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Producer’s Statement By Guy Mendes

Looking for Higher Ground

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Guy Mendes

About a year ago my boss, Nancy Carpenter, showed me a letter from the Big Boss, Mac Wall, to Robert Gipe of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. The letter proposed a KET production of the Harlan County community theater project Higher Ground. It went on to mention the dozens of cast members and the several musical groups involved. My first thoughts were, “No way,” and “Run fast in the opposite direction.” I didn’t think there was any way we could afford the eight to 10 cameras, the 20-person crew, the remote truck costs, and room and board for a five-day shoot it would take to capture such a production. I was right. We couldn’t. But we mulled it over a while and it became clear that with four cameras, eight people, a video switcher-in-a-suitcase, and a two-day shoot we could make something happen.

Fast forward to April of 2008, and I’m standing in a circle of those cast members in Harlan County, holding hands with a stranger on one side and our audio man on the other, and I’m starting to think—“Hey, it’s kind of like the ’60s. Yeah, cool.” Until I’m asked to explain why I, we, KET, have been plopped down in the middle of this performance group. And I think I said something about how impressive it was that Higher Ground had bubbled up from within, and that it had taken on a tough subject with honesty and compassion. At least, I hope I said that. I got a little worried when I was asked how we were going to fit the already abridged version of the piece, about two-hours’ worth, into a one-hour program. My answer then, as it is now: I don’t know. But, eventually, we found a way to abridge the abridged version.

I do know this—I’ve been mightily impressed and inspired by friends I’ve made in the mountains over the past 40 years, people like Ann and Harry Caudill, Pat and Tom Gish, Gaynell and Joe Begley, Josephine and Bill Richardson, Liz Barrett, and Herb Smith. They are people who bucked the system, people who sought to change the status quo. And now, having been welcomed into the circle of players in the Higher Ground saga, I am moved by a whole new set of friends and neighbors. Hats off to Robert Gipe and the cast and crew and to Kentucky Rain and Darlene Howard and Pine Mountain Grass. I look forward to their next production, which I hear is already in the works.

Guy Mendes retired from KET in July 2008 after 35 years and dozens of productions. “Finding Higher Ground” was his last production as a KET staff producer/director.