When 19-year-old Nick Cornett dropped by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in 2009 to see his little sister rehearse in the play Higher Ground 2: Playing with Fire, he didn't know that he was meeting more members of his future family — his theater family, that is.
"I was working on a strip job driving a truck, and I came to see it and thought, man, this is awesome, I'd love to learn how to do this," says Cornett, now 24, the set designer for Higher Ground 5: Find a Way.
The show is the fifth installment in the Higher Ground series of original plays written and performed by and for the Harlan community and is a component of the Appalachian Program at SKCTC. It is funded by grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission; the National Endowment for the Arts' Our Town program; The Chorus Foundation; The Robert E. Frazier Foundation; and Alternate Roots.
This time around, event founders and organizers are stepping back and allowing the younger generation to take the lead on almost every aspect of the production, from writing the script to the original music score to set design and lights to stage managing.
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The series launched 10 years ago with an original production exploring the epidemic of drug abuse in the mountains. Each installment of the series is created after students and volunteers have collected hundreds of oral history stories, which are the creative inspirations for the plays' many scenes depicting community members of all ages and walks of life.
Higher Ground 5 features more than 50 local performers, writers, musicians, and backstage crew who range from children to students to families to senior citizens. Many of them, like Cornett, came to the Higher Ground community through circuitous routes: word of mouth, or just happening to be in the right place at the right time.
Carrie Billett, 31, a student at SKCTC, had an interest in writing but had never written a play when the opportunity fell in her lap.
"I was here at the college and they were working on something else and they were meeting and I ended up in the meeting," says Billett, who got feedback from a committee on the multiple drafts co-written by herself and Cassidy Meckler Wright.
The writers had about 600 pages of stories to start with, whittling them down to about 30 stories that focus on recurring themes in the community. The stories include characters dealing with layoffs in the coal mining industry, generational clashes, grief, lost love, lost dogs and more.
Alexia Ault, 29, the stage manager for the show, says it is about "telling the truth," which is not always easy.
"The play isn't trying to convince anyone of any specific point of view," Ault says. "I think that we just hope the play allows the community and the audience to have a conversation about the issues."
Kenny Colinger, 22, who composed the play's opening musical number and is band director, assistant stage designer and assistant lighting designer, knows first-hand about some of the region's most divisive issues. Colinger plays a character named Pickle, who gets laid off from his job in the mines.
"I pretty much met the character on my own because I worked in the coal industry for a good little while," says Colinger, whose character shares the scene with two other laid-off miners.
High school senior Sierra Hatfield is another young collaborator on the show. She choreographed the dance under the mentorship of Chicago-based choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff.
"My greatest challenge was creating this style of choreography," Hatfield says. "I'm used to a hip hop style, since I'm a member of the Harlan County Dance Team, so it was different to explore a narrative, theatrical style of dance. I had to trust my instincts, but that's also my reward."
Hatfield says her favorite moment of the show is a scene about high school students wanting more opportunity, a theme echoed by many of the participants.
"My favorite moment is probably every time the high school kids talk about wanting more from their education or their environment," Hatfield says. "I'm a graduating high school senior myself, and what they say about passing easy classes, the system itself, and not knowing about taxes and jobs are all a very harsh truth."
Facing the truth, especially difficult truths, is something Jonathan Adams, 23, knows a lot about.
Adams was an actor in Higher Ground 3 and this time around participated in the story-collecting, music and acting process. He also played a big role in the inclusion of the series' first ever LGBT characters.
"I really pushed for this to be included," says Adams.
"I'm a gay man living in the mountains, and it's usually a bad idea to even acknowledge gay people exist in an area like this with the older generation," Adams says. "Gay people have stories, too. Important stories that need to be told. It's a whole side of the room we've yet to explore, and now that it's actually included, this is probably my biggest reward."
Adams says he hopes the LGBT plotline will help someone.
"The reward is knowing that maybe a parent might go home after watching the play and say to their gay child that they couldn't even look at the day before, 'I love you,' says Adams, who says that love and a sense of family is what Higher Ground is all about.
"Higher Ground's biggest goal is love. We see it on stage, we see it behind the scenes, we see it in the streets or in Walmart, we see it on Facebook, and we always see it in the hardest times," Adams says. "We want people to know that there is always someone in this place who cares about them, even if they think there's no one in the world who could care, or wants to care."