Baron Tubeauf had to get out of France, tout de suite.
The French Revolution wasn’t a friendly period for guys like the self-proclaimed baron — who literally was a coal baron in 1780s France. French workers, like the men who labored in the baron’s coal mines, were ready to drop their pickaxes and take up arms against the regime and the rich. Tubeauf — full name Pierre Francois du Tubeuf — fell into debt and he needed to move his operations out of the country. But where could he go?
Russell County, Virginia, looked pretty good to him.
In 1791, two years into the French Revolution, Tubeauf purchased thousands of acres of mountain land in the burgeoning state of Virginia and set out to establish a new French colony, which would include a farming and mining settlement along the Clinch River. He would call the new colony St. Marie on the Clinch.
Long story short, the colony never flourished, the baron was murdered by a pair of robbers and the dream of St. Marie died with him. But the legend lives on, not only through historic signage in Clinch River State Park, Virginia’s newest unit in the park system, but through a play that will be staged this weekend (May 28-29) in St. Paul, not far from where the lost French colony of St. Marie once sprouted on a mountainside.
“The Frenchman” is an original play written by Amelia Townsend, a native of Big Stone Gap who established Shoestring Theatre Company, a nonprofit group that produces plays about people and places of Southwest Virginia.
One fascinating fact about the company and its founder: both are based in Northern Virginia, a region not usually known for its interest in the happenings and history of their commonwealth mountain kinfolk.
“We’re founded with a singular mission,” Townsend said by phone from Fairfax County, where her regular job is as a communications consultant, “and that is to bring authentic stories of Southwest Virginia to the rest of the commonwealth and beyond.”
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Finding an audience
Townsend had no theatrical background when she started Shoestring five years ago. She had worked in media as a television news producer and a newspaper reporter in North Carolina before moving to Fairfax. But as her career took her from place to place, she stayed in touch with her Southwest Virginia roots.
Townsend spent part of her childhood in Big Stone Gap, where her father had been a police officer. Her relatives were from all around the region, including Lee County, and even though her own family moved to North Carolina when she was barely school-aged, they returned to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles over the years.
The memories of going to country stores for Grapette sodas and the smell of coal dust in the air stayed with her.
“When the mountains and culture get hold of you, you never truly leave,” she said.
“Family was all around the mountains. I remember the people and how they lived, and the safety I felt there, and how somebody always knew you and your parents. To me, there was always a feeling of coming home.”
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned degrees in English and Radio/Television/Motion Pictures, Townsend said that her father was a storyteller, and when she would visit family in Southwest Virginia, she was encouraged by friends to document the region’s tales.
She met Dink Shackleford, the executive director of the Virginia Mining Association who was passionate about telling the stories from the mountains. One of their earliest collaborations became the 2004 novel “Keepsakes For the Heart,” which was based on a true story of Sarah Bishop Hart, a Southwest Virginia woman who was basically sold off by her family to be a laborer during the Great Depression when she was 5 years old, and who persevered to make something of her life.
Townsend and Shackleford continued to work on books, scripts and a play until his death from cancer at age 50 in 2007. “I Ain’t Made That Way,” the play they had worked on “just sat there,” Townsend said.
A decade later, Townsend, who by this time was living in Fairfax County, mentioned the play to JoAnna Ormesher, the county’s Cultural Tourism and Marketing Director. Ormesher told Townsend she should plan a staged reading of the play, which sounded promising except for the fact that Townsend didn’t know what a staged reading was.
So, she asked her daughter, Chelsea, a theater major at George Mason University, for tips. Chelsea and her roommate Madison Landis explained that a staged reading was just that: a performance of the play where the actors read the dialogue from a script without costumes, props, a set or any other theatrical trappings.
The reading was scheduled for the “Fall for the Book” festival at a local art gallery. The crew put out 30 chairs, thinking that would be enough for family and spouses of the eight actors. By the time the reading started, the chairs were filled and people stood along the back wall.
An audience for stories about mountain people seemed to exist in Fairfax.
That marked the beginnings of Shoestring, which earned grants, gained 501 (c) 3 nonprofit status and began producing more plays. One of the company’s actors, DJ Neace, was also from Big Stone Gap and he suggested that the group take the play to the town’s Gathering in the Gap festival in 2017. The play was a hit.
After that, Shoestring produced about one play a year, bringing the productions to Southwest Virginia. “The Best Doctor in Town” was presented in 2018 followed by “Haint So” in 2019. The company receives support from the City of Fairfax Commission on the Arts, Fairfax Cultural Arts and Marketing programs, the Town of St. Paul and other organizations, and its board members include people in Southwest and Northern Virginia.
“So many people in Northern Virginia think Virginia ends at Roanoke,” Townsend said. “We want to enlighten those people about real people and real stories in Southwest Virginia. … There is a ton of support for theater and arts” in Southwest Virginia.
Sharon Adamus, an actor who has been involved with Shoestring since “before it even had a name,” she said, was one of those people who knew little about the mountains before performing in Southwest Virginia.
“I didn’t have any awareness at all,” said Adamus, a New Jersey native who lives in Northern Virginia. “The most striking thing to me is the people themselves. Even in difficult economic times, they have a resilience and a strength, and they have just been so welcoming to us. It’s become like a homecoming for me when I’m there.”
She said she feels cradled by the mountains of Russell and Wise counties. That takes some getting used to, and not just because of, as she put it, “the lack of cell reception that goes along with that.”
“You feel like you’re really immersed in them,” she said. “You feel like the mountains wrap around you.”
She performs in “The Frenchman” as the baron’s wife, who has hardships and miseries of her own. She expects the shows, performed at St. Paul Elementary School, to draw good-sized crowds.
“Our official motto is ‘We Need More Chairs,’” said Adamus. “Everywhere we go, we’re always putting out the call that we need to bring in more chairs.”
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Theater supports theater
Back to the baron.
Tubeauf’s dream of establishing a French settlement did not outlive him, but his story did.
Townsend, cast and crew were ready to bring the play to St. Paul in the spring of 2020 when — well, the thing that the spring of 2020 is most remembered for happened and the play was postponed. Shoestring debuted the play with four performances last fall in Fairfax.
Townsend gleaned some of the story from Tubeauf’s own writings, which had to be translated from 18th-century French. Creating a story about real people — including those who wrote letters to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — was an unusual challenge, she said.
The play is also her first work that did not stem from her previous collaborations with Shackleford.
Some of the proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the renovation of The Lyric Theater renovation in downtown St. Paul.
The company truly lives up to the nonprofit description: None of the actors are paid for their work, Townsend said. They do it because they want to serve a region hours away from their own homes in suburban Northern Virginia.
“The actors keep coming back here because they want to be ambassadors for Southwest Virginia,” Townsend said.
“The Frenchman” will be performed at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul Elementary School, 3200 Deacon Drive, Saint Paul. Tickets are $10 and are available online at https://www.shoestringtheatrecompany.com.