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Whistle Stop Theatre Company’s Production of "Our Town" - A Family Affair

Louise Keeton and Axle Burtness
Actors Louise Keeton (as Emily Webb) and Axle Burtness (as George Gibbs) in The Whistle Stop Theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Photo by: Kieran Rundle

The plan for me to meet Louise Keeton at a local coffee shop and discuss the upcoming production of Our Town that she is mounting through the auspices of Whistle Stop Theatre Company in November came to a screeching halt when the agreed upon coffee shop was closed for the afternoon. Instead, we took advantage of the early autumn day to sit outside in a calm breeze and talk about all things theatre as well as Keeton’s job at VPM where she is a valued member of the digital production team.

PORTER: Let’s start off by telling me about the Whistle Stop Theatre Company.

KEETON: For the past ten years we have been producing original content based on classic works of literature or fairy tales that can speak to an Ashland audience specifically and meet the needs of the town through storytelling and theatre. Ashland is an artist’s colony but we didn’t have any live performances when we originally began ten years ago. It became a goal of mine to use the skills and talents I have to give back to the town that supported me.

PORTER: It’s primarily been a children’s theatre and you’ve been the driving force – actor, playwright, director, producer, ticket taker, carpet sweeper. Is there any role you haven’t assumed?

KEETON: Budgeting. I stay away from the numbers. That’s my mom’s job. Thank goodness. It’s also a family company; I’m the artistic director, my mother is the managing director, costume mistress and often creates props. My dad is the technical director, he handles lights and sound and stuff.

PORTER: That explains the family element of your current production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Is this your first “adult” theatre?

KEETON: Technically it’s our second. Ironically, ten years ago we co-produced a production with TheatreLAB (Editor’s note: now known as ConcilliationLAB) as their first production. They wanted to do something so they turned to me and Dax Dupuy and said, “write something.” And as we were developing it we realized how much Ashland needed its own theatre. So, TheatreLAB started doing their thing with our support and they were able to support us as Whistle Stop. The piece was called “Food Baby” and was very adult. We dropped the F-Bomb within the first ten minutes and shocked the center of the universe. And I realized there were so many young families in Ashland who could benefit from some programming. That’s where our directions turned and we made our first children’s show Cinderella because that was the production that my parents got engaged during their production of the show. My mother played Cinderella, my father played the Prince and when the children came up to them after the play and ask if they were really getting married, my mother would show them the ring. It’s a really special story in my family and I wanted to write my own version of it. That was nine years ago and now that we’re celebrating our tenth anniversary, I wanted to harken back to the family telling spirit and Our Town was the play that my parents met in. It feels very full circle to get to produce this show thinking of them.

PORTER: That answers my next question – what is it about Our Town that drew you to it?

KEETON: Yeah, it was our initial thought that this was about our family but the more we got into developing it, it’s so reflective of Ashland, Virginia too. Anybody who is from Ashland is so proud of that space and it is their town and having Our Town produced at the Ashland Theatre and this big poster that says OUR TOWN on the marquee just feels like something Ashland can take ownership of.

PORTER: How did you get hooked up with the Ashland Theatre?

KEETON: I was a part of the pop up. When the theatre was donated to the town a group of friends and I started producing things in that space. They were more focused on movies and getting grants and such but I did what I know how to do which is theatre. We were the first theatre company to perform in that space and we did Snow White And The Super Dwarfs, the super hero version of that story, then later we did Alice In Wonderland in that space. Through all of our hard work as a pop up we were able to get a bunch of grants that helped turn the space into what it is today.

PORTER: How is it working in a movie theatre?

KEETON: Challenging. But one of the nice things about getting to renovate this space in collaboration with the people of the foundation is we could define our needs not just for movies but also for live performances. So we’re thinking about people coming in for concerts and how could theatre troupes work within it. We have lots of great wing space now and dressing rooms and enough of a lip to the stage that we can take some action further into the audience and get some good lighting there but you can’t think about doing big sets there – there’s not enough space for that.

This past year has been really scary for the theatre. Especially since it just opened again with all the renovations – we’ve only gotten to do the one show since then.

PORTER: Are you originally from the Ashland area?

KEETON: No. My family was pretty nomadic. I was born in Tennessee then we moved to Maryland. Then, when I was in the 7th grade, at the height of my awkwardness, we moved to Ashland and it really speaks to the quality of people who live there that they were able to look at me and all my awkwardness and see my value, embrace me, and make me feel at home.

PORTER: With all of your theatre duties you also have a full time job here at VPM that demands a lot of your creative energy. How do you make the time? It’s impossible to find that kind of time, you have to make it.

KEETON: During working hours I do spend all my time concentrating on VPM, but my day starts very early so I can end my days earlier so have more time for Whistle Stop, friends, and adulting. But I think it ultimately comes down to being your own best friend and checking in with yourself and seeing if you really think you’re balanced or just pushing yourself into some semblance of balance. So there are some moments when I feel like I’m overwhelmed like where can I step back and reassess my priorities from there.

PORTER: So you’re able to give yourself some self-care?

KEETON: Yes. Thanks to therapy and friends and family I’ve been much better listening to myself and having compassion for myself.

PORTER: Let me ask you a deeper question that goes along with that. What is your underlying philosophy for all of your work?

KEETON: Empathy.

PORTER: In one word. That’s pretty amazing.

KEETON: Well, I’m an empath and for many years that was confusing and painful and I didn’t know how to channel it into something purposeful. Until I went to a whole bunch of therapy and leaned on my friends and family and realized along with this superpower of empathy I have these skills – I have these talents and I have this support system. So how do I take these tools and use them to create a space that allows people to embrace their empathy and spread it.

PORTER: Do you think that’s what gave you such a decisive edge in your performance in Every Brilliant Thing?

KEETON: (Laughing) I don’t know how Every Brilliant Thing happened! That was a very universe-take-the-wheel moment since I had such a limited time to learn the script. Julie Fulcher-Davis, Steve King, Ann Easterling, Hannah Hoffert, and Olive, Hannah’s support dog – the Illuminated Stage Company has done such an incredible job in creating a safe space for artists – so I came in more terrified than I’ve ever been as an actor – living the actor’s nightmare and they turned it into this opportunity to live and learn and collaborate together and I felt so supported. It’s like I blinked and suddenly we had a show. I think that should be the goal of all thespians to use our power of empathy to use the craft to embrace each other.

It’s been really powerful for me to hear about other people’s experiences with the show, because they are actually very diverse. I’ve heard from people who were okay and got it and from others for whom the show was painful and triggering. People would drop out of the show. I don’t know if it was from my own life experiences because I struggle with suicidal ideation my whole life up until a few years ago or if it was the joy of the Illuminated Stage Company but I never saw that show as anything else as a vehicle for mindfulness, grounding, and gratitude. We used the list as a metaphor for grounding and gratitude but it’s something I had to learn how to do and I think that’s a big part of the healing journey.

I spend a lot of time saying “thank you.” Thank you for this wind, thank you for this friend, thank you for this safe space. It’s a beautiful world when you get to ground yourself in gratitude.

The Whistle Stop Theatre will present Thornton Wilder’s American classic Our Town on November 3, 12, and 13 at the Ashland Theatre. You can find more information about tickets, show times, and even volunteering to work with the theatre at their website.