a clothes line outside with blankets draped across and would change under the stars!
The festivities of the reunion continued as current and former cast members presented Barbara Polly with an award and beautiful roses. Barbara has been a cast member, director, artistic director, general manager, and adviser to the drama since the very first year. She was the first to be cast as June Tolliver in the play that focuses on a love story between June and Jack Hale. Modest, Barbara tried to take a quiet role in the celebrations over the weekend, but Saturday night was her night, a night people wanted her to remember, and a night people wanted to remember her. Virginia Delegate Terry Kilgore took the stage to present Barbara with a framed proclamation from the Virginia legislature declaring the outdoor production as the Official Outdoor Drama of Virginia.
As the current cast prepared to perform the most recent telling of the drama (it has changed a little each year in length, minor details, and certain characters, but it has always remained the same at heart) I wondered around backstage. Kids of all ages, adults of all ages, everyone was dressed in their costumes, giggling and laughing, playing tag, telling stories. They are all volunteers, with not a single performer paid for their hard work and dedication to the drama each summer. But then, just as soon as they walk onto that stage, a transformation overtakes them the same as any Hollywood actor walking in front the camera or Broadway performed walking onto a stage. The joviality is replaced with determination, the giggles replaced with performance, and a character emerges with such passion and profoundness that is completely suspends believability and draws in the audience. They were nothing short of amazing in the individual portrayals of the characters written over a hundred years ago by John Fox, Jr.
Although I was there to work, to capture photos, to tell this story, I was still drawn to the story on the stage. I couldn’t help but pay rapt attention and found myself, on more than one occasion, forgetting the camera in my hand and just watching the drama. This was more than just another love story, it was also a historical drama about the beginnings of “The Gap”, or what would one day become known as Big Stone Gap. Anyone who was born, raised, or visited in this area knows one word ties it all together: coal. Watching this drama tells you about more than just the developing love between Jack Hale and June Tolliver, it also tells about the value of family, how to handle true loyalties to friends and blood, and what to do in the face of opposition. It is something anyone can enjoy because anyone can relate in one way or another.
I have a very particular method I follow while shooting photos at any location. First, I use a wide angle lens to capture the atmosphere of the place. Second, I use a normal lens to move in closer for details of the place. Once I have gotten the necessary photos in the can, I begin to experiment. I climbed up one of the lighting towers to get a photo from above, I stood backstage looking out at the audience, and then I pulled out my fisheye lens. I had just bought this lens a week earlier, so I was happy to try it out. That’s when I noticed it for the first time, and immediately chided myself for not noticing this year. This was an outdoor drama. Outdoor, under the stars. As the sun had set, the skies had darkened, and the drama played on, the stars had come out to shine. As I captured the photo you see at the top of this story, sitting on the ground in between the two main sections of seats, I realized you could easily enjoy the beautiful night sky while watching a drama in the great outdoors of Southwest Virginia. Sorry, Barter Theatre, but it doesn’t get better than this.
By the end of the night I had realized this was more than just an outdoor drama production; it was a passionate play put on by amazing people who care more about the story than themselves. They are all volunteers. They do not earn a paycheck, royalties, or bonuses based on reviews or audience turn-out. They are completely professional, spending hours each week rehearsing and performing. I watched as Jack McClanahan, an alumni from the very first production and longest-running performer in the drama, chat with me backstage about the production and local off-road trails, but then walk onto the stage as Judd Toliver in a completely different tone. I saw high school senior Katie Marshall talking and laughing with friends before taking the stage as high-brow Helen Hale, performing flawlessly as a high-class lady from Kentucky. I have always thought the sign of a great actor or actress is someone who can act in a completely different personality than their own so, by this reasoning, the current cast was great!
The end of the performance came quicker than I would have liked (from what I was told, at one point in time the drama lasted about three hours, but now is just shy of two hours). By the end of the performance I was comfortably sitting in one of the plastic stadium seats which was just as comfortable as the cool-but-not-cold mountain air. The lighting of the drama is fantastic, the PA system makes it easy to understand the dialogue, even the chorus line of frogs that have made residence at the outdoor drama added a bit of character I would soon miss. The feeling of sitting outside in comfortable theater seating, under a canopy of stars, listening to the wind blowing through trees, added a profound sense of reality to the drama. The cast took to the stage for their final call, bowing and waving to the audience that applauded the performance.
As the lights faded, I realized I had finally seen that one hidden gem of Southwest Virginia that stood above all the rest. I knew I would return, year after year, to see this drama from now on. I only hope this drama can last until the 75th, the 100th, and far beyond. So if you are waiting for an invitation to visit Big Stone Gap and sit under a canopy of stars for a performance of the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, consider yourself invited by me.