For 30 years, Sebastian Born of London, England, dreamed of traveling across the pond to America. He knew exactly where he wanted to go — Crossville, TN, of course — and what he wanted to see — the Cumberland County Playhouse.
A few months ago, Born got his chance, though he had to mix a little work with pleasure to make it happen.
“I went to the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville a few weekends before coming to the Playhouse and found a lot of new American writings,” he said.
The festival served as the perfect excuse for a transatlantic getaway. Held at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, KY, it is the annual site of pilgrimage where theatre lovers from around the world converge to get the first look of new theatrical works.
As the associate director and literary manager of the National Theatre of Great Britain, Born is always on the hunt for new works to produce for the British masses. The National Theatre presents a mix of new plays and classics throughout the year in three auditoriums, with up to six productions in repertory at any one time. With more than 20 productions staged each year, Born has the challenging task of finding new and interesting material for inclusion in the National Theatre’s program.
“That was sort of the professional excuse to coming down here,” he admitted. “I’ve always wanted to come down and see Jim’s theater for 30 years, and I discovered that Louisville is close enough that I could.”
Born, who also goes by the nickname “Bash,” has been a friend of the Playhouse’s producing director, Jim Crabtree, for more than 35 years. The two first met while attending the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in Connecticut in 1972.
“We worked together… during the first summer on the opera program there. I just thought that I really liked him and had for years wanted to come see his theater that I heard about,” Born stated.
He explained that work often prevented him from returning to the States to visit the Playhouse; however, he did get to enjoy the company of his old pal a time or two on his home turf.
“We had visited a couple of times in London with Bash and his family and was thrilled when he called and emailed that he was going to return a visit,” Crabtree said.
Crabtree always admired Born and the National Theatre, which he considers “the mother church of nonprofit, regional and professional theaters.”
“It’s one of the greatest theaters in the world, and it has in fact, based on a couple of visits I made to London years ago, always been kind of a model to me where the Playhouse might develop to.”
What was most exciting to Crabtree about Born’s visit was getting to discuss the Playhouse’s productions with an expert in the field of literary management who happens to be a representative of a major theater.
“His job is new theater works and/or undiscovered theater works…, and we happen to be producing two brand new pieces right now – Duck Hunter Shoots Angel… and the musical Tinyard Hill,” Crabtree explained. “It’s been a great experience for us to share our new works with him.”
During his time in Crossville, Born had the chance to see a performance of Duck Hunter Shoots Angel and a rehearsal for Tinyard Hill. He said he was very impressed by what he witnessed.
“I thought the acting was very high caliber,” he said about Duck Hunter Shoots Angel. “I thought it was an extremely funny script written by somebody as a very early play.”
“Yes. Mitch Albom who wrote The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Tuesdays with Morrie. You may have heard of those,” Crabtree stated.
Duck Hunter Shoots Angel was Albom’s first comedy and his first play not based on a book. It tells the story of two bumbling Alabama duck-hunting brothers who believe they accidentally shot down an angel. According to Albom’s website, the play is “hailed by audiences as a comedy with a heartfelt message… (exploring) themes of redemption, race, media and north vs. south in hilarious fashion."
“He has real talent for creating characters in great situations," Born said. "He has that rare ability to write comedy in a way that’s very funny and very truthful. I mean good comedy comes out of human truth, out of the recognition of the human truth. I saw in the play there was a great deal of accurate observation, and I was impressed by it."
The musical Tinyard Hill also left a lasting impression on Born. Although he only watched a rehearsal session of the play, Born found it to be a "very interesting piece with emotional depth that happens to be in musical theater."
Tinyard Hill is a bittersweet love story with a powerful patriotic thread, which expresses a deep love for rural America amid a changing world. Created by by Tommy Newman and Mark Allen, the play follows one family's struggle to save its 200-year-old blacksmith shop while dealing with the challenge of balancing the calls of home, family and country.
"It's set in a really emotional time in this country’s history, in 1964, and the world is changing. There’s revolution in the air. Vietnam is about to become a major factor in American society and in the world as well," Born said.
"I thought the four characters drew a large picture of where the country was then and where it might go," he added.
Crabtree pointed out both pieces are set in the rural south, which is one of the areas that he likes to work in when selecting pieces to be produced. Born also mentioned that both plays allow the audience to "see themselves on stage."
“It’s a very interesting thing," Born said.
“It was great fun yesterday," Crabtree jumped in. "We had a big audience of largely church groups for Duck Hunter Shoots Angel, and I think one of your comments was that it was great to see them laughing at themselves a bit — rural Americans enjoying the fact that the joke was on them.”
“I think the play is more sophisticated than I was expecting, actually…There was a lot of stuff in there that was quite sophisticated, that was delivered in a way that was comic so therefore the audience enjoyed it. It was put in a way that didn’t make them feel uncomfortable instead,” Born replied.
In addition to Duck Hunter Shoots Angel and Tinyard Hill, Born was able to take in another play in Historic Rugby, visit Tootsies Orchid Lounge in Nashville and tour Grassy Cove.
“I don’t know when we’re going to get here again so we wanted to try and do as much as we could,” Born said. “I want to come back if I can.”
As a parting gift, Crabtree presented Born with a draft of his new play Second Sons based on Historic Rugby.
“I hope you enjoy that," Crabtree said. "This is one of the new musicals we have written rooted in Tennessee history here at the Playhouse."
He explained that Rugby was a colony established in the 1880s for the uninheriting sons of British gentry. The oldest sons traditionally inherited the land and most of the wealth of the noble family, while the second sons were "kind of at sea in some ways because only certain professions were deemed respectable for them," Crabtree noted.
"Thank you, Jim," Bash said.
“It’s been great seeing you,” said Crabtree as he hugged Born goodbye.