Drama springs from a child’s imagination in this class

Shelly Frome
Special to The Black Mountain News

The site is Eden Hall, the experimental dance/theater space on the former campus of Black Mountain College. Just as it was with the remarkable college that existed from 1933-1957, theater director Tom Tracy emphasizes “process” as he guides his Learning Community School students in the classroom and on stage.

In fact, he fondly recalls the time members of the dance troupe created by Merce Cunningham, a celebrated teacher at Black Mountain college, came through the Learning Community School a few years ago.

“I realized again I was where that freely structured movement took place,” Tracy said of the college, its students and their drive to create. “Exploring themselves, trying things out - it’s not lost on me. It’s very cool that we’re here doing that.”

The Learning Community School campus is located on the grounds upon which Merce Cunningham danced, Buckminster Fuller built his geodesic dome and Josef Albers expounded upon color, drawing and design.

Which brings us to the question - what drew Tracy to theater?

Perhaps we can see the answer in his history, one that included a stint as an entertainer and a singer in his own band in Atlanta, and work training at the University of Georgia to be a teacher and his work in creative dramatics at Arizona State University.

There, in graduate school, he discovered what he really loved was young people’s search to, in his words, “unfold themselves and figure themselves out.” Studying storytelling and children’s literature, he discovered he also wanted to bring theater into the classroom. Add a 15-year stint teaching in Tempe, Arizona and his collaboration with artist wife Libba on children’s books, you can see how his history converges on his teaching children to act.

Add on top of that conversion he and his wife’s desire for their two small children to have an appropriate alternative education and the couple’s recollection of summers spent in Montreat, and you see why they ended up in the Swannanoa Valley.

“We searched all over the country to find a great place to live for us and the kids,” said Tracy. “Libba and I love the four solid good seasons in the mountains. It’s like a retreat. We also love being close to Asheville with its diverse types of thinking and the arts while, at the same time, living out in the country.”

Which leads us back to Tracy’s focus on story, setting and a special child-centered process. In a way, he thinks of his work at The Learning Community School as if it exists in an old one-room school house where he’s “always mixing up the kids,” he said. He keys on the oldest, the seventh- and eighth-graders who he believes are going through a vital period in their mental and emotional development.

In his writer/reader workshop with the kids, the emphasis is firmly on story. Every morning his charges work on the genre of their choice, be it memoir or fiction, as long as they adhere to four basics - follow directions, work hard, go further than you would normally go, and support and take care of each other. Whatever the narrative thrust of their work is, he wants them to have “good heart,” he said.

Fittingly, in choosing the year’s annual all-school musical, where everyone in some capacity, from kindergartners to eighth-graders, takes part, the storyline has to have “good heart and real human conflict,” he said.

This spring, in Tracy’s twelfth such undertaking, the selection is a second mounting of the musical “Oliver!” With the indispensable aid of musical director Aline Carillon, choreographer Amy Maze - plus the parents working on sets, sewing costumes and what-have-you - Tracy emphasizes exploration over result.

“In rehearsal, I’m always asking, ‘where are we in the story?’” he said. “It’s not a straight line. It’s all this in-between. They push themselves because every moment of the process is meaningful.

“‘You’re hungry,’ I tell them. ‘You better not cut up because you’re not going to get what little food you’re allocated - you’re going to get less.’ What’s the story in the song? Make those connections. I also tie it into the set. Where are we? What’s our mood here? I have them personalize when they’re playing kids and when they’re playing adults. Taken together, it’s a social, emotional, team concept. They’re part of a family.”

Of course, there comes a point when all this preparatory work reaches an end. The unpressurized setting is left behind, and it’s time to perform. “Oliver!” will be performed at 6 p.m. April 22, 4 p.m. April 23 and 2 p.m. April 24 at the Owen High School auditorium.

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.