Tom Godleski’s newest play sounds far different than when he first brought it to Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre.
“He presented me with a very rough script. It was not written in a play format at all,” recalled Artistic Director Katie Jones. “But he had a pretty decent story and then some beautiful songs.”
“They said ‘We are going to do your play, but it’s not ready,’ and I was like ‘what?’” Godleski said. “I thought it was okay. I was satisfied with it and I was happy with it.”
“I cannot tell you how many plays I read that have great dialog and nothing happens,” Jones said. “But in this, it was like, something’s happening. We just need to help him hone in on the characters’ voices and the dialog.”
The finished play, as it will premiere on Magnetic’s stage, is a bluegrass musical called “The Sparrow and the Whippoorwill,” and it tells the entwined stories of a war veteran and a nurse who cares for him. It premieres Sept. 10 and runs through Sept. 25 at the Magnetic.
Godleski, who has spent nearly his entire 60 years living on the land his grandfather built on, is best known as the vocalist, bassist and chief songwriter of the bluegrass band Buncombe Turnpike. Playwriting has been another of his creative outlets for 20 years.
“I wanted to write a book. I’ve got ADD. I didn’t think I could sit down and write a whole book, so I started writing short stories,” he said. “Once I started writing plays, they’re not the greatest plays in the world. But for me personally, when you do a play, you can use mountain language. You can write it how somebody would say it.”
“The Sparrow and the Whippoorwill” is Godleski’s fifth play produced locally but, with the Magnetic’s guidance, it’s his first to flesh out a character-driven narrative rather than couching a medley of music in the guise of a play. While the play is fiction, Godleski said he peppered it with strands of truth, just as he has done throughout his career writing bluegrass music.
Much of the music in the play comes from the Buncombe Turnpike catalog, though Godleski and other collaborators pitched in new music. The dialog threading it was also a collaboration of sorts. It began with a table read where cast members read through the script and gave feedback to Godleski. One person told Godleski his original script was confusing.
“I was like, ‘What, confusing?’ and she was confused because it wasn’t a musical. No characters sang,” Godleski recalled. “She said ‘Is this a musical or play with music?’ And I said ‘Well, it’s gonna be both.’”
The cast then began improvising based on the descriptions in Godleski’s original text. The playwright went home and listened to recordings of those improvisations to help flesh out the scripted dialog.
Jones said such reconstruction is common when workshopping new theatrical works, citing the six-year process to bring Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” to life.
“Theater is a collaborative art form, period, right? A playwright hands their play to a director, then there’s actors and designers,” she said. “Every one of those people puts their own mark on a show, and that’s why shows even get done multiple times because productions are different.”
“So at the end of that table read, I looked all around at all those people and said ‘You all are so mean,’ and they all laughed,” Godleski said. “I was being silly because I knew it was for the betterment of my show.”
“(Godleski) is a very improvisational performer and, in terms of his storytelling style, I’m sure that when he’s done stories before, he kinda has a base of very cryptic notes and then he just extrapolates from there and it turns into a performance,” Jones said. “But when you’re working with other people, we said you have to make it more clear. He was awesome about it. Tom has actually learned to write dialog as a result of this process.”
After putting this play behind him, Godleski said he and Buncombe Turnpike are back to working on new music for what will become their ninth studio album.