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Front and Center

Article Published: Aug. 12, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Front and Center

Agatha Christie's classic who-done-it, The Mousetrap, runs through Thursday at ASU.

Photo by Marie Freeman

Appalachian State University's first ever Front of the Curtain Festival is under way, highlighting student and faculty performances.

"We haven't done a festival like this ever," said Marianne Adams, chairwoman of the Department of Theatre and Dance. "We've done a few shows in the summer ... but this is a real new thing for us."

It proves ASU arts are more than music performances: They're also about quality theatre and dance, and this particular festival highlights not only the talented students, but the faculty in a unique mesh of community, teachers and students.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (828) 262-3063 or buy online at

'The Mousetrap'
It's mystery. It's intrigue. And it's unabashedly British.

It's The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie's classic who-done-it, the longest running production ever produced in London, and it's yet another feather in director and ASU professor Derek Gagnier's cap.

"I am a big fan of British comedy and language plays," he said. "It's always something in the back of my mind, I want to direct something like this."

And he's not just directing. His careful sound effect selection coupled with the lighting (designed by Neil Reda, but Gagnier had a hand in that, too) gives the play a noir throwback, an homage to those old Vincent Price movies we know and love.

"I think we've done one murder mystery in the 10 years I've been here, so it was always something I wanted to take a crack at," he said.

The play opens the Front of the Curtain Festival, having started Tuesday and running through Thursday.

In The Mousetrap, a strangler is on the loose, and any of the eccentric characters could be the killer. The cast includes a mesh of faculty members (Sue Williams, Gordon Hensley) a retired faculty member (Frank Mohler) and students, mostly performance theatre majors who are already advanced in their training.

The Mousetrap starts at 7:30 p.m. at Valborg Theatre on the campus of Appalachian State University.

Faculty Dance Concert
Wisps of color will float, fly and leap across the stage. No, it's not a floral breeze, it's the talented faculty of Appalachian State University's Department of Theatre and Dance.

A dance concert, presented with performances from the department's instructors, hits the Valborg Stage with a ferocity that can only come from talent.

"There will be a real variety of different types of dance presented," Adams said.

Adams, dancer, choreographer and faculty chair, is working on a piece of her own.

"It will be ... a blending of theatre, music and dance," she said, and will include faculty members and an improvisational piece "that I'm hoping to have some audience participation in."

While the focus will be on modern dance, "there will be a real variety of different types of dance presented."

Take Dr. Ray Miller's tap dance. The choreographed pieces will add up to a unique show, unlike anything the department has ever presented.

"It's pretty neat," Adams said. "To do something for the love of it when it is your career, it's a nice feeling to be in that situation."

The dances also incorporate students, community members and even musicians. Local blues artist Melissa Reaves will be playing live music during one presentation.

"We are really trying to blend the alliance between faculty, students and community," she said.
The 75-minute show happens Aug. 13-14 at 7:30 p.m. on the Valborg stage.

Joel Williams. He's that goofy guy in the halls of Chapel Wilson at Appalachian State University, the good-natured professor, always on hand for a laugh, advice and conversation.

"I describe myself as a generalist," he said. "I do a little bit of everything."

He's directed plays at ASU like Six Characters in Search of an Author and Scapino. He's taken the stage in epic roles like Henry the Eighth himself (A Man for All Seasons).

He's a director, actor, designer and, proving once and for all there's nothing he can't do, he can now call himself a playwright with the penned completion of Promises.

"I work a lot as a director, understanding a play's structure and what dialogue sounds like and how does the rhythm of the scene ... tell the story and make it interesting," he said.
So, writing a play seemed logical.

"When I first started writing, I thought I was going to write a short play," he said.
But the history intertwined with the story had him inspired.

"The scope of the story really deserves to be a novel," he said. "But I haven't been working in literature for the past 30 years, I've been working in theatre."

A professor at ASU since 1973, Williams heard about a cemetery at the north shore of the river running through the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. During World War II, an aluminum plant nearby needed power, so a dam was built, flooding the roads that reached the north shore community. While the government promised there would be a road, a road was never built. As a result, the cemetery along the shore was left alone. Each year, the North Shore Cemetery Association returns to the cemetery via ferry and decorates the headstones.

Learning of the ceremony involved, Williams became inspired. He created a character, Joseph, who is 65-years-old and at his mother's death bed.

"She tells him she's not really his mother, that she raised him, but another woman gave birth to him, and she's buried on the north shore," he said.

To discover his roots, he goes back to the north shore community during a decoration day and, through a series of flashbacks, the audience gets to experience the love triangle that Joseph discovers.

The Front of the Curtain Festival will be the first time his show will be read by a full and rehearsed cast.

It's an epic moment for Williams, who spent much of last spring at the Great Smoky Mountains conducting research, on off-campus scholarly assignment.

Two small readings later, he thinks it's finally ready to be work-shopped on the Valborg stage. Audience members won't just hear the story, they'll help Williams carve the outcome.

"The audience will have an opportunity to respond to the play, and I'll have the opportunity, like with any new play, to find and refine things," he said.

The reading will be directed by professor emeritus Ed Pilkington, and Williams hopes the professional treatment the play is getting bodes well for its future. "I would like to see it staged, absolutely," he said.

Whether it sees full production at ASU, well, "that's up to the powers that be," he said. "I hope everyone who knows me has an opportunity to come and hear it."

It's like having a baby, he said.

"You kind of want everybody to come by the window and say, that's really cute," he said.
The story happens at Valborg Theatre Aug. 15 at 2 p.m.

Spit Like a Big Girl
She's sassy, she's savvy and she's all about honesty. Meet Watauga native Clarinda Ross, fresh out of Hollywood Hills. The L.A. actor is taking a break from the camera lens and returning to where it all began, Appalachian State University, to present her one-woman show, Spit Like a Big Girl.

The 1983 theatre major ("back then they called it communications major with a concentration in theatre," she said) closes out the Front of the Curtain Festival at ASU, appropriate since in 1998, she work-shopped the first act of her show here.

The first half of the show is devoted to her father, a name Wataugans might recognize: Dr. Carl A. Ross, a long time ASU history professor and director of Appalachian Studies at the time of his death in 1988.

"He was 6'3", had red hair and a red beard, always wore a cowboy hat and a cowboy boots," she said.

He was a memorable character to Boonies, but to Clarinda, who refers to herself as a "big daddy's girl," he was much more than that. After he died, a discovery in a drawer in her old room led to two things: Closure and a one-woman show.

"I found these journals," she said. "No one knew he kept journals."

But keep journals he did, about everything from his hunting trips (he was president of the Watauga Gun Club) to his love for his kids.

"I had never kept a journal," she said. "I was not a journal person, but being the daughter of a historian, you know, finding these deeply affected me, so I started keeping a journal."

And that journal became the show. She took the show with her from its early ramblings at a theater in Atlanta to what became her home in Hollywood, and now, after two full productions of the show, she's ready to take it to her home town. A lot has changed since her Watauga days, and it's reflected in the second act, written entirely about her daughter, Clara, a child with special needs, born "33 days after daddy died."

It's about the connection between the father she loved and the child he never met.

"The kind of gumption that I got from him really served me well as my life began to evolve as the mother of a special needs child," Ross said. "You've got to be strong to have a child that's different. You've got to advocate for that person, so I got a lot of strength from my dad and my mom (communications professor Charlotte Ross)."

Ross, who just finished stints with the Showtime series, United States of Tara, and the Rob Reiner-directed film, Flipped, credits her parents with more than just survival. She credits them with her success.

"It was having these college professor parents who said ... 'You can do it,'" she said. "I never felt privileged in terms of money. We weren't rich people, but I certainly was privileged in terms of education and attention and problem solving."

The show might not be what you think about when you imagine a production about a special needs child.

"There's a couple of scenes in the show where you see me scream at doctors," she said.
It's humorous, she said, with a touch of southern savvy, but more than anything, it's honest.

"If you can get really honest and really specific, then people identify with it, and it becomes their child and their father and their experience, and that's the rewarding thing for me," she said. "There's a lot of great good southern fun humor and you know, if you can't laugh about these things that happen to you, you're kind of doomed."

She's excited to return to the place that made her father so happy. Dr. Ross, after all, was a happy person.

"So is my daughter," she said. "She's perfectly happy to be her. There's a lot of parallels ... I'm just the messenger and delivering, I hope in a fun, fun way, two beautiful souls for the audience to meet."

Spit Like a Big Girl happens Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 29 at 2 p.m.

For more information on ASU's Front of the Curtain Festival, visit

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