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Finding Higher Ground

Episode #202 | First Aired: January 8, 2009

Tremendous downpours are a natural occurrence in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. However, as Theresa Osborne, a part of the Kentucky Muse documentary “Finding Higher Ground,” explains: “There’s all kinds of floods…floods of water, floods of money, floods of laughter, and floods of tears.”

While the forces of nature continually trouble the region, another far more devastating flood has brought a new level of suffering to the mountain counties in recent years: prescription drug abuse. Osborne and others found a powerful way to come together to discuss this problem as a community: through personal stories, music, drama, and, ultimately, a play called Higher Ground.

The process and the play performance are showcased in the Muse program “Finding Higher Ground.”

As producer and actor Robert Gipe says in the hourlong documentary, “From the beginning, we asked the question ‘How do people build bridges of communication?’”

“And some things,” he says, “are just too important not to talk about.”

Finding Higher Ground's Justin

In Higher Ground’s earliest stages as a theater performance, the Appalachian program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College sought for a way to bring more attention to the seemingly endless flood of crime, violence, and death occurring because of the rising tide of prescription drug abuse. After receiving grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Appalachian Regional Commission, students and other volunteers collected more than 200 oral histories from area residents. With the help of playwright Jo Carson, these stories were woven into the script’s first draft.

Then came an odd casting call for “100 bodies.” Everyone who showed up was guaranteed a part. Caroline Sundy recalls, “I thought—I’m somebody…I can do this play!” “I told them I don’t know nothin’ but coal mining,” says reluctant actor Bennie Massey,

Through interviews with the cast and crew, Kentucky Muse profiles the unlikely yet exceptionally strong bonds of fellowship that developed as each character, voice, story, and song rose up to face a common crisis. In fact, as the play evolved, the script was shaped by the personal experiences shared in the group.

The result is gathering of talent, warmth, generosity, wisdom, and humanity through song, dance, storytelling, and drama.

As you watch “Finding Higher Ground,” you’ll see how, through vibrant music, passionate singing, and heartfelt acting, this Eastern Kentucky community effectively answered Gipe’s question about bridges of communication. Just as neighbors support each other in the time of a natural disaster—like the all too familiar floods of the Eastern Kentucky mountain rivers—the cast of Higher Ground found strength, hope, and courage by sharing ideas, rehearsals, and ultimately the performance stage.

Performing for sell out crowds, their energy resonates in the messaged delivered:

Rain comes down, water is a risin’
Watch that river, water is a risin’
Rain comes down, water is a risin’
Better head for Higher Ground!

The impact, however, didn’t end with the standing ovations. The group has gone on to secure another grant for a sequel performance, scheduled to debut in spring 2009.

Meet the Performers

The Higher Ground cast included people of a wide range of ages and occupations from throughout the Harlan County area. Here are comments from a few of them about the experience.

Ann Schertz

Ann Schertz

Growing up in Low Point, Illinois, Ann Schertz moved to Harlan County in 1986. She lives outside Cumberland in Blair, Kentucky. She teaches music at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College and became Higher Ground’s music director at the urging of Robert Gipe, director of the Appalachian Center.

“He pretty much enrolled me,” she chuckles. “At first, I was quite intimidated, as what I thought would be a small project continued to grow in its scope.”

“I was able to apply several experiences working with Higher Ground. I used my experience as the music director for my church. I understood that in this play, like in a church setting, the music helps us connect to different emotions. You can see how, when a congregation sings, something about their involvement or engagement with the service changes. My experience as a community choir director helped me in terms of composition and organization, as well as working with everyone’s various levels of music knowledge. Some folks were completely comfortable following direction, while others couldn’t read music. My degree in ethnomusicology definitely helped in researching and familiarizing myself with the various types of music we were going to use. You could also say that the music in Higher Ground is the glue holding this patchwork of stories together.”

I’ve witnessed the effects of drug abuse in the lives of students, friends, neighbors, and many others in the community. There’s a sense that we’ve lost these folks—that the community has lost some important people. When there’s already so much out-migration from the area, it’s like adding insult to injury.”

“During the first year, I watched a rough video recording of our performance. I saw the whole thing from an angle above the performers. I was instantly touched. What really moved me was that, despite having to describe such difficult experiences, it seemed like we were already practicing a better way of living…singing and moving together.”

“I feel like Higher Ground has helped me add to my family. Everyone rallied around each other in a strong network of support, just like a family. My favorite part about being in this show is getting to know everybody better.”

“There was this great dynamic of outside professionals working with us. For a community with such a wide variety of talent and different levels of experience, it’s so important for the technical aspects of a performance to be impeccable. It provides a certain level of comfort to work with people who know what they’re doing on the technical end of things. And these folks, living and working with us everyday, really became a part of the family, too.”

“I suppose I don’t care too much about the show’s impact around the country as much as I do its impact on Harlan County. Stories are so tremendously powerful beyond their just being art—they are essential to the fabric of communities. Faced with such a danger—the effects of prescription drugs—it’s so easy for individuals to feel helpless and out of control. At the core of what we’ve done with Higher Ground is its strong sense of community integrity, and that’s exactly what’s going to help us the most. This process of telling our story gives us the same voice that could help any community during hard times. It says ‘We are somebody and we can effect a change.’”

Chester and Megan Clem

Chester & Megan Clem

Lifetime Harlan County resident Chester Clem and his daughter and fellow cast member Megan live in Coalgood, Kentucky. When Megan came home with news about the Higher Ground casting call, Chester agreed to take her to the first rehearsal. Though he had no intention of joining the cast, Chester suddenly found himself in the role of Moonshiner.

“It all happened by accident, but I’m really glad Gerry (Gerard Stropnicky, the director) stopped me and gave me the part. Megan read about the casting call in the newspaper, wrote the date down on the calendar, and kept reminding me about it up to the day. I told her we could do it if she kept her grades up, which she did. And I’m really glad we got to be a part of it.”

“I’ve known most of the folks in the play for a long time….some for my whole life. I’ve worked with them, hunted with them, you name it. But the play gave me the opportunity to really get to know them and to share all our stories together.”

“Everybody has been affected by drug abuse in this community one way or another. Crime has become so bad, too. Church and community volunteer organizations are trying to help, but it’s still a really big problem.”

“I hope that Higher Ground’s impact might help out those who are struggling with drug abuse. If we could get even one person who’s addicted to take a closer look at their life—to try to get better—then I think this play was definitely worth it. There’s a message in it, I think: What’s the value of the whole world if you’ve lost your own soul?”

“I’ve talked to some folks who’ve seen the play several times. One friend said that he found something different in it every time. And everyone in the community seems to relate to some or all of it in different ways.”

Tara Smith

Tara Smith

Tara Smith, a registered nurse living in Totz, Kentucky, has lived in Harlan County all of her 27 years. Even though she had acted for about 13 years in theater productions at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, she was still surprised when she received one of the major roles in Higher Ground.

“I found out about the play in Ann Schertz’s music appreciation class. But it was really strange to be cast for a lead part. I was always more comfortable working in the background of plays and only really ‘acted out’ in more comedic parts. I wasn’t used to a role that required the kind of energy and focus as this one. I probably wouldn’t have taken the chance if the director hadn’t picked me for this part, but it’s one of the greatest things I think I’ve ever done.”

“I already knew a lot of the people in Higher Ground as neighbors and through my work at the hospital. But I was able to make some deeper connections working with them on this performance.”

“Professionally, as a nurse, I see the effects of drug abuse on an almost daily basis. There’s the physical damage, and that’s pretty clear to see. But then there’s the deeper, personal damage it causes for the family, friends, and loved ones of the addict. How do you explain this devastation to people looking for answers—especially when you don’t have a way to answer these questions for yourself? That’s the most amazing thing about Higher Ground…it’s opened all of this up for discussion. Before the show, folks just didn’t want to talk about any of this…I think it was just too painful. But now, there’s a real dialogue because people can hear bits and pieces of their own stories in what we talk about in the show. All of the time, after these performances, folks come up to us and share their own stories. They say, ‘That’s exactly how it happened for me, too.’”

“I hope people take away the sense that, as a community, we can come together and be together, identifying with everyone’s stories, pulling together to face these difficulties, and, even though we might come from different parts of the county, we’re really not that different from one another.”

“I don’t think anybody expected the kind of impact or reaction we’ve had for Higher Ground. I think at first we were just hoping some folks would show up to watch. Now the response is almost overwhelming.”

Theresa Osborne

Theresa Osborne

Theresa Osborne has lived in Harlan County for nearly 17 years. Her work with the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College led to her involvement with Higher Ground.

“I was involved from Higher Ground’s inception and really pushed for our original grant to fund some sort of theater project. As a graduate student in folklore, I helped gather the original stories from Harlan County residents. We had nearly 1,500 pages of transcriptions that we sent to the scriptwriter. From the beginning, I felt strongly about making sure this would appeal to everyone in the community.”

“I’ve watched dear friends and relatives lose nearly everything to prescription drug abuse. Working at the college, I’ve seen so many students affected. There really aren’t very many people left untouched by this problem.”

“On the first day of rehearsals, Gerry Stropnicky (the director) asked those whose immediate family had been affected to gather in the middle of the performance space. Then, he asked those whose extended family had been affected to form a ring around that circle. Then, those with friends or acquaintances that had been affected formed a second ring. Out of about 70 people there that day, only three or four remained in the original crowd. For me, this really brought home the reason we were there.”

“From the beginning, I think everyone felt a duty and a charge to tell these stories the best we knew how and to get people talking. Our goal was to let people see that no one is alone in this struggle and that here is a safe way to open up about the issue.”

“It’s important to remember that this is just a play—it’s not a cure. Nonetheless, the impact it’s had on the community is all we could have hoped for. Folks have come back to see Higher Ground five or six times. Often times I could see the connection between the audience when they would sing the songs with us or share our laughter and tears.”

“For instance, we were telling the story about the opossum and a woman in the audience was rolling with laughter and nodding her head after every line. After the show, she told us ’This reminded me of home!’ A lot of times audience members tell us that we’ve been able to say exactly what they wanted to say and that the stories are totally accurate.”

“When we see fellow cast members out and around it’s always like a small family reunion.”

“We have a cast that is second to none. Some of them have never acted at all and some have had experience on Broadway. The ages range from four years old to 80 plus.”

“I would hope that the KET broadcast would help show other communities that this is possible. This was Harlan County telling Harlan County’s story to Harlan County. But I that someone watching might say: ‘We can do this, too!’”

“I think if we had any idea about the impact of Higher Ground in the beginning, we probably would have been too intimidated to try anything. It’s a truly fantastic project.”

Producer’s Statement By Guy Mendes

Looking for Higher Ground

Guy Mendes

About a year ago my boss, Nancy Carpenter, showed me a letter from the Big Boss, Mac Wall, to Robert Gipe of Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. The letter proposed a KET production of the Harlan County community theater project Higher Ground. It went on to mention the dozens of cast members and the several musical groups involved. My first thoughts were, “No way,” and “Run fast in the opposite direction.” I didn’t think there was any way we could afford the eight to 10 cameras, the 20-person crew, the remote truck costs, and room and board for a five-day shoot it would take to capture such a production. I was right. We couldn’t. But we mulled it over a while and it became clear that with four cameras, eight people, a video switcher-in-a-suitcase, and a two-day shoot we could make something happen.

Fast forward to April of 2008, and I’m standing in a circle of those cast members in Harlan County, holding hands with a stranger on one side and our audio man on the other, and I’m starting to think—“Hey, it’s kind of like the ’60s. Yeah, cool.” Until I’m asked to explain why I, we, KET, have been plopped down in the middle of this performance group. And I think I said something about how impressive it was that Higher Ground had bubbled up from within, and that it had taken on a tough subject with honesty and compassion. At least, I hope I said that. I got a little worried when I was asked how we were going to fit the already abridged version of the piece, about two-hours’ worth, into a one-hour program. My answer then, as it is now: I don’t know. But, eventually, we found a way to abridge the abridged version.

I do know this—I’ve been mightily impressed and inspired by friends I’ve made in the mountains over the past 40 years, people like Ann and Harry Caudill, Pat and Tom Gish, Gaynell and Joe Begley, Josephine and Bill Richardson, Liz Barrett, and Herb Smith. They are people who bucked the system, people who sought to change the status quo. And now, having been welcomed into the circle of players in the Higher Ground saga, I am moved by a whole new set of friends and neighbors. Hats off to Robert Gipe and the cast and crew and to Kentucky Rain and Darlene Howard and Pine Mountain Grass. I look forward to their next production, which I hear is already in the works.

Guy Mendes retired from KET in July 2008 after 35 years and dozens of productions. “Finding Higher Ground” was his last production as a KET staff producer/director.