By Haley Sprankle Eight chairs line the center of the Lab Theatre at USC. The cast gathers and quickly fills the empty theatre with warmth and energy, as they joke with great wit and chemistry. Director and cast member Grace Ann Roberts engages with her team, interjecting a quick quip or two as they all settle in their seats.
This is the cast for the staged reading of an original play, The Bee-Man of Crighton County, by Ryan Stevens. We last heard from Stevens when discussing his original work Player King, which included Bee-Man cast members Jasmine James, Megh Ahire, and Carrie Chalfant. Other team members for the staged reading include Elizabeth Krawcyzk, Freddie Powers, and USC Theatre MFA student Nicole Dietze.
“Well of course we drew heavily on the USC theater community,” Roberts explains. “We’d all seen each other work, taken classes together, things like that. So there’s already an element of familiarity there, and it’s so much fun.”
The cast has a unique added element of familiarity, however.
“You mean I get to sit next to my daughter?”
Roberts’ father sits down, puts his arm around her, and smiles as bright as day while Roberts dons a look of loving embarrassment that I know all too well.
“The other member is, well… it’s my dad, Kevin Roberts. He plays the Bee Man himself. He’s done several plays before, but we’ve never worked on anything together. That has been such a new experience, for both of us, but it’s also really cool. It’s been fun to watch each other work,” Roberts lovingly adds.
The play follows a story about the people in the small town of Sheol. The people are hopelessly trying to gather historical documents from the local hermit, Ogden Flass (Bee Man), while Julie Guest witnesses it all in the midst of her own existential crisis.
“He [Stevens] and I have worked together a ton, and we really trust each other. He’s a great friend, and I think he’s a great writer too, and I’m happy to have a hand in doing this with him,” Roberts says.
A Columbia native and graduate of both the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and the University of South Carolina with a focus in theatre at both schools, Roberts is taking on the part of Julie as well as directing the reading.
“I’ve never directed a staged read before, and I’m also cast in it. That wasn’t the original plan but really, at the end of the day, that arrangement has taught me a lot—not only about what you can do as an actor, or how you can bring it to life, but also just how different it is to direct a staged read,” Roberts elaborates. “It’s like… I’m learning too, and I share those lessons with the other cast members. It really feels more like ‘guiding’ than ‘directing.’”
The element of learning doesn’t just end from a directorial or performance perspective, though. Through shared experiences with the South, early adulthood, and family life, Roberts has been able to connect and learn from her character.
“Funny enough, she and I are currently going through pretty similar given circumstances,” she admits. “I just graduated from USC, and am still living in Columbia. Honestly, that wasn’t my initial plan, and I’ll probably be here for a while. Julie is in the same boat: she moves away to start a business, which tanks, and she has to move back to her small town and live with her mom. She and I had similar feelings about the whole thing, too—those feelings being ones of disappointment, sadness, and some anger, too. But, in the same way that her perspective on that changes, I find mine to be changing too. So it’s pretty fun to have that very literal connection to her. She’s helped me to understand how to redefine ‘failure,’ and that feels really good.”
The Bee-Man of Crighton County reading is this Saturday in USC’s Lab Theatre at 7 pm. Admission is free, so come out to support original, local work produced by young emerging artists on the Columbia scene!
“To me, the Bee Man is about blooming where you’re planted. Instead of resisting where you are—geographically, professionally, existentially, what have you—really embracing it, and making the best out of something you once perceived as the worst. I do think, too, it’s unique to the idea of southern community,” Roberts says. “What it means to live in a place where everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s looking out for each other.”