Actress Barbara Bates Smith visited Elkin last week. The nearly 85-year old performer is best known for her one-woman shows featuring the works of North Carolina authors.
“What brings me here today and in North Carolina all has to do with Lee Smith,” Smith explained. The actress not only performs shows based on Lee Smith’s books, but other writers as well.
Her recent production showcases short stories by North Carolina author Ron Rash, who will be in Elkin later this month.
Smith gave an informal talk at the Elkin Public Library Thursday and performed “A Rash of Stories” at Parkwood later that evening. Smith is no stranger to the Elkin area and has performed here in the past, said Anne Gulley, a longtime fan of Smith’s work, who organized the event.
Smith’s performance of “A Rash of Stories” featured dramatic readings of four of Rash’s short stories, including the humorous “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth.”
In her informal talk at the library Smith shared her story of how she moved from performing in what she called “real plays” and began creating her own one-woman shows based on the works of North Carolina authors.
Gulley said she was impressed with how bold Smith was in approaching authors whose work she admired to ask permission to adapt their writings for the stage.
“I was doing real plays in Tampa and I read in the New York Times about a book called ‘Cakewalk’ by Lee Smith and I had saved that and then the same week a friend in Atlanta sent me a news clipping and she said ‘here’s a new writer you may be interested in’ and it was Lee Smith,” Smith said.
When a third friend, who lived in Wilson, mentioned Lee Smith, Barbara Bates Smith new that she had to find out more about the author.
“I figure when things come in threes like that I have to pay attention,” Smith said with a laugh.
Her friend in North Carolina wanted Smith to not only read Lee Smith’s work, but to meet her as well.
“I was famous for going from Florida on the train to New York to see shows,” she said. So her friend said she must plan to stop in North Carolina on her next trip and she would set up a meeting with the author.
“So I did stop in Wilson and she did arrange for me to meet and have lunch with Lee Smith at Piewackets in Chapel Hill,” Smith said. Smith had bought Lee Smith’s book “Cakewalk” a collection of short stories and was immediately drawn to it. She told Lee Smith that an as actress she longed to use some of her stories on the stage and so Lee Smith signed the book for her with the inscription “For Barbara, who can do whatever she wants with these stories.”
In 1988, a few years after Smith’s first meeting with Lee Smith, her new book “Fair and Tender Ladies” was released. Smith said it was the only book she has ever rushed right out to the store to buy rather than waiting for the library to get a copy.
After reading about the book, Smith said, “I thought wow, and I left my house and I went out and bought that book.”
“I read it and that changed my life and career,” Smith said. “It just spoke to me so powerfully.”
Smith said she knew, without a doubt, that she had to create a piece for the stage based on the main character Ivy Rowe in Lee Smith’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.” Smith said she wanted to do something with the piece, even if the only place she could find to perform it was on street corners.
Lee Smith’s story of a strong mountain woman, told through her letters to friend and family, was transformed by Barbara Bates Smith into a one-woman show with musical accompaniment by Jeff Sebens and the two still perform all across the country.
After her success with adapting works by Lee Smith for the stage, Smith went on to adapt the works of other authors into dramatic readings for the stage. Even when she was slightly intimated by an author, including a former poet laureate for the state of North Carolina, she said she was bold in asking for permission to use their writings and was always met with approval.
She said author Ron Rash told her to “have at ‘em” when she asked if she could use some of his short stories for a performance.
Smith’s life most definitely was changed after reading “Fair and Tender Ladies” as it led her not only down a slightly different career path, but she also now resides in the state of North Carolina.
Smith and Sebens travel throughout the country with their shows including “Ivy Rowe,” the recent “A Rash of Stories” and a new production called “Go, Granny D!” based on the life of Doris Haddock who walked cross country at the age of 90 to bring attention to the issue of election reform.
For more information on Barbara Bates Smith and to find tour dates or booking information, visit www.barbarabatessmith.com.
Author Ron Rash will speak at the Elkin Public Library on May 26, for more information call 336-835-5535.
Kitsey Burns Harrison may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.