September 20, 2012

Waxhaw’s drama queen, right at home

Contrary to the adage, some prophets find honor in their own homelands. Whatever Thomas Wolfe might think, they learn they can go home again.

Midway through her seventh decade of life, Judy Simpson Cook has settled back into the homestead she knew as a girl. She preaches the gospels of comedy and drama five times a year to fellow residents of Waxhaw and curious foreigners from Charlotte, and – to her surprise – the congregation has taken to her message.

The sometime actress, former agent, now-and-forever writer has become an impresario at The Storefront Theatre, which begins an expanded season Sept. 29-30 with Joe DiPietro’s “Over the River and Through the Woods.” If things go according to plan (and recent history), she’ll pack the listening room at the Museum of the Waxhaws for two “concert readings” of that show.

She thinks this is the only full season of theater in Union County, outside of schools and churches. She knows it fills a niche.

“It makes people laugh and makes them cry and inspires them – all the things theater is supposed to do,” she says. “As a producer, I love that sense of community. As a playwright, I hear sniffles or laughter and know I’m touching someone somehow.”

The first stirrings of her destiny came to her in a madhouse, 30-plus years ago.

Cook was playing Nurse Flynn to the Nurse Ratched of Terry Bryan in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Little Theatre of Charlotte “at the height of feminism. We were complaining about how little literature there was that addressed women’s concerns we wanted to address.

“We thought we could string together excerpts from famous women such as Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony and write connections for those. The more we wrote, the longer the connections got, and the less there was of the quotations. In the end, we had a whole play of our own.”

Their “Revolution Without Casualties” played around the Carolinas. Bryan left town, but Cook kept her nose to the typewriter. Eight full-length plays, three one-acts and multiple one-person shows later, she’s shy. Ask when she knew she could legitimately call herself a writer, and she laughs: “I still don’t know if I can do that!”

But her collaborators know.

Cook worked with Melvin Faris on “Lois Collins Sims: A Century in Waxhaw”; she wrote and starred in that one-woman show about his grandmother, which summed up a generation of North Carolina women.

“Judy is a genius at character creation and dialogue,” Faris says. “Most of her plays have a Southern setting, and Judy knows the place and the people in the way all truly great Southern writers (do). Five minutes into one of her plays, the audience feels they are sitting on a front porch with people they know and care about.”

Pamela Galle, executive artistic director of Threshold Repertory Theatre in Charleston, has produced and performed in Cook’s work. She says Cook has the knack of “(writing) believable dialogue. She places mundane moments next to high drama. Her characters are our friends, relatives and neighbors  We identify with their stories. This turns a spectator sport – (being) a member of the audience – into a visceral experience.”

False starts, true finish

Faris knew Cook in eighth grade, when she wasn’t chosen to be in the school play. “Hard to imagine,” he says. “She was hurt and probably mad. However, that rejection  struck a match that started a fire of determination to succeed artistically.”

Says Cook, “I stood on the Parkwood High School stage and had the fantasy of standing someday on a Broadway stage. I would have loved to go to New York or L.A. to be an actor, but I didn’t know how and didn’t have the nerve to go there to find out. I have always been a little bit afraid that way.”

Instead, she went from Waxhaw to Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and rebounded to Charlotte. There she job-hopped, eventually working for 15 years for the talent agency JTA. She quit in 2000 to become a fulltime writer.

By then, she had packed houses at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto with “Country Songs,” won the Thompson Theater Award from N.C. State University for “Nuptials,” gotten multiple productions for her holiday-themed “Retrieving the Lamb” (which was done by Davidson Community Players at Christmas 2010) and earned premiere productions at Charlotte Repertory Theatre.

“I have always been a hyphenate: an actor-writer-agent-theatrical producer,” she says. “But whether I am writing or not at any moment, I am still a writer.

“Generally, I get an idea. I have something I want to say or characters to explore. If I start to write too soon, the wind goes out of it. If something nags me to death, nibbling at my brain, it’ll flow. I brood over plays the way a hen does eggs.

“I don’t belong to any writing groups. I don’t take scenes to other playwrights (for advice). I will eventually read the whole play to my husband – if there’s a patron saint for patience, he should be named Ron – and when I’m really done with the A to Z of it, I’ll get a group of friends to read it and give me feedback. I have honest friends, but they’re never mean.”

The journey to Union County

After her father died in 2002, she left Charlotte for the Waxhaw family homestead she inherited, a World War II-era bungalow that had been built onto several times. (She still sings in the Providence Presbyterian Church choir as “lead soprano in the cat chorale. Sometimes it sounds like a rocking chair has gone over a tail.”)

She plunged into the community, joining the Waxhaw Women’s Club and taking part in charity events. She surprised herself by learning to tango for “Dancin’ in the Clover,” a charity fundraiser, then improving those moves in future years.

And she realized that, if she wanted to see compelling theater in her re-adopted home town, she might have to make it.

“I called it Storefront, because my fantasy  was to do it downtown, in the Women’s Club Building or a gallery. But I couldn’t find anything suitable that didn’t cost a fortune. Museum of the Waxhaws let me move in for free for the first year.”

She started five years ago with a reading of Bob Inman’s “Dairy Queen Days,” for which the former WBTV newsman did a Q-and-A. (She adds those when possible.) She expected “a few hardcore theater lovers” but filled the joint, which holds about 75 people before the fire marshal gets antsy.

Though she gave actors honorariums for the readings, she couldn’t initially pay herself a salary as impresario or, occasionally, royalties as the featured playwright. (She does now.) Over time, she expanded the season from four plays to five, ranging this year from David Rambo’s “God’s Man in Texas” (about preachers battling for control of a mega-church) to an evening of 10-minute plays by a host of authors.

Some people donated money. Some became regulars for readings, which happen once on Saturday night and once on Sunday afternoon. (Tickets are $10.) An early patron saw the point at once: “I just love how you have to imagine everything, how you visualize the whole play in your mind.”

New life for an old(er) pen

Best of all, perhaps, Storefront has reignited Cook as a full-length playwright. Her new “Tweaks” closes the season next April: It’s a comedy about a playwright with multiple mid-life crises: a play in progress that needs work, a friend who’s divorcing, a mother who’s aging and a husband who’s flirting with others. (No quick conclusions, please. She draws characters from life, but not always her own.) Like all her plays, this one’s likely to be a subtly comic plea for tolerance.

“Judy is tolerance,” says Galle. “There’s a character in ‘Benedictions,’ Ray Richie, who’s a governing member of a Presbyterian church struggling with the issue of homosexuality  . He is upholding the standard Christian position ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin,’ and all the denial that statement implies. So Ray could be construed as the ‘villain’ of ‘Benedictions.’ Instead, by the end, Judy has shown Ray’s humanity: how his heart hurts for the past that he’s held onto so tightly. Ray becomes one of us, trying to figure it all out.”

The strange thing for such a writer, says Cook, is that “I was born and raised by pessimists. I have a strong tendency in that direction and have had to fight that most of my life. I have had issues with depression.

“But every situation I have ever been in has had humorous moments. And I have got a certain amount of optimism that I have decided to keep. I believe most people, at bottom, are kind and decent.”

Storefront’s success convinces her there’s a market for what she’s doing, or maybe something more: She staged her first full production last year, though those have to be small and can be prohibitively expensive.

And she now has proof she can be happy in her restricted Southern universe.

“One of my issues has been whether you can just go after what you want, and you don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth,” she says. “For me, that’s been true.”

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