Meet the Performers
The Higher Ground cast included people of a wide range of ages and occupations from throughout the Harlan County area. Here are comments from a few of them about the experience.
Growing up in Low Point, Illinois, Ann Schertz moved to Harlan County in 1986. She lives outside Cumberland in Blair, Kentucky. She teaches music at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College and became Higher Grounds music director at the urging of Robert Gipe, director of the Appalachian Center.
He pretty much enrolled me, she chuckles. At first, I was quite intimidated, as what I thought would be a small project continued to grow in its scope.
I was able to apply several experiences working with Higher Ground. I used my experience as the music director for my church. I understood that in this play, like in a church setting, the music helps us connect to different emotions. You can see how, when a congregation sings, something about their involvement or engagement with the service changes. My experience as a community choir director helped me in terms of composition and organization, as well as working with everyones various levels of music knowledge. Some folks were completely comfortable following direction, while others couldnt read music. My degree in ethnomusicology definitely helped in researching and familiarizing myself with the various types of music we were going to use. You could also say that the music in Higher Ground is the glue holding this patchwork of stories together.
Ive witnessed the effects of drug abuse in the lives of students, friends, neighbors, and many others in the community. Theres a sense that weve lost these folksthat the community has lost some important people. When theres already so much out-migration from the area, its like adding insult to injury.
During the first year, I watched a rough video recording of our performance. I saw the whole thing from an angle above the performers. I was instantly touched. What really moved me was that, despite having to describe such difficult experiences, it seemed like we were already practicing a better way of living singing and moving together.
I feel like Higher Ground has helped me add to my family. Everyone rallied around each other in a strong network of support, just like a family. My favorite part about being in this show is getting to know everybody better.
There was this great dynamic of outside professionals working with us. For a community with such a wide variety of talent and different levels of experience, its so important for the technical aspects of a performance to be impeccable. It provides a certain level of comfort to work with people who know what theyre doing on the technical end of things. And these folks, living and working with us everyday, really became a part of the family, too.
I suppose I dont care too much about the shows impact around the country as much as I do its impact on Harlan County. Stories are so tremendously powerful beyond their just being artthey are essential to the fabric of communities. Faced with such a dangerthe effects of prescription drugsits so easy for individuals to feel helpless and out of control. At the core of what weve done with Higher Ground is its strong sense of community integrity, and thats exactly whats going to help us the most. This process of telling our story gives us the same voice that could help any community during hard times. It says We are somebody and we can effect a change.
Chester and Megan Clem
Lifetime Harlan County resident Chester Clem and his daughter and fellow cast member Megan live in Coalgood, Kentucky. When Megan came home with news about the Higher Ground casting call, Chester agreed to take her to the first rehearsal. Though he had no intention of joining the cast, Chester suddenly found himself in the role of Moonshiner.
It all happened by accident, but Im really glad Gerry (Gerard Stropnicky, the director) stopped me and gave me the part. Megan read about the casting call in the newspaper, wrote the date down on the calendar, and kept reminding me about it up to the day. I told her we could do it if she kept her grades up, which she did. And Im really glad we got to be a part of it.
Ive known most of the folks in the play for a long time .some for my whole life. Ive worked with them, hunted with them, you name it. But the play gave me the opportunity to really get to know them and to share all our stories together.
Everybody has been affected by drug abuse in this community one way or another. Crime has become so bad, too. Church and community volunteer organizations are trying to help, but its still a really big problem.
I hope that Higher Grounds impact might help out those who are struggling with drug abuse. If we could get even one person whos addicted to take a closer look at their lifeto try to get betterthen I think this play was definitely worth it. Theres a message in it, I think: Whats the value of the whole world if youve lost your own soul?
Ive talked to some folks whove seen the play several times. One friend said that he found something different in it every time. And everyone in the community seems to relate to some or all of it in different ways.
Tara Smith, a registered nurse living in Totz, Kentucky, has lived in Harlan County all of her 27 years. Even though she had acted for about 13 years in theater productions at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, she was still surprised when she received one of the major roles in Higher Ground.
I found out about the play in Ann Schertzs music appreciation class. But it was really strange to be cast for a lead part. I was always more comfortable working in the background of plays and only really acted out in more comedic parts. I wasnt used to a role that required the kind of energy and focus as this one. I probably wouldnt have taken the chance if the director hadnt picked me for this part, but its one of the greatest things I think Ive ever done.
I already knew a lot of the people in Higher Ground as neighbors and through my work at the hospital. But I was able to make some deeper connections working with them on this performance.
Professionally, as a nurse, I see the effects of drug abuse on an almost daily basis. Theres the physical damage, and thats pretty clear to see. But then theres the deeper, personal damage it causes for the family, friends, and loved ones of the addict. How do you explain this devastation to people looking for answersespecially when you dont have a way to answer these questions for yourself? Thats the most amazing thing about Higher Ground its opened all of this up for discussion. Before the show, folks just didnt want to talk about any of this I think it was just too painful. But now, theres a real dialogue because people can hear bits and pieces of their own stories in what we talk about in the show. All of the time, after these performances, folks come up to us and share their own stories. They say, Thats exactly how it happened for me, too.
I hope people take away the sense that, as a community, we can come together and be together, identifying with everyones stories, pulling together to face these difficulties, and, even though we might come from different parts of the county, were really not that different from one another.
I dont think anybody expected the kind of impact or reaction weve had for Higher Ground. I think at first we were just hoping some folks would show up to watch. Now the response is almost overwhelming.
Theresa Osborne has lived in Harlan County for nearly 17 years. Her work with the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College led to her involvement with Higher Ground.
I was involved from Higher Grounds inception and really pushed for our original grant to fund some sort of theater project. As a graduate student in folklore, I helped gather the original stories from Harlan County residents. We had nearly 1,500 pages of transcriptions that we sent to the scriptwriter. From the beginning, I felt strongly about making sure this would appeal to everyone in the community.
Ive watched dear friends and relatives lose nearly everything to prescription drug abuse. Working at the college, Ive seen so many students affected. There really arent very many people left untouched by this problem.
On the first day of rehearsals, Gerry Stropnicky (the director) asked those whose immediate family had been affected to gather in the middle of the performance space. Then, he asked those whose extended family had been affected to form a ring around that circle. Then, those with friends or acquaintances that had been affected formed a second ring. Out of about 70 people there that day, only three or four remained in the original crowd. For me, this really brought home the reason we were there.
From the beginning, I think everyone felt a duty and a charge to tell these stories the best we knew how and to get people talking. Our goal was to let people see that no one is alone in this struggle and that here is a safe way to open up about the issue.
Its important to remember that this is just a playits not a cure. Nonetheless, the impact its had on the community is all we could have hoped for. Folks have come back to see Higher Ground five or six times. Often times I could see the connection between the audience when they would sing the songs with us or share our laughter and tears.
For instance, we were telling the story about the opossum and a woman in the audience was rolling with laughter and nodding her head after every line. After the show, she told us This reminded me of home! A lot of times audience members tell us that weve been able to say exactly what they wanted to say and that the stories are totally accurate.
When we see fellow cast members out and around its always like a small family reunion.
We have a cast that is second to none. Some of them have never acted at all and some have had experience on Broadway. The ages range from four years old to 80 plus.
I would hope that the KET broadcast would help show other communities that this is possible. This was Harlan County telling Harlan Countys story to Harlan County. But I that someone watching might say: We can do this, too!
I think if we had any idea about the impact of Higher Ground in the beginning, we probably would have been too intimidated to try anything. Its a truly fantastic project.