The current "authorized version" of The Songs of Robert is a one-man show that runs about 75 minutes in a single act. The play might be called a lyric drama: it consists in a series of interrelated verse monologues that, combined with choreography and live music, tell the story of "Robert," an American high-school boy growing up in rural Southern Appalachia. The plot is fairly simple, if not to say conventional, and is immediately comprehensible to audiences: Robert is in love with a girl who doesn’t take much notice of his existence. To complicate matters, the high school Senior Prom is approaching, soon followed by graduation, when Robert will leave his hometown and go away to art school—if his parents let him. In all, the actor plays twelve different characters and performs songs (some original, some traditionals that have been arranged for the show) on clawhammer banjo and steel-body resonator guitar played with a slide.
The style of the play is essentially expressionistic: the audience sees the world—Robert’s family and friends as well as his teachers—more or less through Robert’s own eyes, and experiences it the way he does. Though the language of the play is poetic, it is also composed for the most part in various Southern Appalachian dialects, i.e. non-standard spoken English. Nevertheless, the style of presentation and simplicity of plot combine to support the audience’s understanding—even where English is not a first language.
The set requirements for the show are minimal: besides a few hand props and musical instruments, one needs only two folding chairs and a shopping cart. The guiding principle for design is that the language itself and the actor's physicality should provide the springboard for the audience’s imagination, with a minimum reliance on set design or other means of producing "stage magic." Carefully designed lighting, however, can be extremely effective.
According to The Asheville Citizen Times, the play evokes “images ranging from Willie Nelson to James Joyce” (Sunday, December 12, 2004). (For full reviews of recent productions, see below.)
The Songs of Robert began as a collection of original dramatic monologues in verse, written as part of my Masters Thesis in Poetry at Cornell University in 1998. (I began writin ghte poems in the fall of 1995.) It was my childhood friend Eric Johnson, now Artistic Director of the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, who first convinced me that what I had was in fact a verse play. At the time (the summer of 1998) , Eric was teaching Drama at the North Carolina Governor’s School East in Laurinburg, NC. He brought me in as an Artist-in-Residence, and one of the projects we worked on was a first stage version of the play, which ran about 20 minutes and included an ensemble cast of Governor’s School students plus me as an onstage musical accompanist. (I played acoustic guitar with a slide as well as various other noise-makers, in a role that eventually became “Ol’ Preacha’,” who now is the show's narrator, for lack of a better term.) It was the authenticity and courage with which the students, especially Quentin Bunch, who played “Robert,” connected to the play, as well as the audience response, which first convinced me that The Songs of Robert had the potential to become an effective dramatic work. It also convinced me that my experience and training as a poet could actually serve me in the theatre. As I recall, however, Eric told me even then that he thought the play was really meant to be a one-man show starring Yrs. Trly. The idea naturally horrified me at the time.
The first full theatrical production of the play occurred that fall as a collaboration between Blue Shift Theatre Ensemble, X Factor Dance Company, and Lees-McRae College, at the short-lived High Country Performing Arts Festival. In the winter of 2002, Blue Shift produced a short film version of the play, shot by cinematographer Adam Larsen, which has unfortunately never been released.
In 2003, while I was Artist-in-Residence at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, Germany, I re-built the play from the ground up as a two-actor performance, with new poems, new songs, and a (new to me) steel-body resonator guitar. This new version premiered as part of the English Literary Festival, and went on to performances at the American Library and the Landesmedienzentrum Baden-Wüttemberg. I directed and performed all the male roles. Andrea Koch, an excellent student of mine at the PH, performed the female roles.
When I returned to the States in the fall of 2004, I developed the two-actor version further with actor Julia Horn, and performed it in a variety of venues, expanding and contracting the play as needed. In 2008, I intended to remount this version as part of the Catalyst Series at NCStage in Asheville with a different collaborator, but when she had to drop out of the project of personal reasons a couple of weeks before opening, I was forced to choose between cancelling the production entirely or figuring out some way to do it as a one-man show. Luckily, I was in residence at the time at Headlands Center for the Arts in California, and had time–and a studio–in which to work. When I returned to North Carolina, my friend Jim Ostholthoff, a director, worked with me intensely to whip the show into shape. The run at NCStage was successful enough to encourage me to submit the show to the 2009 NYC International Fringe Festival.
The Fringe show was transformatively directed by Steve Samuels, and produced by Chall Gray. Here are two reviews from that production:
1998: One-Act student ensemble version: The North Carolina Governor’s School East, (Laurinburg, NC)
1998: Full-length ensemble version: High Country Performing Arts Festival (Lees McRae College, Banner Elk, NC), co-produced by Blue Shift Theatre Ensemble
2004: One-Act, two-actor version: English Literary Festival (Pädagogische Hochschule Karlsruhe, Germany); Amerikanische Bibliothek; Landesmedienzentrum Baden-Wüttemberg (Karlsruhe, Germany)
2004: Full-length two-actor version: Watauga Hugh School (Boone, NC); Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church (Boone, NC)
2004: One-Act solo version: Men’s Dance Festival (Asheville, NC)
2005: Full-length two-actor version: Asheville Fringe Festival (Asheville, NC)
2005: Expanded full-length two-actor version: Blowing Rock Stage Company (Blowing Rock, NC), co-produced by Jynormous Theatre Company
2006: Full-length ensemble version: Lenoir-Rhyne College (Hickory, NC), produced by the Lenoir Rhyne Players, directed by Joseph Sturgeon.
2008: Full-length one-man-show version: NC Stage Catalyst Series (Asheville, NC); produced by Corpus Theatre Collective, directed by James Ostholthoff
2009: Full-length one-man-show version: New York International Fringe Festival (New York, NY); produced by Chall Gray, directed by Steven Samuels