FLORENCE -- Nothing heats up a performance, or a director’s heart rate, quite like a visit from the playwright.
Laddy Sartin, playwright of “Catfish Moon,” came to Francis Marion University Feb. 27 to watch the University Theatre’s performance of his play. When “Catfish’s” director, and FMU associate professor of theatre and speech, David Granath, discovered the playwright was in the theatre, he said he “paced the floor like there was no tomorrow.” He had more than one “second thought” about the production.
“He just walked in the door and introduced himself,” Granath said. But before leaving, Sartin and his wife, Anna, put their stamp of approval on the production, praising everyone involved in the play. The couple met the student actors backstage after the production.
Anna is an assistant professor of theatre at Winthrop University. Her forte is scene design, lighting design, and stagecraft. She was pleased not only with the way her husband’s characters were played by the students, but also with the backdrops and lighting.
“I felt it was really effective, they did a good job. We’ve seen a number of versions of Laddy’s play,” Anna said. And while the pier is pretty straightforward in scene design, creating the proper background effect can be a challenge, she said.
“My daughter really loved the cattails.” Cattails and other props were used to lend realism to the setting, she said. “The lighting effects, in changing the scene from day to night, were really effective…the painting of the tree was well done. Each production is a little different.” This production, Anna said, had a “strong warmth.”
From the moment he peeked into the theatre, Laddy said he knew the play was in good hands. The couple and their two daughters drove the 150 miles from Rock Hill to Florence just to see the play. And they were so pleased with the production quality, that they would do it again; they may even come to the FMU Theatre’s next production in April, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“This was one of the biggest events ever,” Granath said of the Sartins’ impromptu visit.
“When the theatre group performs Shakespeare, he can’t come; when they perform “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Tennessee Williams can’t come … they’re dead… So to have a playwright walk in, tell you he enjoys the play and is happy with the production…when he sees what we’ve done with his baby… that’s exciting!”
“He paid us one of the highest compliments possible and said the play was comparable to a professional production performed at Flatrock Theatre in Hendersonville, N.C.”
Coincidentally, David Veitch, a 1992 graduate of the FMU Theatre Arts program, who performed in a “Catfish Moon” production at the Flatrock Theatre, happened also to be in the audience that same Saturday night.
“He has been performing there several years and built the props for that Catfish production. He was just passing through, getting ready to head on a West Coast theatre tour with a theatre group out of Tennessee, and thought he’d stop by.”
The audience seemed to enjoy it, also, which pleased both author and director.
“I’ve seen the play enough now that it’s almost a surprise to me that I wrote it! I get excited! When I heard the pre-show music they had selected, I knew I could just sit back, listen and relax. It was wonderful. We laughed and enjoyed it,” Laddy said.
Granath said he has been doing this for 25 years, 17 at the educational level, and never had anything like this happen before. “The author was present at a production and gave his seal of approval. We as a program are doing the things we need to do! Once again this proves we are a legitimate theatre program not only in South Carolina, but also in the southeast.”
The play, Granath said, is about friendship and fellowship, not fishing. Laddy autographed a copy of the script for the overwhelmed Granath. “His telling us we did a good job … makes us, the students, everyone, want to work harder,” Granath said.
The FMU version of “Catfish Moon” employed the skills of FMU assistant professor D. Keith Best in scenic design, assistant professor Amy L. Sherwood in costume design, and Granath also oversaw the lighting design.
The play was first produced after publication by the Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 1996 and was described by The Charlotte Observer as "full of the most bodacious joviality" with an "ending that is pure delight." Laddy wrote the play in 1986, originally as a one-act play, but kept rewriting it until, finally, in 1991 he added the character of Betty. The play came alive for him then.
Sartin, originally from Mississippi, lives in Rock Hill with his wife and two daughters. “If my daughter (who is a senior in high school) wanted to go into theatre,” Laddy said, he would feel good about sending her to FMU to participate in the Theatre program. “You get more than your money’s worth.”
The FMU Theatre Arts program is one of about 100 schools in the nation accredited by the National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST). According to NAST, only five percent of the eligible programs in the U.S. are accredited. NAST is the highest level of accreditation any theatre arts program can receive. FMU and Winthrop are currently the only programs accredited by NAST.
Sartin says he always has two or three plays going a time, with one being considered for publication currently, “Blessed Assurance.” “Catfish Moon,” set on an old fishing pier on Cypress Lake, “is Laddy,” Anna and his daughters say. The pressures and problems that come with middle age have eroded the closeness between Frog and Gordon.
The final straw comes when Frog discovers Gordon is dating his ex-wife Betty. Curley, the "big brother" of the group, convinces Frog and Gordon to go on an overnight fishing trip like old times in an attempt to recapture the friendship and settle all disputes.
The FMU Hyman Fine Arts Center Theatre “is really nice,” the Sartins said. “From the sculpture in the lobby, to the theatre itself, it’s a quality facility.”