A Coole January: ETSU School of the Arts opens season ‘For the Ear Alone’

Published 8:43 am Tuesday, January 26, 2016

NW0126 Yeats
Although Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright William Butler Yeats was very much an Irish nationalist and writer, his legacy and work are celebrated worldwide with societies, conferences, programs, awards and readings.
“He was a great romantic and explorer of spiritual frontiers whose poetry fuses the personal and the political, the sensual and the cosmic,” says Joseph Sobol, an ETSU professor in the Storytelling Program. “It has been said that the Irish nation and even modern consciousness itself were born in the poetic imagination of W.B. Yeats.”
The year 2015 marked the 150th anniversary of Yeats’ birth and January 2016 inaugurates the centennial of Ireland’s Easter Rising, a key event in the struggle for Irish independence and the subject of one of Yeats’ greatest poems.
ETSU’s Department of Literature and Language, Department of Communication and Performance’s Storytelling Program and Mary B. Martin School of the Arts are marking this confluence of occasions on Wednesday, Jan. 27, and Thursday, Jan. 28, which is the 86th anniversary of Yeats’ death, with a two-day celebration, “For the Ear Alone: A Festival in Honor of W.B. Yeats.”
The festival is so-titled because of the profound musical and dramatic qualities of Yeats’ work. “He composed his poems orally, like an ancient Irish bard,” Sobol says. “He would walk through the woods and chant lines to himself and chant them over and over again until he had just the right rhythms and the right musical sense to the words.”
“For the Ear Alone” will feature five events – some free, some ticketed – beginning with a free panel discussion “W.B. Yeats and the Poetic Drama” at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, in Reece Museum, ETSU. Panelists include two of the world’s foremost directors of Yeats’ poetic dramas – Sam McCready and James Flannery.
McCready, originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is co-founder of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and longtime head of the drama workshop at the Yeats International Summer School, while Flannery, a professor emeritus of theater at Emory University, is founder and director of the Yeats Drama Foundation. Sobol, composer and author of In the Deep Heart’s Core: A Mystic Cabaret from the works of W. B. Yeats, and Katherine Weiss, Irish drama scholar and chair of the ETSU Department of Literature and Language, complete the expert panel.
At 7 p.m. on Jan. 27 in Martha Street Culp Auditorium, Irish actress Joan McCready will portray Yeats’ patron, collaborator and friend Lady Augusta Gregory in Coole Lady: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Gregory, a ticketed event. In this one-woman show, written by the actress’ spouse, Sam McCready, Lady Gregory, a dramatist herself, reflects on a life of service to her country and the arts and the struggles in her personal life at her beloved estate, Coole Park.
Gregory and Yeats were driving forces behind the Irish Literary Revival, as well as co-founders of Abbey, the Irish National Theatre. They were at the center of much political and literary drama in Ireland and England, while also prolifically creating their own original works.
“Joan McCready commands the stage as Lady Gregory, talking us through her remarkable life,” says the Belfast Telegraph. “Coole Lady is finely crafted, well performed, informative and entertaining.”
A second panel discussion, “Yeats and Contemporary Poetry,” kicks off Day Two of the festival, on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 3:30 p.m., again in Reece Museum. This panel – composed of Columbia University visiting professor of literature Emily Bloom; poet and Appalachian State professor Kathryn Kirkpatrick; and ETSU literature professors Dan Westover and Thomas Crofts – will trace the influence of Yeats on the course of 20th- and 21st-century verse.
“Dan Westover, Thomas Crofts and Kathryn Kirkpatrick are all published successful poets,” says Weiss, who will moderate the poetry panel. “These panelists are encouraged to read from their own poetry or share with us the projects they are working on, as well as talk to us about how Yeats has influenced them and other writers. Emily Bloom, who has done radio work on Yeats, is a young scholar, a really young voice on the panel, and that should be an inspiration to the students.”
The panel discussions will provide “the back story,” for patrons attending the performances, Weiss says. Receptions will follow the panel discussions, at 5 p.m. each day.
A second ticketed stage performance will highlight Thursday’s schedule, at 7 p.m. in Culp Auditorium. In the Deep Heart’s Core, an award-winning theatrical song cycle of Yeats’ poems and stories from his autobiographical writings, is composed and arranged by Sobol. The performance will feature Sobol on guitar, and original cast member Kathy Cowan on vocals, as well as local singers Dominic Aquilino and Clara Ray Burrus and musicians Lee Bidgood on fiddle and Robbie Link on bass. The music although it has “a unified thread of Irish melody” spans genres, including folk, cabaret jazz and rock ’n’ roll, Sobol says.
In the Deep Heart’s Core, which premiered in 1993 at the old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, ran for nearly a year at the Bailiwick Theatre in Chicago and toured nationwide, including a five-week run at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. The Chicago Tribune called it, “A joy – poetry to the ears, alternately tender and rousing.”
For Yeats’ 150th anniversary, Sobol revamped the show for numerous venues and casts, performing in the Midwest, East Coast and Ireland. “Joseph has performed In the Deep Heart’s Core across the country and around the world,” says Anita DeAngelis director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “It is exciting to help him share it with our campus and local audience.”
Sobol says that Yeats’ poems tapped a wellspring of musical inspiration in him, resulting in this work of what he calls “poetic musical theater.” “When you take that kind of music of consonants and vowels, language and image, it suggests music in a most powerful way,” he says. “It speaks music to me. It’s very inspiring to work on.
“In the Deep Heart’s Core is not a conventional musical play, but a lyric drama in which the life and passions of the poet are revealed through the songs and the stories that he made from them.”
Concluding the two-day “For the Ear Alone” festival will be a Yeatsian poetry slam, titled “A Terrible Beauty Is Born” at 9 p.m. in Culp Auditorium. The slam will blend readings and spoken word performances, as well as music and open mic slots. Noted national and regional poets and scholars will perform their favorite Yeats and Yeats-related poems, Sobol says.
A limited number of open mic positions are available for the slam, with sign-up at http://ow.ly/WV8C0.
“We’re very pleased to collaborate across disciplines with the Yeats’ festival,” DeAngelis says. “Irish literature and culture influenced our regional heritage, and these offerings blend classic literature with contemporary outlooks.”
The festival also offers a chance to learn about poetry without actually sitting and reading it, Weiss says. “Yeats himself believed that his poetry should be sung, not read in silence and in isolation,” she says. “If we take that on, then we really shouldn’t go and sit in our den and read his poetry by ourselves. We should be going out and experiencing it with people that then we can talk about it afterward.
“The community should come see the performances, see the panels, disagree with us, engage in the arguments, engage in the laughter and just make his writing a living experience rather than a solitary experience.”
Tickets for Coole Lady and In The Deep Heart’s Core are $10 general and $5 for students of all ages with ID. Special discounts will be available for tickets purchased for both stage performances.
For information about the festival or for tickets, please contact Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/martin.

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