by Tina L. Hanlon
This article appeared in The Franklin News-Post [Rocky Mount, VA], June 19, 2006, with the title “China Students Learn about Jack Tales.” It is based on interviews with Thomas Townsend and R. Rex Stephenson in May 2006 at Ferrum College. Minor revisions included in this version were made in July 2007 for a faculty reading at the Hollins University Summer Graduate Program in Children’s Literature.
The Jack Tale Players of Ferrum College gave their 30th anniversary performance on December 12, 2005 at Callaway Elementary School, in the same auditorium as their first public performance in 1975. The Virginia school children who watch Rex Stephenson’s story theatre adaptations of folktales every year did not realize that at the same time, students in Shandong province, China were enjoying their first year of learning some of the same Jack Tales, imported from Franklin County by veteran Jack Tale Player Thomas Townsend.
Townsend spent 2005 teaching English majors at Dongying Vocational College, in eastern China. He returned to Ferrum in April 2006 to perform in The Odd Couple and serve as assistant producer of the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre. It was his sixth summer season with the BRDT since 1997. In Dongying, a city founded in 1983 near one of China’s largest oilfields, Townsend taught courses in English language and literature, and Western culture. He started using retellings of Appalachian Jack Tales to break the ice in his Oral English class.
During an appearance on the English Club’s radio broadcast, when Townsend felt stuck with no assigned topic, his favorite Appalachian folktale came to mind. Since he “knew ‘Wicked John’ inside and out,” he started telling it slowly and carefully to the radio audience. His narration of the whole tale turned into a popular four-week radio serial.
In April, Townsend’s students needed something to perform for English month at the college, so they decided to stage Jack Tales based on Stephenson’s adaptations. When Townsend wrote to Ferrum for advice, Stephenson encouraged him to go ahead with using his versions, since copyright laws don’t apply in China. Townsend knew “Jack and the Robbers,” “Jack and the Hainted House,” and “Jack and the Bean Tree” well enough to teach them to students without written scripts.
“They brought down the house,” Townsend said of the Chinese performances of Stephenson’s folktales. Some of the audience knew no English but the physical action helped everyone get the jokes. A short Chinese man was especially comical wearing Townsend’s large shirt to play the dumb robber in “Jack and the Robbers” (a role that Stephenson sometimes plays himself).
Townsend began to add Appalachian folklore to his American literature class, as well as gospel songs such as “I’ll Fly Away.” He used Stephenson’s method of introducing storytelling by explaining the tradition in mountain homes of sharing tales and ballads while doing chores on the porch.
Most of Townsend’s students were first-generation college students from poor families. Whether their older relatives were literate or not, they were familiar with oral traditions and told Townsend some of their own traditional tales, such as stories about a monkey king. Many Chinese families are reviving folklore and other cultural traditions that had been hidden from younger generations, condemned by the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Townsend believes the Chinese audiences identified with the Jack Tales because of the hero’s humble family life and because they show “the little fella coming out on top.” “It opened a dialogue between us,” he said of the links he perceived between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chinese citizens.
A native of Johnson City, Tennessee, Townsend completed a master of arts degree in Theatre and Storytelling at East Tennessee State University in 2003. While at ETSU, he worked in the Storytelling Department, taught Introduction to Theater, and performed in a one-man show on Babe Ruth, produced through the Kennedy Center. He has worked in a variety of other theater jobs in New York, Chicago, and other parts of the country. He was an actor and house manager at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater when he resisted an offer to return to the BRDT in 2005 and set off for his year in China.
In summer 2006, Townsend returned to Ferrum for the sixth time because of his love for the mountains and Jack Tales, which he views as “essential to our heritage” in southern Appalachia. He admires Stephenson’s methods of adapting traditional stories, directing, and training student actors. Townsend noted that “he’s training the professionals here” and audiences of “all ages are mesmerized by the tales.”
Photos: At right, Thomas Townsend with Rex Stephenson (front), watching a BRDT rehearsal. At left, playing the washtub bass with the Jack Tale Players in 2002.
In 1997, when Stephenson halted Townsend’s thoughts of giving up acting, he started out in the Jack Tales playing inanimate objects such as a fire bush, then a donkey and half a horse, before advancing to human roles. The mean blacksmith Wicked John is his favorite lead role. Stephenson admired his work as the narrator in “Ashpet,” “Mutsmag” and the longer play The New Snow White. He was also assistant director of Stephenson’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book when it premiered in 1997.
Townsend inaugurated the popular role of a foolish husband in “The Three Old Women’s Bet” (2001), appearing onstage in a red suit of long underwear after his wife convinces him to wear an invisible suit (a trick similar to the one the tailors play on the emperor in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”).
In 2006, Townsend enjoyed working with a new folktale “from the ground up.” He wrote a study guide for “Two Lost Babes,” in which he played Cocklepea, a clever boy who helps two lost children escape from witches. The tale is similar to the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel” and Richard Chase’s 1948 retelling of the Appalachian tale “The Two Lost Babes.” Stephenson also consulted related southwestern Virginia tales from the folklore archive of the Blue Ridge Institute for his new adaptation. Michelle Vincent of Wirtz, a 2006 Ferrum College graduate, located copies of these tales at the BRI for the web site AppLit, when a fellowship from the Appalachian College Association supported her research on Southwestern Virginia folklore in 2005.
Previously, Townsend learned roles orally from actors who were already performing them when he arrived for the summer season. He says “the rehearsal process is real storytelling.” “So much is passed from cast to cast that” he found it “exciting to put my stamp on” the new tale.
His study guide on “Two Lost Babes” includes background on Appalachian storytelling and Internet links on nutrition and lost children, for teachers and parents who want to connect serious issues with enjoyment of the folktale about lost and hungry children. The study guide is available online at www2.ferrum.edu/applit/studyg/lostbabes.htm.
Beginning May 17, 2006, the Jack Tale Players scheduled 47 shows in 23 days, including visits to each Franklin County elementary school. Along with the new “Two Lost Babes,” they performed old favorites such as “Jack and the Hainted House” and “Jack and the Robbers” (see a photo of Townsend playing the robber at this link). In summer 2007, many of their shows focused on the adventures of heroic girls, as they revived Stephenson’s “Mutsmag” and performed a new adaptation of “Catskins.”
For more information on Jack Tale shows and the Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre, see http://www2.ferrum.edu/jacktales.
Bibliography page on “Two Lost Babes”
“The Babes in the Woods” and “The Little Babes in the Woods” are folktales from the James Taylor Adams Collection, reprinted in AppLit.
The Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre closed in August 2012 when its directors retired. See its Facebook page for photos, memories, and news.
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Appalachian Folktales in Film, Drama, and Storytelling Recordings
Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore
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