Q&A: A musical set in a West Virginia coal mine is coming to Morgantown

Monongalia

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. West Virginia Public Theatre will be presenting “Storming Heaven: The Musical” on June 6-9 and 11-16 at the Gladys G. Davis Theatre in the West Virginia University Creative Arts Center.

This is the first time the musical is being performed.

“Storming Heaven” is based on the book by West Virginian Denise Giardina, who was born in Bluefield, West Virginia and grew up in a coal camp. 

We sat down with playwrights Katy Blake and Peter Davenport to discuss what the play is about and their inspirations.

Q: What is the play about at its core?

Katy: It is about a woman in 1920s West Virginia trying to find her place in that world. She’s a very strong and independent woman and she is trying to make her way and pursue her passion, in a place that sort of dictates what women should be, who she was, what she’s supposed to do. And it’s all set against the backdrop of the 1920s Coal Wars in West Virginia then culminates in the Battle of Blair Mountain. So her purpose and the battle come together sort of in one crescendo, and the story goes from there. Actually leads up to that.

Q: What inspired you to work on this project?

Katy: I’d been wanting to write a musical for a while and I have been a country writer for awhile and started working with Tracy Lawrence and Flip Anderson on some music in Nashville before we even had a story.

And then I knew that I wanted it to have sort of the mountain music Appalachian flavor. I had gone to school at Virginia Tech near West Virginia, had always been sort of interested in the state of West Virginia and the coal miners and their struggles. And I knew that that was something that would lend itself to musicality and theatricality.

So Peter and I met doing an off-Broadway show, and we as actors–we’re actors as well as writers–so I needed someone to help me write the book, which is the actual spoken part of a musical. And Peter just finished writing a film that had gotten picked up in a bunch of different festivals and gone to Cannes Film Festival and all of that. So we met and I said, this is my idea. I want to write about coal mining in West Virginia. And he said, we should find a property to develop.

We came across Denise’s amazing book, Storming Heaven through recommendation of a family friend. And we read the book.

Peter: Katy said, “Read this.” I said, “This is a musical.” We both agreed it immediately.

Katy: It sang to us. The book sang to us. So then we had to go about convincing Denise that that was going to be the case as well.

Peter: That she wanted her story about West Virginia culture of people to be a musical and she was like, I don’t want Oklahoma.

Katy: She wasn’t so sure.

Peter: But we talked to her about all of the ways that her book addresses real people issues at the time and portrays West Virginia history and people and events in such an authentic way. The way that it’s written, each chapter is first person singular, all these characters. So it lent itself to a character driven piece for the theater. And then we just went from there and she said, “Okay, I’ll give it a try.” And we took her 300 and some page novel and whittled it down to a two hour show. And it took six years and we’re still tweaking.

Katy: Yes, exactly, I mean, we think it’s a finished product now, but well it will be as finished as it needs to be for this iteration of it. This is the first time that we are seeing it on its feet full sets, full costumes, full lighting, full sound. And it’s been thrilling for us. It’s really been thrilling for us.

Peter: And we couldn’t have asked for a better place to do it either because Jerry McGonigal has been extremely supportive and very persistent about his interest to do this with the West Virginia Public Theater. So when he invited us down for the reading of our show in January with the West Virginia University, it just felt right. We all got down here, and we’re like, yes. And then suddenly, we got the invitation to bring it down for a full production.

Katy: Yeah. So I think a number of people in the community came to see the reading and also several of his board members came and the Mayor of Morgantown, the President and the Provost of West Virginia University. So everyone just got very excited about it, and we just build on that momentum and Jerry said, we need to do this. And we said, yes, we do. So great. We’re on board.

Peter: And then his board was behind him in the decision to do it here in hopes of helping him create this new program for developing new works for the theater. And we’re just thrilled to be a part of that.

[I] had always been sort of interested in the state of West Virginia and the coal miners and their struggles. And I knew that that was something that would lend itself to musicality and theatricality. – Katy Blake, co-playwright of “Storming Heaven: the Musical”

Q: Are there elements of the play that are relevant to today?

Katy: Absolutely. I mean, as we said, we wanted to focus the story on Carrie Bishop. She’s the mine nurse, and she’s just trying to find her way as a woman, as I’ve mentioned

Peter: And she’s also trying to create her own path in a world that doesn’t allow for women or marginalized people to do that.

Katy: So that was definitely a focus of our story and obviously that’s very representative of what’s happening today with the Me Too movement, you know, and we didn’t plan it that way. It just happened to be that way.

The show was also about, you know, the unions trying to form, the United Mine Workers coming in and trying to unionize the mines of West Virginia and how they fought struggles just to have basic living conditions that most of us take for granted.

Peter: The struggles that are still going on today across the country, across the world. I mean, there isn’t a week that goes by where there isn’t something about coal, the coal industry somewhere in the news across the world and the fact that you know, like black lung diseases on the rise, which is staggering now given all the advancements of technology and mining and safeties and everything that have happened. It’s sad to see that we’re still in this cycle of repetition, repetition, repetition. It’s been a hundred years.

Katy: Yes. Our story takes place in 1920, 1921, so a hundred years ago and so many of the issues that we bring up in here, I think people go, oh well that’s relevant today. It sort of fell into place the way that it needed to just not with our intent.

Peter: Yeah, we were not forcing the subject. It just came about and was sort of serendipitous that these parallels have been happening. It’s luck of the draw, but it’s also like if you’re working on the same thing from your heart, I think it connects to what’s happening.

Q: Does the idea of “Trump Country” come up at all?

Katy: Absolutely. And one of the things that we wanted to make sure of, especially in this show is that we are authentically representing the people of West Virginia. I grew up in southwest Virginia. I went to school at Virginia Tech, I’ve been interested and involved in knowing about West Virginia for many, many years. And I just feel even just being here developing it, and the times that we’ve come to West Virginia, I feel that this state has been, what’s the word I’m looking for…

Peter: It’s just been misrepresented by stereotypes that don’t really apply. But for some reason people think of the hillbilly Hatfield and McCoy image and that’s all they think of. I mean, I’m from Flint, Michigan. And when the auto industry left Flint, it left the economy falling out of the state of Michigan. Then Michael Moore did that documentary, Roger and Me. And I used to tell people I was from Flint, they’d say, oh, do you eat rabbits? And I’d be like, no. Just because it’s been in the movie…no.

We really wanted to create a story. And we kept going back to the people of West Virginia that we knew like the writer Denise Giardina, the original source material because we didn’t let anything tip into the characterizing the people.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you faced in writing the play?

Peter: I think first and foremost it would be wittling the book contents down. It spans, you know, like 25 years in the book.

Katy: So one of the lovely things that we did was when we did our first reading in New York, Denise came to see it and she realized that we needed to take a slice of the book and develop it because there is no way we could’ve told the whole story. We kept going back to the drawing board, going back to the drawing board.

Peter: I mean we tried but it was too broad for theater. It might work for film, but Denise was so on board with what she experienced both with us co creators, but also with what she experienced from the reading.

Katy: And then she gave us her blessing. She said, I realized I’ve written the novel and you all have written the theater version of it and she said, run, go, do what you need to do. She gave us permission to change some things in the book. It was freeing for us.

Peter: Then we were able to really hone what the story needed to be about for theatre, and for us it became about Carrie and her journey and there’s nothing like a new theater piece that has a female lead to be honest. They are so few and far between. Everything is always, has always been written for men. It’s like high time we start doing it the other way.

[West Virginia has] just been misrepresented by stereotypes that don’t really apply. But for some reason people think of the hillbilly Hatfield and McCoy image and that’s all they think of. – Peter Davenport, co-playwright of “Storming Heaven: the Musical”

Q: What is it about the book that lends itself well to theatre?

Katy: Well, one of the things that we keep mentioning when we’re asked about this is the book sang to us, the minute we wrote the book, just the way that Denise wrote it, the cadence in which the characters in the book spoke.

Peter: The use of language is so musical and so specifically West Virginian, and the story is so specifically American to us…

Katy: …that we knew it would lend itself to the kind of music that we want to create

Peter: The old time Appalachian sound and the very simple, honest storytelling we created out of her book.

Final thoughts?

Katy: Come and see it. It’s a slice of West Virginia history, but it’s told in a very theatrical way and the music is fantastic.

Peter: The story, while heavy, is also uplifting because it gives you hope. And stay tuned because we’re Broadway bound. I know it. And you saw it here first.

Tickets are available by calling 304-293-SHOW, or by visiting Ticketmaster online.

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