On making an Appalachian Christmas classic

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A series of traveling English folk dramas were inspiration for Beautiful Star.

by Daniel Wirtheim

Preston Lane is the writer and director of Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity, a heart-warming play imagining the nativity as if it had happened in Appalachian country. Folk singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dossett composed the score.

Triad City Beat: What is it that keeps people coming back to Beautiful Star? I mean you’ve been doing this since 2006 and it’s still a big hit.

Preston Lane: When Laurelyn and I decided to write the play I don’t think either of us had imagined that it would have found the love that it’s found in this community. We just wanted to write a play for the holidays that used great music that we loved.

TCB: So how do you keep the material fresh?

PL: I have noticed particularly in this 15th anniversary year, looking back at the past years at Triad [Stage], how much I have changed as an artist, as a director, as a writer and as a person. And I couldn’t go back and direct the production I did back in 2006 or whenever it was. I just simply couldn’t do that because I wouldn’t know how to do that and it wouldn’t feel right to me. So I brought in different designers than I had originally and we imagined the play from a different perspective.

TCB: You’ve said that English mystery plays inspired your writing. Which plays are you referring to?

PL:English mystery plays” makes them sound like they’re by Agatha Christie, but they were actually performed by a trade union or guild [during the English Renaissance]. The shipbuilders would often be charged with doing Noah and the Ark and the carpenters would be charged with doing the play Jesus on the Cross.… They would do a daylong procession of plays, they would be performed on wagons and they would travel through the city and stop at different locations and you would see the entire story of the Bible brought to life by the community members of your city. They were really extraordinary pieces of theatrical history… and the way they dealt with Bible stories not as these reverential religious things that happened in old days, but they made them very real to the life they understood. I wanted that, that feel of people taking the Bible and trying to understand it in the context of their own lives. For me it really is that sense that the stories in the Appalachian Mountains came over from those regions in England and in Scotland where all of this was happening. So that sense of oral tradition made the journey over in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Beautiful Star opens on Thursday at the Pyrle in Greensboro. Visit triadstage.org for more information.

TCB: What made you want to write about Appalachia, though? I know you were born in Boone but you also studied and lived in New York City.

PL: I wanted to be an actor from my earliest memories. I studied acting in college and then I realized that what I really wanted to do was to direct and so I shifted my focus to directing and that took me into grad school [at] Yale and to work in New York and to Texas and other states and cities across the country. And through it all I didn’t foresee myself as a North Carolinian artist, except that I felt a tug to come home. I love the state, I love the Appalachian Mountains and every time I came home the more I thought, “This is really where I want to make my work.”… What I feel is there is a really big absence of great work about the Appalachian Mountains and so my work is increasingly rooted in the Appalachian Mountains.

TCB: So what are the elements that make a really good Appalachian Mountain story?

PL: I think there’s a sense of place and that, to me, is most important. We live in a world in which places are so easily avoided by our cell phones and computers and tablets. And we are connecting globally, we can go to Wendover Avenue and eat in the same restaurants and shop in the same stores as people all over the country. And I think the thing that I’ve learned and is so incredibly important in my work, and what really excites me about Greensboro, are those things that are really infused with a strong sense of place; they are authentic, they belong. I think that my work can sometimes be critical of things in the Appalachian region and things in the Piedmont region. But at the same time it’s written with a great love and respect for the place itself.