Survival and the nature of reality

Actors (clockwise from top) Adam Laten Willson, Adam Belvo, Cole Wimpee  and Isaac Byrne in...
Actors (clockwise from top) Adam Laten Willson, Adam Belvo, Cole Wimpee and Isaac Byrne in Butcher Holler Here We Come. Photos: Supplied
United States production Butcher Holler Here We Come will have its international premiere at the Dunedin Fringe Festival this month. Rebecca Fox talks to one of its performers, Cole Wimpee.

Two small boys, identical twins, perform stories of their own making on a deck built off a barn.

Their parents and neighbours in rural East Texas watch having been invited by the boys.

In the boys’ minds it is not ‘‘theatre’’, just a ‘‘ necessary presentation of stories mined from whatever fragments of sources that influenced and excited’’ their young minds.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, the two boys have gone on to make careers in the creative industries — Casey Wimpee as a successful playwright and Cole Wimpee as a multi-disciplinary artist.

‘‘I consider myself a ‘slasher’ theatre-maker: ‘Slasher’ indicating the separating dash-lines between artistic roles on a resume so oft-included by live art makers like myself — actor/director/producer,’’ Cole says.

Michael Mason plays ‘‘K-Bus’’.
Michael Mason plays ‘‘K-Bus’’.
He says those performances as a young child combined with a handful of performances they were taken to as children seemed to legitimise the notion of those make believe projects making him wonder why all adults did not ‘‘enact imaginary circumstances’’.

‘‘I’ll be 40 at the end of this year and that question has never really found a satisfactory answer for my curiosity.’’

Although Cole recently realised that ‘‘when you stumble upon something that you enjoy doing with such passion, that it boggles your mind as to why everyone on Earth doesn’t do it, you are probably doing the very thing that gives you the most profound sense of purpose’’.

For him and his brother it is being creative.

Casey, who started writing at an early age, identifies primarily as a poet or short fiction writer.

He did not start writing plays until his more extroverted ‘‘bossy’’ twin, Cole, urged him to start.

The pair were both living in New York and Cole, who was named one of the Top 20 Collegiate actors in 2003 and studied at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England, was producing festivals of short plays around Manhattan.

Casey had ‘‘dabbled’’ in writing plays as a way to experiment with dialogue.

‘‘Knowing he had a truly distinct and incredible voice behind his writing, my encouragement led him to start writing short plays that gained some traction and success,’’ Cole says.

By 2015, he had written several full-length plays that have been performed by various companies in New York and Austin.

‘‘His talent has really eclipsed my own. However, as one of his earliest professional producers, directors and actors I get to benefit from having his trust in producing and presenting some of his work.’’

Despite Cole receiving acting awards from various critics and reviewers in New York, he became more interested in directing, especially devised theatre and new works.

‘‘This, of course, meant I had to become my own producer, as well.’’

He began producing a variety of festivals adding administrative, marketing and logistical skills.

One of those was last year’s Dunedin Fringe Festival ‘‘Best Performer’’ winner (I)sland (T)rap: The Epic Remixology of the Odyssey, performed by Austin Dean Ashford.

‘‘It has won numerous honours around the United States and is a smash hit, in large part due to Ashford’s incredible performance skills and imagination.’’

The work Cole is bringing to this year’s festival had its origins about 20 years ago as Casey had wanted to write something on the West Virginia coal miners.

‘‘I think he was inspired by country singer Loretta Lynn [who was born in Butcher Holler]’’

In 2012, when Cole asked him what he was going to write next, Casey replied: ‘‘the coal miner play’’.

The pair, who co-founded New York theatre company Ad Hoc Economy, began working together on the play, which eventually became Butcher Holler.

It tells the story of five coal miners struggling to survive after their coal mine caves in. They are dealing with dwindling oxygen, lack of food and water, the unravelling sense of passing time and their own competing natures.

‘‘[The play weaves] through family histories, complicated friendships, crooked politics, childhood visions, audacious hopes, eerie dreams, criminal addictions and fervent spirituality in this run-of-the-mill Appalachian community.’’

When developing the script, the pair were aware of the mining disaster at Pike River as well as one in Chile.

As Ad Hoc often participates in the New Orleans Fringe Festival, the brothers decided to workshop it there as an add-on to their main show making it a late-night showcase.

‘‘The reception it received was quite strong and this encouraged us to develop the show over the course of several months.’’

It finally premiered at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival in 2013, and was successful, in part, Cole thinks, due to its ‘‘form’’ as much as its ‘‘content’’.

‘‘Due to the coal miner characters being stuck in a cave collapse, I stumbled upon the idea that the actors were only to be lit from their battery-powered headlamps above their faces.’’

This meant no additional lighting was needed and meant the performance ‘‘embraced’’ the darkness and ‘‘proximity of intimate spatial relationships’’ with the audience.

New York director Leah Bonvissuto positioned the action in the centre of an audience runway, giving the actors the freedom to move in and around the crowd.

‘‘It was a circumstance where the substance of Casey’s language, the dynamism of Leah’s staging and the skill of our actors just merged into an incredibly unique theatrical product.

‘‘We knew immediately it had long-term touring value based on its technical minimalism with epic story impact.’’

The play also examines Western society’s history of ‘‘land use’’ labour politics, faith, friendship and psychological trauma resulting from being trapped alive while working in a coal mine.

Cole plays Jet Delahunt and the rest of the cast — Michael Mason as K-Bus, Adam Laten Willson as Leander Pope and Isaac Byrne as Hiccup (aka Henry) — are based around the world: Iceland, Los Angeles, New York and Austin Texas.

Joining them for this production is an old theatre collaborator, Brendan Flood, who is based in Sydney and will play the role of Muskie Pope.

Butcher Holler, which has gone on to play around the United States at arts and fringe festivals from New York to New Mexico, has has won two awards for its script.

‘‘I hope people are thrilled and entertained — it can be a very funny, but very scary experience. It plays like a thriller.

‘‘Different people will walk away being impressed with different ideas of what the play says.’’

One of the reasons why they chose New Zealand for its international debut was because of the Pike River incident.

‘‘We are hoping Butcher Holler Here We Come might also help heal the wounds that haunt New Zealand on the 10th anniversary [of the Pike River disaster].

‘‘A decade is an apt time to memorialise those who suffered, and re-examine afresh what lessons there are to learn. As artists, we are excited to be a part of that process. We think the best theatre art speaks to community events and histories and always seeks to ask the difficult questions, while avoiding any offer of easy answers.’’

Cole has performed in the play from the start and works around his own projects, such as (I)sland (T)rap, which he is bringing back to Dunedin this year.

‘‘With (I)sland T(rap), the Christchurch shooting had just occurred when we visited and that play spoke to themes related to community, overcoming discrimination with love, and moving past these tragic histories of social gun violence.’’

So as well as being artistic director of Ad Hoc, he is in the second year of his PhD in interdisciplinary fine art at Texas Tech University.

‘‘I’m developing other work that straddles a line into performance art and sculptural or museum type art.’’

After Dunedin, they will be taking the show on tour in California before doing another run of it in New York in September-October.

‘‘I absolutely loved being in Dunedin last year for the Fringe; I knew I had to come back. It was so special to me that I felt it was a great place to premiere Butcher Holler.’’

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