TheatreNOW is going into its second show from the “Season of the Southern Woman,” which kicked off last month with local playwright Joel Perry’s “Azalea Fest Queen.” Next up is Paul Ferguson’s “Good Ol’ Girls,” a musical based on the writing of Southern scribes Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith.
Ferguson, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill (who also taught TheatreNOW’s artistic director Zach Hanner) premiered the show in 2010. The story follows Southern women through all ages and various stages of their lives via vignettes presented by monologue and song. The cast will consist of Sydney Smith Martin, Bianca Shaw, Beth Corvino, Katie Joy Anderson, Lynnette O’Callaghan, Andrea Powell, and Penelope Grover, with musical director Linda Markas leading the band: Jack Warfield, Brandon Bales and Will Walter—members of R&B/funk/rap act New Atmosphere.
encore interviewed Ferguson about the show, its inspiration and what audiences can expect in its ILM debut.
encore (e): Tell me about ‘Good Ol’ Girls’ and why you wanted to write it. What started the project?
Paul Ferguson (PF): Years ago, I wanted to write a show to honor my wife and my grandmother, both of whom are the opposite of the stereotypes of Southern women often seen on television and in film. About that time, Lee Smith called me to say she and Jill McCorkle, and the Nashville songwriters Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman, had a substantial amount of material that they thought could be combined and written into a play that would portray true Southern womenhood through the archetype of the iconic good ol’ girl.
e: What’s the premise of the show, and tell us about some of the characters and their traits that paint this Southern humor.
PF: The show uses seven actors to portray the seven stages of a person’s life, from youth through old age. Early in the play, the younger women are featured, followed by characters closer to middle age, and finally moving into old age. Throughout the play, the characters experience courtship, friendship, marriage, divorce, motherhood, hard times, and good times. The characters are fun and funny, and there is a lot of laughter. When there is disappointment, the characters face it bravely. As Lee Smith has said, “It is amazing what all a person can take and still go on.”
e: Is there any reason you chose to focus on women of the South; what women of the South have inspired you in your own life? How?
PF: I wrote this show in part to honor my wife, Andrea. She is a brilliant actor as well as a professional web designer and my daily inspiration. This year we’re celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary, and we’re still just as much in love and having just as much fun.
My own mother passed away when I was 13, and from then on I was raised primarily by my grandmother, who accepted with love and discipline the challenge of raising my brother and me—two teenage boys who needed more supervision than they wanted.
I still miss her. I am also inspired by the four strong, talented women upon whose work the play is based: Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and [musicians and songwriters] Marshall Chapman, and Matraca Berg . . . And I knew Marshall’s and Matraca’s work [from] their own recordings from Grammy-winning songs they’d written for so many other Nashville women artists.
e: Tell us why you chose these particular Southern authors as the basis for the show? What about their works really speaks to your vision?
PF: I didn’t actually choose these writers; they chose me. Their writing depicts the fiercely strong, highly intelligent, independent, sassy Southern women I have been lucky enough to know all my life.
e: How does music elevate it? Do you find it carries more pathos where needed?
PF: The narratives of Marshall’s and Matraca’s music and the musicality and lyricism of Lee’s and Jill’s prose complement each other perfectly. Matraca Berg once said if her songs could grow into novels, she hoped they would grow into novels like the ones that Lee Smith writes. And just as a beautiful melody and superb lyrics can reach into your mind and heart quickly, anyone who’s read Lee’s and Jill’s work knows you can be laughing heartily at the top of the page and find yourself in tears before you reach the bottom. All four writers share the ability to make you laugh through your tears.
e: What were some of the hardest undertakings in transforming their words to the stage?
PF: Because I was given the rights to all of Lee’s and Jill’s writing, and all of Marshall’s and Matraca’s music, choosing what to include and what to leave out was extremely difficult. We spent two years in performance workshops, testing how songs and stories fit together. The final version included what we thought were the best compressed depictions of the various ages of the good ol’ girl. One particularly difficult scene involves a character who is preparing her mother to be buried.
We discarded 13 drafts of the scene before Lee Smith attended a rehearsal and in one night wrote a monologue personally suited to the actor. Lee’s words became a scene that is sad but also funny, uplifting, redemptive, and consoling.