True Stories Take the Stage in Colquitt, GA
It’s right there in the first song—if you’re listening: “We’ll put ‘em all together and spice ‘em all up, and we’ll have a storytelling time.”
That’s been Swamp Gravy’s formula for 25 years, but it’s easy for audiences and cast members alike to forget that each story told in Swamp Gravy is based on a true story from the community. The 2017-2018 edition of Swamp Gravy, Listen Here, centers on the story of Evelyn, a woman who, after nearly fifty years of being the oldest of two siblings, finds out that she has a full-blooded older brother that she never knew about. And the two women who play Evelyn? Well… they are both a part of the story that’s still unfolding.
Storyteller Michelle Still rehearses a scene from Swamp Gravy: Listen Here with fellow Swamper, Dylan Clenney. Photo by Brook Phillips.
When Michelle Still sat down with Swamp Gravy co-playwright, Will Murdock, she didn’t know that her story would end up becoming the spine of the 25th anniversary play. She told him the story as she had several times before—how she’d found out she had a secret brother, how she’d slowly gotten to know him through emails and phone calls and Facebook stalking, and how she’d ended up feeling when she finally met the man. Immediately Murdock knew that her story was what the script was looking for.
And while the emails became letters, and the Facebook stalking was edited away, what remains on the stage is the essential essence of that story as it was told—even more so, because one of the two women playing the role of “Evelyn” is Still herself. Still is no stranger to Cotton Hall having previously taken on roles in Footloose and the Sound of Music, but this role required something else of her—to play herself. When asked about the challenges of taking on that role onstage, she said, “During rehearsals, there was initially a heaviness about playing Evelyn. I realized it was actually Michelle, me, who held that heaviness. As I worked through scenes, evening after evening during rehearsals, I found myself being able to release many of the emotions I’d been unknowingly hanging onto. So sharing my story, telling it as part of Listen Here, has been very healing for me. I found it very cathartic.”
Evelyn, like all roles in Swamp Gravy, is double cast with two actresses who rotate performances throughout the run. Sharing the role with Michelle is Early County Elementary School teacher, Nan Stuart. But Stuart had heard this story long before reading the script.
In October of 2016, just after meeting her new brother, Still decided it was time to begin sharing their story. She invited him to see her and her son perform in Swamp Gravy: Home, and that’s when she let the other cast members know why she was feeling a little extra nervous that day. Stuart recalls that day as one she won’t soon forget. She said, “I felt overwhelmed and a little shocked at first. I mean, her story is amazing and it takes a while to wrap your head around it. I’m still amazed even now! Then I felt so happy for her and her family because it’s exciting to know that he was able to find them and start trying to build a relationship with them after all these years.”
Nan Stuart, Aaron Reichard, and Todd Thornton play siblings reunited in Swamp Gravy: Listen Here, while Hal Still looks on, playing himself
The story stuck with Stuart—so much so that it gave her an idea. As Still tells it: “A few days later, Nan approached me and handed me a journal. She explained, “I’ve thought so much about your story. And I know that right now, it seems impossible that you could ever forget anything… but it can happen, so I wanted you to have this journal—to maybe write your story down now, while it’s fresh, and you can recall all the details.”
Stuart went on to offer other ideas for the journal if Still didn’t want to document her story—chief among them as a great spot for grocery lists—but journal Still did: “It moved me to tears, that she had considered me so much. I wrote the date I received it on inside cover, and that it had been given to me by a very special friend named Nan Stuart. Way back then, neither of us had a CLUE of what was to come—that Nan would be an integral part of sharing my story!”
Still’s husband Hal also gets to share the stage with her and loves seeing how the story connects with so many people. He said, “The craziest part about the whole thing is the way people have opened up about their own stories. Just this past Saturday, a couple approached me and Michelle and told us their similar story. For 45 minutes, we talked. Total strangers—yet they shared their experiences with us. I guess telling a story is very humanizing to others.”
And while onstage Evelyn’s story comes to a close, the story is still unfolding for the Still family. Still says of the journal gifted to her by the other Evelyn, “I still have it. I will keep this journal forever. I write updates in it when new parts of my family’s story are born.”