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Barbary Allen brings Appalachian tale to life
Barbary Allen, the latest performance for the Gainesville Theatre Alliance, will be on stage through April 26 at Gainesville State College's Ed Cabell Theatre in Oakwood.


Actor Sarah Smith, a senior at Brenau University, talks about her childhood as an inspiration for playing the character Barbary Allen.

Long has the haunting song of Barbary Allen traveled through the Appalachian hills, telling the tale of unrequited love and loss.

Now, this tale of a young woman and her hardened heart takes to the stage in its debut performance by the Gainesville Theatre Alliance.

Writer Gay Hammond said she was inspired by the song, which has traveled down generations, and used her Appalachian upbringing to help bring the characters to life.

"The characters and the situation are sort of sprung from that ballad, and then the other characters and the actual plot line are original," said Hammond, who has written about 20 plays and specifically wrote this story for the GTA.

"Mainly the language comes from my childhood. I grew up around farmers and mountain people," she said. "Just the sounds and the rhythms of the language, and the character types."

Brenau senior Sarah Smith plays the title role, a young woman too free spirited to settle down with a man and struggling with the townspeople's expectations of her.

Originally from Rabun County, Smith said she is familiar with the setting in "Barbary Allen," where many characters seek the solace and protection of the woods.

"Barefoot in the woods with my brother was my childhood, so it's been a blast to bring that onto the stage," Smith said.

She has drawn on her own personal experiences not only from her upbringing in the mountains, but also in finding the strength that Barbary has in herself.

As a senior in college, Smith said she's facing a crossroads in her life, and finding the courage to make that decision has also helped her fill the role of Barbary Allen.

"Do I further my education with a graduate degree? Do I go into my profession? Do I do something else for a little while?" she said. "It's definitely been experiencing the same feelings that I'm feeling for Barbary Allen - of people giving her so much advice and the frustration also of not knowing what instinct to follow."

Because this is the first time the play has been performed, Smith said she has had a good time finding a way to present the role.

Unlike a Shakespeare production, for example, when actors and directors try to put a new spin on something that has been performed thousands of times, "Barbary Allen" is a chance to make a completely new template, said director Jim Hammond, Gay's husband and artistic director for Gainesville Theatre Alliance.

As a result, staging has gone from realistic to abstract, with a single spotlight representing a shaft of moonlight breaking through the trees. The actors freeze the action or use slow motion, taking the audience into a new world.

"(These staging choices) really heightened the mythic proportions of the story that has been told for hundreds of years through this folk song," he said. "We're trying to capture what the trees and this environment symbolize to these people. ... These people used the woods as that place to go to find themselves."

Smith said the opportunity to invent a new character - even one who has lived for generations in song - can seem a little overwhelming at times.

"It's been exciting and scary," she said. "I think with any role, especially with Shakespeare and the classics, you think, ‘This role has been portrayed a million different ways, how can I do it different?'"

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