Jo Carson's Speech on the Occasion of ROOTS' 35th Birthday

The following is a transcript of the speech that Jo Carson, our visionary founding member, gave at the ROOTS 35th Birthday Party during ROOTS Fest 2011: Many Communities, One Voice.

[Sadly, Jo Carson's cancer took a turn for the worse a little more than a month after the Festival.  She passed away on Monday, September 19.  You can read her obituary here.]

ROOTS is thirty-five this year. Thirty-five years ago, I was 30 years old.

I had been writing 2/3 of my life. There had not been much support for Jo the writer for most of that time because I wrote poems instead of doing homework.

Running up to 30, I was still writing poems, an occasional short story, and plays. These were no exit plays. All of them. I had become an existentialist, I had to write no exit plays. Also existentialism was about as far from the Baptists as a girl could get, and I had quit the Baptist Church after the preacher dropped me in the baptismal tank. There is more to that story, but not here.

I studied geology and philosophy and theater in my checkered college career. I had graduated in theater, and there was a great deal of pressure to do something with my education so I had declared myself an existentialist and really pissed my daddy off.

I loved theater, but the only thing the department I graduated from knew then (or now, best I can see) was to try to train people for “the professional theater circuit”. What professional theater circuit, you might ask, as my father did, often and with great derision, especially at family dinners. I had cousins who didn‘t give a damn about existentialism, who had majored in mathematics. One worked at Los Alamos, another with NASA, a third taught math at Duke. What on earth was I doing? I’d been raised to be useful, hadn’t I? The least I could do was get a teaching certificate. In something real this time, please. Like home economics.

Or just go beat up some more rocks if I had to. Anything but theater… Just how wrong can a willful daughter go? My father felt I was trying to find out.

He didn’t know the half of it.

I still wanted to write. I didn’t talk about that any more, cost too much. And I didn’t know what I wanted to write. How many no exit plays does a person have to do? I felt guilty because I wasn’t what somebody else—my father in particular—thought I ought to be, and really angry because his presumptions just didn’t fit me. I felt pretty hopeless. Being an existentialist was a good fit. And I had studied philosophy.

So… what I want to give you here is a picture. Almost anybody making an artist of themselves finds it hard, usually lonely work. This is a picture of me, holding on to my being in the face of some odds, not the worst odds ever, by any means, but some odds… I’ve come to think holding onto yourself isn’t worth much unless there are some odds you have to work against to do it. And I am willing to bet that, while the specifics won’t fit anyone else, the broad strokes of this description fit half or more of the people here. I am describing a standard trip of coming to art.

My story gets happier. Most do.

I got a job at Broadside Television. Portable video technology was very new, and the FCC has passed a ruling that said a certain amount of TV had to be of local origination. Small, independent, grant funded television producers sprang up like mushrooms, and Broadside was one of those. I was Education Coordinator. Education Coordinator was an entry level position at Broadside. Mostly, I carried one of those 50 pound porta-packs into one classroom or another every day of the school year and shot video that doesn’t bear even thinking about to run on local TV. Now, there were people there at Broadside doing really interesting things, and I worked 7 days (and nights) a week instead of the school week 5 because I wanted to be part of some of those things. There are lots of stories here, but what was important was that Broadside was a better education about my region than any I had ever gotten in school; Broadside was my introduction to Highlander which was another whole education because people there did things about issues that mattered to them; and Broadside had this determined “grow your own” vision about the work that was turned out. Go out and grow your own!

What seeds those are, what seeds.

And then, a little grow your own sort of theater, The Road Company, came to rehearse in a back room at Broadside. I was their groupie; I wanted to be their writer. Broadside became less and less reliably funded, and eventually, I did write some plays with The Road Company. This was complex at best because they were an improve company that didn’t really want a writer, and that was kindly hard on the writer. But so be it…

I found out you could grow your own theater, too.

And in this time, Ron Short who worked at Highlander, called with an offer: Maryat Lee had written a grant with Highlander as the umbrella to receive the money, to get people in theater from the region together, and then she somehow decided that she didn’t want specific people included, and Highlander didn’t want people eliminated on somebody’s whim. Ron Short knew I was interested in theater and he said they could give the money back to the NEA but they hated to do that, and if I was interested in doing the work, they’d support the project.

By the time Ron called, I had learned a few things from Broadside, Highlander, and The Road Company. I’ve learned some more since. This was a classic Joseph Campbell moment, the trip through the mythic woods in which you are given the tools you need and you finally have to apply some of them to achieve something important.

Sure, I told Ron, I’ll be happy to do it. And then, I started looking for who to invite… There had to be more of us than the four companies I knew about, the ones Maryat didn’t want, but I didn’t know who they were. And I didn’t have much sense of how to find out. I’d already been through the Road Company’s rolodex. I’d talked to the people I knew… I was going to give the project back, say “give the money back”—time was really short, we were very late starting because Maryat hadn’t wanted to tell Highlander what she was thinking of doing… Last ditch, looking for some way to make connections I needed, I went to Knoxville, walked into Playgroup’s business manager’s office. I had not met Lee Ann Davis before. And I laid eyes on her rolodex. It was the rolodex from heaven, the biggest I’ve ever seen, and Lee Ann was right there behind it. That woman never met an address and phone number she didn’t want to keep. Oh, bless her. So I got lucky, and I got Lee Ann, too. Playgroup’s name on the invitation gave us a credibility I didn’t have on my own. We invited more people than Highlander had in mind. Way more. Ron Short was not pleased with me. People from all over the south. We couldn’t leave anybody out.

So we gathered at Highlander on a Friday afternoon, as people do for a meeting there, and some of the folks we had invited realized what Highlander was/is, what a history Highlander has, and they went right straight back home without even staying for supper. No kidding.

By the middle of Saturday morning, an old division had showed up: there are those people who seem to think theater comes from somewhere else, and you order your scripts from Dramatists. I had gone to school to people like this. And those folks went home, too. I saw them off with no regrets. Those of us left spent a wondrous Saturday evening in one another’s company, with Sunday morning left for planning (all the planning for what came next happened on that Sunday morning) and those people remaining were about the number Highlander had in mind for a workshop. Ron was happy after all.

And the bunch of us had a common need.

When I first started trying to think about this talk, I thought I might write some re-visioning of Genesis One: In the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth, and evening and morning of the first day, and the Roadside boys went down the mountain for more beer…. But I always did like the opening of First John better (Baptist learning doesn’t wear off easy), “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the word was God… Well, the beginning at Highlander that weekend, the word was with us, and the word was in us, and that word was need. We needed to know one another, we needed to support one another, we needed to see and know one another’s work, we needed kindred souls because what we did, wherever we did it, was often lonely and hard to make work. We had a sense among us of what was important to us: new work, yes, but work that is of a community or a tradition and a place somehow.

This was part of a sea change 35 years ago, this was so new, and Alternate ROOTS was one of the leaders of it.

We made what we needed, we grew our own, and I had found the very best of ken (kin). All you ROOTS Old Farts, you folks who have been in this organization for as long as I have or close to it, you helped me realize my own voice. And I hope you will be rewarded to know that soon after ROOTS took root, I gave up any pretense to existentialism. Didn’t ever really work for me, it was just a way to be angry instead of depressed, and there came a time when I didn’t need it anymore.

Now, fast forward 30 years, some 9 books, more than 30 plays, lots of good folks sent to ROOTS so nobody else has to be an existentialist or some other convolution to try to make an artist of themselves, some national awards. Nice stuff. I do like it

Then I went deaf. This is very hard.

I got a cancer diagnosis and almost died of the cure. That was right hard, too.

And you ROOTERS, some of you (and some others) and you know who you are, you came to Johnson City, and you spent time by my bed, you gave money, you gave help… You were, you are, a saving grace in my being because you gave me to understand I had not lost my community. I think a person can muddle through hell if their community is still there for them. You have no idea. So I want to take the opportunity and the public moment to say thank you.

One more thought… I’ve spent some time trying to figure what my job description is now. I don’t think I can just retire… but I cannot do what I did for the last 20 years because I cannot hear to do it. So what do I want to do? For a while, my job description was Live through Cancer. OK, done that. Now what? Well, I’m still a writer, I don’t know how to change those spots, I worked too hard to keep them back when they could have been painted over with home ec. And I realized that for a long time now I’ve just sort–of stood in the middle of what my life is, and something, some idea, some piece of story, something that matters to me, tackles me. Often, from behind, I usually don’t see it coming. And I have to wrestle it, beat it into metaphors, tie it up in storytelling, I get obsessed with it, and sometimes I can make something presentable out of it, and sometimes it stays in the computer and never sees the light of day. But the wrestling always, always, always makes me smarter and makes my heart more open, even if it beats me up a little in the process.

And that is the real job, isn’t it, to get smarter and more open. And should you happen to be an artist, your job is also to show what you found in the process.

And helping artists get smarter and more open is exactly what this group has been about for 35 years. Think of our history. Nobody I know ever said it that way, it has always been couched in different terms, but this is precisely why this organization has been and is still so valuable to its membership, 35 years later.

You folks are really savvy here at the end of the highway to nowhere. I am amazed and still very proud to be part of it. I love you everyone. Grow. You, you younger generation, you still have to take over the world. Please.