Recreating Coal Country at Urbanite Theatre

Theater

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY WEDNESDAY PHILANTHROPY EDITION WEDNESDAY JAN 24, 2018

Urbanite Theatre takes the Sarasota audience to coal country this Friday with the regional premiere of Northside Hollow. Directed by Urbanite co-founder Summer Dawn Wallace, the drama brings the audience to the site of a deadly tunnel collapse, where a lone miner named Gene awaits his fate alongside a solitary and inexperienced first responder. With little in common and nowhere to go, the pair can look only to each other for comfort or answers. Opening Jan. 26, actors David H. Littleton and Christopher Joel Onken both make their Urbanite debuts.

Wallace took the helm, she says, not just for love of the material itself, but also love for the place it represented—coal country. “Spending a lot of time in Appalachia,” she says, “it’s a part of the world I feel I have an understanding of.” Set in an unspecified coal mine, the play itself doesn’t declare any exact allegiance to any state, but Wallace, who has spent considerable time in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and eastern Tennessee, would recognize that “neck of the woods” anywhere. The characters too, some stuck in their thinking and others looking outward, but all affected by the place they call home.

To bring the audience into that world, more specifically a collapsed mineshaft, Wallace pulled out all the stops to take full advantage of Urbanite’s blackbox theater style, including building a mock mineshaft for the audience as well as the actors. “They will be walking through a coal mine to get to their seats,” she says. Also eschewing traditional lighting techniques, the production is bathed in shadows, with some of the light coming from select audience members who will be wearing mining headlamps throughout the show. “Utilizing our lighting in a different way really creates the environment of the coal mine—the intimacy, the darkness, the claustrophobia,” she says. “We want the audience to really feel like they are a part of the experience.”

Coming in at a slim 90 minutes without an intermission, Wallace still believes Northside Hollow can be a transformative experience for an audience so immersed. “People will walk away with, I hope, having a little bit of an understanding of someone who thinks completely different than you do,” says Wallace. “In the real world, we’re very quick to discount somebody who thinks differently than we do, without ever really thinking about why they might think the way they do.”

Opening January 26 at Urbanite Theatre, Northside Hollow runs through March 11.

Pictured: David H. Littleton and Christopher Joel Onken in Urbanite Theatre's "Northside Hollow." Photo by Brendan Ragan..

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