Take for instance the story of Mary, a 5-ton elephant who — get this — was hanged in 1916 after killing a circus employee in Tennessee. The eerie tale provided the perfect backdrop for the Rob Winn Anderson play “A Tennessee Walk,” which begins a weekend run at Jacksonville State University Thursday. The plot travels between the past and present day as the main character is forced to relive an event she witnessed at the time of the hanging by talking to a young news reporter.
“I thought ‘You can’t hang an elephant — that’s absurd,’” says Anderson, who first heard of the incident on a talk radio program. But after conducting some research and confirming his suspicions, he began to develop a story. “What I write about are things that just spark my interest,” he says. “I get really attracted to stories that are sort of unbelievable to me that I’ve been trying to find answers to why they should be believable.”
Blurring the lines of fact and folklore aren’t far from Anderson’s past working for for Disney World, where he began his career right after college in 1981 as an entertainer in the company’s “Kids of the Kingdom” performance group. Over the course of his career, he has expanded his theatrical horizons from that of an actor and performer to playwright and director, and still works as a freelance creative consultant for Disney. He’s directed — and in some instances choreographed — more than a dozen plays, and has staged several productions and parades for Disney.
“I spent many years as a dancer and then a singer and then a singer/dancer, and because I watched and I learned and I learned my craft on its feet, I was able to direct and transition into directing more fluidly,” he says of the natural transition.
Writing, however, would take a little more time.
“I didn’t take any courses on it, I didn’t go to school for it … I just read lots of great plays and just sort of wrote the way I thought things should be written,” he says, of when he first attempted playwriting in the late ’80s. Anderson says he had never really thought about being a playwright, but he wrote much of his own work at Disney, which gave him a good start, he says. “I started getting into writing more and realized how much I loved it.”
His plays have been well-received in the theater community, having won awards for “A Tennessee Walk” in the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s ScriptFEST Competition and the Southern Playwrights Competition (sponsored by JSU), and the Christopher Brian Wolk Award for Excellence in Playwriting for his work “The Tenth Son.”
Anderson is both writing and directing a play inspired by “Alice In Wonderland,” which goes into production this fall, and another play will follow this spring in Chicago.
“I’m always fascinated to see what other artists interpret from my work — what another director sees in it that I didn’t see in it,” he says, and hopes that no matter what, the play is able to start some sort of conversation.
“The best thing for any play is that people continue to talk about it afterward,” he says. “Strong feelings of like and strong feelings of dislike are all good things, as long as it get people to think and talk.”
“A Tennessee Walk”
What: “A Tennessee Walk,” written by Rob Winn Anderson and directed by Eric Traynor.
When: June 20-22 at 7 p.m. and June 23 at 2 p.m.
Where: Ernest Stone Center
Contact: Call 782-5648 or visit www.jsu.edu/drama