Barbara Bates Smith returns to HART Theatre
When you portray strong and influential women onstage for more than 30 years, chances are some of that strength and influence will rub off on you.
There’s no doubt that longtime actress Barbara Bates Smith carries around with her pieces of all the characters she’s played — feisty Appalachian woman Ivy Rowe, political activist Doris “Granny D” Haddock and cancer patient Vivian Bearing. She’s even taken the stage to tell her own brave stories over the years.
Barbara herself is a strong character, so it makes sense that the women she portrays on stage are just as strong, courageous and charming.
She’s played the role of Ivy Rowe — a character created by author Lee Smith in her 1988 novel “Fair and Tender Ladies” — in front of audiences all over the world for 30 years. It’s a role that has become second nature to her and something she never gets tired of doing.
“I haven’t tried to do it in my sleep, but I probably could,” she said, during a recent interview from her home in Columbia, South Carolina. “It’s on a tape in my head — it always has been — I never have to go back and look at the script.”
After a two-year hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 90-year-old actress will return to the HART Theatre stage in Waynesville to revive the lively Appalachian woman once again. The one-woman show was also one of the first productions to hit the HART stage during the theater’s first season.
“Ivy Rowe is a mountain woman living on love. She would look things in the eye, look situations in the face. She makes mistakes just like anyone who’s lived a full life, but somehow pulled through it all,” she said. “It’s like I’ve told Lee Smith, playing Ivy lifts me up and grounds me at the same time. I’ve never gotten tired of doing it. I stopped counting at 700 performances, but it must be around a thousand by now. She lives life to the fullest and does the best she can. She’s just so true to herself and her nature — it’s inspiring.”
Barbara Bates Smith performs the Off-Broadway production of ‘Ivy Rowe’ all over the U.S. Donated photo
Late to the stage
Barbara hasn’t always enjoyed the bright spotlight of being centerstage, which may come as a surprise to those who’ve seen how comfortable she appears in front of an audience.
“I discovered acting later in life, but then I couldn’t get enough of it,” she said.
Barbara grew up in Jasper, Alabama, a small southern town that was also the hometown of Hollywood movie star Tallulah Bankhead.
“She came back to Jasper during my childhood, and my parents were invited to a party she would be attending. My parents took me to the party, and I got to meet her. She leaned over to me and said, ‘Darling, I had hair like you when I was young’ and spilled her drink on me and smelled like cigarettes so my first thoughts about actors were not so good,” she joked. “The little I’d seen of them, I thought they were phony.”
She never attended one theater performance during her time at the University of Alabama and thought it was a shame her smart roommate was in the drama program. It wasn’t until she was in Rochester, New York, with her husband that she went with a group to see the musical “Guys and Dolls.”
“I reluctantly went to dinner and the show, and a light bulb went off in my head. I thought, ‘What am I doing here when I could be up there’ (onstage),” she said.
The first time she went to audition for a local production, she said she parked three blocks away so her car wouldn’t be seen by anyone she knew. Turns out they needed someone with a Southern accent — a rarity in Upstate New York — and she landed her first role in “Who Was the Lady I Saw You With?”
“I just kept going from there,” she said.
When her husband Russell finished his work at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, the family moved to Lakeland, Florida, where he worked in medical clinics, and Barbara took on one major role per season while also raising her young children.
Adapting Lee Smith
In a series of serendipitous events within one week, Barbara was introduced to the work of author Lee Smith, an introduction that would change the course of her life forever.
It was 1988 when a friend from North Carolina told Barbara about a new writer she thought she’d enjoy. Then a friend in Atlanta sent Barbara a newspaper clipping about Lee Smith’s new novel. The same week, Barbara saw Lee Smith’s book “Fair and Tender Ladies” mentioned in The New York Times book section.
“In one week, I had three signals that came so I picked up her book and read it. By the time I finished it, I knew I had to do something with it,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I related so much to it.”
At the time, Barbara was working with a professional theater company in Tampa, Florida, that was known for its “avant garde” productions. She knew adapting Lee Smith’s work into a production would be something completely different, but she wasn’t sure if it would be a welcomed change.
“This was about southern Appalachia while the theater had been doing cutting edge stuff. And it was a one woman show, but I told the director ‘This is something I want to do’ so he read it and fell in love with it too,” Barbara recalled.
Barbara finally met Lee Smith on a visit to Wilson, North Carolina, and got permission to adapt “Fair and Tender Ladies” into a play that focused on the main character Ivy Rowe. Barbara and her director Mark Hunter co-adapted the material into a one-woman script and the show opened in Tampa in late 1988.
“We ended up with about six hours of work and paired it down from there. It was good to have one person with the director’s view and one as the leading character,” she said. “We came up with a version that worked. I was 60 years old when I started playing Ivy Rowe and it has led to so many other wonderful things.”
Going from being on stage with other actors to performing solo in front of large audiences was something new and exciting.
“It was a little intimidating, but I couldn’t stop to think about that. I just felt such a strong pull toward it,” she said.
Through another actor connection in Florida, video of the production made its way to producers in New York City, which is how “Ivy Rowe” became an Off-Broadway sensation for the next two years.
“There were actors walking the sidewalks auditioning in New York City, and here I’m in Florida reading this book and putting together my own thing that propelled the show — it wasn’t a bad way to get there I guess,” she said.
Then Barbara met someone who would add a whole new element of live music to the show instead of using recorded tracks of mountain music. Jeff Sebens has been performing alongside Barbara in “Ivy Rowe” and all her other one-woman shows.
“We came to the mountains and did the show in Virginia one summer and there was a hammer dulcimer player that filled in there that day and he became my musician,” she said. “Today, he is the reason I can still do things. He’s like my tour manager.”
Barbara Bates Smith, portraying Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock, is pictured with political commentator Bill Moyer. Donated photo
Coming to the mountains
When Barbara’s husband Russell decided to change careers — from medicine to the ministry — the family began to look for a church and a new place to live. The couple decided to find some solitude in the mountains, settling on top of Crabtree Mountain in Haywood County. It wasn’t long before she met Suzanne Tinsley, who directed shows at HART, and then Steve Lloyd, who ended up being the executive director of HART.
“Steve and I met and found out we had played in Edinburgh that past summer and didn’t know it at the time,” Barbara said. “I remember Libba Feichter giving me a tour of the theater. It was just a wonderful place to do shows so I was running up and down that mountain a lot.”
She performed in “Hamlet,” “Doubt,” “Three Tall Women” and “August: Osage County” during her years with HART.
The next female heroine character she would take on was Doris “Granny D” Haddock. At 89 years old, Granny D blazed a 3,200-mile trail across the U.S. to bring attention to the importance of campaign finance reform prior to the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act. Her cross-country trek began in 1999 and included bipartisan efforts to register people to vote. She was 90 when she made it to Washington, D.C. Here was another amazing woman that caught Barbara’s attention.
“I had a stack of books piled up by my bed I’d been meaning to read, and I pulled out one about Granny D. Her motto was ‘You’re never too old to raise a little hell’ and of course that was attractive,” she said. “Campaign finance reform seemed boring, but she was a great writer and I quickly started seeing the meaning importance of it.”
She talked to her accompanist Sebens about it, and they decided it was a project worth pursuing. Around the same time, Barbara said the Haywood County Democrats were trying to plan a fundraiser in Waynesville and wanted the duo to present their “Go, Granny D!” show at the event. They moved quickly to pull together highlights of the crusader’s journey and story. Barbara put on a straw hat and an orange safety vest to become Granny D.
“We put that thing together in a hurry,” she said. “It was something not to be missed.”
With the support of an organization that formed to keep Haddock’s legacy alive, Barbara and Sebens took the show on the road, performing “Go, Granny D!” all over the U.S.
Barbara raised a little hell of her own some years later when she got involved in some political theater in North Carolina. In July 2013, she was arrested for civil disobedience while attending a Moral Monday protest in Raleigh. When contacted for an interview, she could only be described as giddy and proud that she’d been arrested for the first time in her life while fighting for something she believed in — voting rights, women’s rights, education, health care and unemployment. She was one of more than 700 protesters that were arrested during the weekly rallies at the General Assembly.
“It’s making a dent — that’s all we can do,” she said at the time. “As Granny D would say, ‘all we can do is stand up and be a witness to the problem,’ and that’s what I felt I was doing.”
Barbara Bates Smith performs in the Pulitzer Prize winning production of ‘Wit.’ Donated photo
Keep moving forward
In addition to adapting several other works of Lee Smith’s, Barbara has created several original monologues that she has performed, including “The C-Word: Her Own Cancer Story.” She was inspired to write her own cancer story after doing a production of “Wit” — a story about a 50-year-old professor who is dying of ovarian cancer.
“I’ve probably done four productions of ‘Wit’ — some were in Waynesville — and I think it was during the first one at HART when I got cancer while doing that show,” Barbara recalled. “I remember someone saying, ‘I know you like to get into a part, but I think this is going a little too far.’”
Inspired by her husband’s journey into the ministry, she wrote “Confessions of a Clergy Wife.” She said the monologue started as a long letter she was actually writing to Russell’s priest explaining the reasons as to why she wasn’t attending the Episcopal church on Sundays.
After the death of her husband in 2017, Barbara moved from her sanctuary on top of Crabtree Mountain to Washington, D.C., for a year before relocating to Columbia, South Carolina, to be close to her daughter and grandchildren. The move hasn’t slowed her down any — just as she found a storyteller community to join in Asheville when she lived in Clyde, she found a new storytelling family in Columbia.
“There’s a UU (Unitarian Universalism) church within walking distance of my house. When I passed by it had a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign out front,” she said, adding she knew she’d found a new and welcoming community.
“I’m leading a story circle — something I did in Asheville for three years before I left, and it’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done. For me, storytelling is a higher charge than performing,” she said. “Everybody has stories to tell, and we don’t give them enough space and time to do it.”
After spending the last several decades getting to know the theater community, her opinion on actors has changed, she laughed.
“I think they’re really interesting and different. There’s nothing you can say about ‘theater people’ in general because every one of us are quite different,” she said.
She’s not done writing either. She’s currently working on something that she’s not quite sure what to call yet — not exactly a memoir, but something based on the stories she’s pulled from the journals she’s being keeping since her time in New York City.
“I wrote 16 pages for those journals and saved them. During COVID, I picked out a journal and decided to pick up where I left off and keep writing. They tell seniors it’s a good idea to do a life review,” she joked.
When asked how she viewed her life looking back at it now, she said much of it was being in the right place at the right time, but also her life has been about following her bliss, something she learned from Joseph Campbell.
“I think I came close to doing that and it paid off,” she said. “I feel like I sure have made mistakes in life, just like Ivy Rowe, but I don’t know what to think yet.”
Want to go?
“Ivy Rowe” starring Barbara Bates Smith will return to Waynesville at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7, at HART Theatre.
With a sensuous nature and a flair for storytelling, Ivy Rowe paints a vivid picture of 20th Century revivals, mine disasters, rural electrification, the Depression, and three wars.
To purchase tickets, call 828.456.6322 or visit www.harttheatre.org.
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A very dedicated actress who touches others through her performances. She and Jeff Sebans are the best. I have seen Ivy Rowe numerous times and each time I want to take her home with me.