Stage & Dance

Catherine Bush's work comes home; writing keeps her in Virginia

Catherine Bush, a one-time Danville resident and vacuum-cleaner designer, is now a successful playwright. Pioneer Playhouse is putting on her play Walking Across Egypt.
Catherine Bush, a one-time Danville resident and vacuum-cleaner designer, is now a successful playwright. Pioneer Playhouse is putting on her play Walking Across Egypt.

Usually, local playwrights make it back for productions of their shows at local theaters. But longtime Central Kentucky resident Catherine Bush is having to send regrets for Pioneer Playhouse's production of her Walking Across Egypt for the best of reasons: She's so busy writing plays.

She has a new one being workshopped called Winter Wheat.

"It's a new musical that deals with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which is the Susan B. Anthony amendment: women's right to vote," says Bush, who has been the playwright-in-residence at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., for more than seven years.

"It is going to be done next week as a mini-production, which is the next stage: You have a reading one year, then the mini-production with some production elements, and then it goes into full production next year.

"That's one of the things I'm working on."

Since arriving at Barter, Bush has penned more than 30 plays between the resident Barter Players company and the theater's main stage.

It's turned into quite a career for Bush, who lived in Lexington and Danville and first came to the attention of local audiences when she penned scripts that were produced at Danville's West T. Hill Community Theatre such as I'll Never Be Hungry Again, a Gone With the Wind satire; and a Scarlet Letter sendup, Hester Buys Herself a Vowel.

"When I started writing, I was living in New York and I had acted at West T. Hill," Bush says. "So I gathered together a bunch of friends from New York, and West T. Hill co-produced with us, and it was great.

"But I was writing specifically so I would have work as an actor. After a few years, I turned a corner where I said, 'Golly, sitting at home writing is certainly more fulfilling than auditioning and being turned down all the time."

And she had a knack for writing, even if she was not formally trained as a playwright.

Her motivation came from knowing she didn't want to go back to the grind of her day job, designing vacuum cleaners at Whirlpool in Danville, even though, she says, she liked the job and had good friends there.

She wanted to be involved in theater more, and the more she got involved, the more it became apparent writing was her calling. Before she got to Barter Theatre, she was a finalist for the 2007 American Theater Critic's Steinberg Award for her play Just A Kiss.

At Barter, Bush learned the most about writing plays, particularly from associate artist John Hardy and Barter Players artistic director Katy Brown, she said.

"Those two have really helped me understand what makes a great play," Bush says. "John Hardy has a Ph.D. in play writing. He's just great. And Katy's been directing at Barter for more than 15 years."

Bush has amassed an impressive catalog, quite a bit of which is regularly performed across the country, particularly I'll Never Go Hungry Again and Walking Across Egypt, which is based on the 1987 novel by North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton.

"He's so gracious, and he so understands that an adaptation of a book is not a retelling of the book," says Bush, who initially met Edgerton when she adapted his 1997 novel Where Trouble Sleeps. "When I told him I wanted to adapt Walking Across Egypt, he said, 'absolutely.'

"It's this great story about this woman who decides she's getting old and slowing down, and then this dog ends up on her porch. He's a stray, and she calls the dog catcher, and the dog catcher comes and she has fallen through her seat bottom and got stuck."

The dog catcher rescues her, and in the process he tells her about his son, who is in trouble with the law. The woman ends up taking the boy under her wing.

Bush says, "Mattie is such a great Christian, and I say that in the sense that she does the work we are told as Christians we are to do: Do unto others, take care of the poor, and she goes to those in prison and takes them into her life, and it freaks everyone out ... I'm not sure I would want my mother to do what Mattie Rigsbee does, but I sure do admire Mattie Rigsbee."

Even if she can't be there to enjoy it, Bush is happy that her script has brought her work back to Danville and Pioneer Playhouse, which she last collaborated with when she wrote A Jarful of Fireflies to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the filming of Raintree County in Danville.

These days, Bush just has too much to enjoy.