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Wendell Berry has been called an agrarian philosopher and a writer in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. His family has farmed the land of Kentucky for some five generations, as Mr. Berry himself does today. Since 1960 he's also written eight novels, dozens of short stories, even more essays and poems. Much of his work extols the lessons to be learned from the natural world. It's earned him numerous awards and fellowships. Now Actors Theatre of Louisville is putting Wendell Berry's ideas on stage as part of the theater Humana Festival of New American plays. From member station WFPL, Elizabeth Kramer reports.
ELIZABETH KRAMER: Wendell Berry lives on a farm outside Point Royal. His porch overlooks the Kentucky River. On a warm day all sorts of birds dart between the tress as a red-tailed hawk soars over the shoreline. All seems calm.
Mr. WENDELL BERRY (Writer): It's a busy time here on the farm. The growing season is about to start and our ewe flock is having their lambs now. Then I've been away from home a good bit lately.
KRAMER: Recently Berry was in Washington, D.C. to join thousands of other demonstrators calling for an end to America's dependence on coal. Berry himself tries to do most of his writing during daylight, so he doesn't use electricity, which is produced in Kentucky using strip-mined coal. He has devoted his life and writing to calling attention to how society uses natural resources and to the importance of community. So he was surprised when Actors Theatre of Louisville wanted to create a play using just his poems.
Mr. BERRY: I didn't know what to think. I still don't know what to think, and after I see it I guess I'll have an idea.
KRAMER: The poems were perfect for the stage, says Adrien-Alice Hansel, who helped adapt them.
Ms. ADRIEN-ALICE HANSEL (Actors Theatre of Louisville): One of the great things about using the work of Wendell Berry is that he actually writes in a lot of different voices. He has poems that are invocations of the natural world. He has poems that are funny. He has poems that are angry. Some of his poems have a really strong sense of voice and sense of character.
KRAMER: One of Berry's characters is the Mad Farmer. Berry describes him as a little extravagant for his willingness to go against the grain. Berry thumbs through the script and reads one of the adapted poems that sums up how he and the farmer see the world.
Mr. BERRY: To be sane in a mad time is bad for the brain, worse for the heart. The world is a holy vision…
Unidentified Man (Actor): The world is a holy vision had we clarity to see it; a clarity that men depend on men to make.
(Soundbite of music)
KRAMER: "Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry" weaves the poetry with original music by composer Malcom Dalglish, who speaks and plays instruments onstage. Four actors who also play instruments present Berry's characters and life. Early on, Berry left Kentucky to live in California and New York. Marc Masterson is the artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville and worked with Hansel to create "Wild Blessings." He describes the arc of the play.
Mr. MARC MASTERSON (Actors Theatre, Louisville): The journey of the evening is from being a young person in the city and struggling against urban life, and then falling in love and moving back to home, which happens to be Kentucky.
KRAMER: Masterson and Hansel organized the poems by themes - work, politics, economics and so on. And they found they were surprisingly current, considering many were written decades ago. While they talk about the play in Masterson's office, it becomes evident they are thinking the same thing.
Ms. HANSEL: (Unintelligible) looking for Marc Masterson.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRAMER: He grabs the script and reads one of Berry's poems.
Mr. MASTERSON: When I hear the stock market has fallen, I say long live gravity, long live stupidity, error and greed…
Unidentified Man: …in the palaces of fantasy capitalism. I think an economy should be based on thrift, on taking care of things, not on theft, usury, seduction, waste, and ruin. My purpose is a language that can make us whole, though mortal, ignorant and small. The world is whole beyond human knowing.
KRAMER: Back on Berry's porch overlooking his world, Berry considers the current state of affairs, his work over nearly half a century and the impact it might have.
Mr. BERRY: I have hoped that I've devoted a lot of time in my life to discovering the grounds for having hope, but that doesn't mean that I'm optimistic.
KRAMER: Actors Theatre of Louisville has already had calls about "Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry" from theater groups in the United States and abroad.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Kramer in Louisville, Kentucky.
(Soundbite of music)
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