Volume 13, Issue 42 ~ October 20 - October 26, 2005
On the Job
Sean Jones, 11, a sixth grader at Arundel Middle School, plays a character called Guts Gillen.

On the Job Becoming a Playwright
Russ Barnes finds you don’t do it alone
by Kat Bennett

Journey back to the 1950s and enter the clubhouse of the Captain Ruh Club, where rocket launches are planned and dreams hang lazily in the afternoon. That’s where you’ll go in Russ Barnes’ Red Dog Dirt, a play inspired by his coal-and-steel childhood in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Funny and profound, the script chronicles more than one man’s boyhood reminiscences.

Autobiography is not unusual for a first play. What’s special is the achievement of reaching beyond your own experience to kindle every man’s and woman’s memories of being young, free and adventurous. First-time playwright and Bay Weekly contributor Russ Barnes has done that.

In Uniontown, recreated this weekend at historic St. James Theatre in Bowie, men black from the mines ride streetcars. Young widows in babushkas mourn their miner husbands, taken from the streetcars by black lung disease. Boys grab life and squeeze every moment out if it. This is the setting for Red Dog Dirt, named for the red remains of spent ore left behind in production of iron and steel.

Wright-ing a Play
“Most writing is a solitary experience,” says Barnes, in a reflective moment stolen from the frenzied drive to raise the curtain on the first staged production of his first play. “It is mainly a confrontation with yourself. Usually an agonizing one. When I wrote The Captain Ruh Club, which later became Red Dog Dirt, I just started writing. I wrote a number of scenes one day. After I read them, I immediately wrote the rest of it. It was easy — except for the adult interactions with the children.”

It worked for the author, but would it work for anyone else?

Barnes’ next step broke the solitude as he read his creation aloud to an audience.

“I was amazed at the effect that it had,” he says. “People came up to me with their own stories. A man from Thessalonika, Greece, said that after World War I he and his friends discovered some abandoned tanks. Oblivious to danger, absorbed in the thrills, they pushed the tanks down the hill for a wild ride.

“As a writer, you may think you know your story, but when you share it with an audience, you learn more about the play, and you learn more about yourself. This was quite an alarming thing. While I was excited about the effect that my writing had, I was afraid that I was losing control.”

Barnes’ early audiences also showed him how to refine his ideas. “It got me in touch with the powers of childhood,” he says.

As he expanded the play, he began to lose the sense that it was just his story. In return, he gained a sense of belonging to a universe of childhoods remembered. Paring away specifics down to the archetypical became his new project. “When people listened,” Barnes said, “they lived the story. It really worked.”

Staging the Play
Producing a play is as stressful as writing it, says Barnes, who plays both roles for Red Dog Dirt.

“A chaos of the ego occurs,” he says. “You think that the play is just your life, so when others are involved it becomes very difficult. That’s when you have to let it go. When that happens, you learn a lot.

“Play or film, producing is about conflict. Our director, Jobie Watson, once said to me, What will happen to you if this play fails? Death?”

The actress Watson chose is a young black woman, nothing like the grandmother Barnes remembered. Slowly, Russ realized the logic to everything the director did; gradually, he was able to pull back and let her direct. Eventually, he came to see that the young actress had a matriarchal energy, that she created a character that was the essence of all grandmothers.

“The director, the actors all challenge you. The lead actor, for example, makes an interpretation of your lead character. It’s not the character you had in mind. The director creates a treatment of the scenes and their feel. Not the way you saw it.

“What do you do as the writer? Do you try to change the lead actor’s mind? Or do you let it go and say This performance has a life of its own — independent of me?

“Well, you do a little bit of both. But it’s not easy. Letting go is the hard part. It’s like death for yourself. But the play is what you’re promoting, not yourself.”

Bit by bit, the play evolved.

What’s special is the achievement of reaching beyond your own experience, to kindle every man and woman’s memories of being young, free and adventurous.
Selling the Play
Through it all, Barnes learned that production is “a communal experience.”

“You go out on the street and you raise funds,” Barnes says.

“Again, it’s life and death. But it’s also a tender, human thing. I love going into car dealerships, restaurants, tea companies, malls and seeing the drama in all those places. This is Bowie, Maryland. It’s the whole world. It’s life and death. Many of these places and people are hanging on by their toenails. The effort they’re putting out on behalf of the public is monumental. Like my play, their stories are interesting, and what these merchants do is also heroic, like the play’s characters.

“You recruit the venue, the actors. That’s drama too. Conflict. You are starting to live in your own play.

“Then there are the actors. Their personal stories abound. Then there’s St. James Church the venue, where a whole drama is going on, not just the one on stage, but in the church itself. Dealing with all this life force and the inevitable conflict is what producing is all about.”

From One to All
Finally, Barnes understood, his play “is about us now. All of us. It is about how we deal with the child within and how we can mature without losing touch of that child.”

In letting go of the control of his work, Russ Barnes has allowed Red Dog Dirt to mature as well into an amazingly rich and complex work. You’ll find yourself there.

Playing at 7:30pm Thurs. Oct. 20 thru Sat. Oct. 22 at the 100-year-old St. James Theater, 13010 8th Street, Bowie. $15 w/discounts: 301-262-4442. Reach Barnes at [email protected].

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.