Halloween may yet be several days away, but nearby Adams, Tennessee is already in the spirit of the season with their 15th annual presentation of SPIRIT: The Authentic Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, a play written by Adams, Tennessee native and current co-star of TV’s Nashville, David Alford, and based on actual events of the Bell Family. What makes the production even more hauntingly fun is the fact that the play is presented on the grounds of the Bell School in Adams on an outdoor stage in frighteningly close proximity to the Bell Family grave yard.
Having make their seasonal debut Thursday, October 19, with performances continuing October 20 & 21 and October 26-28, I just had to chat with the show’s first-time director, Jacob Heinz and members of this year’s cast—including a descendant of the Bell family—for a SPIRIT-filled edition of my recurring interview feature, Rapid Fire 20 Q.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q WITH DIRECTOR AND CAST MEMBERS OF SPIRIT: THE AUTHENTIC STORY OF THE BELL WITCH
JONATHAN PINKERTON: From what I understand, you first saw SPIRIT four years ago. What was it about seeing the show then that lead you to directing it this year?
JACOB HEINZ: When I went to see SPIRIT for the first time, I fell in love with the town of Adams immediately. Driving down the highways to get there–seeing the trees changing, smelling the smoke from the tobacco barns, passing field after field of crops being highlighted by the sunset; there’s really nothing like it. After working the festival as a lighting board operator my first year, I couldn’t get enough of this little community (not to mention the fact of getting to do theatre outdoors in the middle of fall!) I knew that the Bell Witch Fall Festival was something that I wanted to be a part of for years to come. As someone whose least favorite school subject was history, this show has definitely changed my mind. Over the years, my passion has only grown for not only Adams, but this incredible show..
JP: With the show being in its 11th year, but this being your first as director, what have you brought to the show that makes this year different from previous incarnations?
JACOB HEINZ: I like to think I bring a new, fresh, youthful approach to the direction this year. I spent a lot of time researching the Bell family and the community of Red River and have really done my absolute best to stick to the script and keep everything as authentic as possible. By cutting a large amount of scene changes and making the scenes flow–almost as if we are turning pages in a history book–I believe it allows the audience to feel as if they are not just watching it, but they are experiencing it right along with the characters brought to life onstage.
JP: You’ve also got quite a few Nashville actors making the trek to Adams for this production. How has it been to work with them on the show?
JACOB HEINZ: I don’t mean to brag, but this cast is phenomenal! (Okay, I do mean to brag!) I had worked with a lot of these Nashville actors before, and I knew exactly what they were capable of. They have, without a doubt, proven me correct (and then some) throughout the rehearsal process. It’s also extremely fun to see all of the Nashville actors who are new to the Festival this year experience Adams and learn about the rich history of Red River for the first time. It’s fascinating how all of this is practically in our backyards, and so many people have yet to discover it!
JP: Alright, one last question….a native of the area myself, I remember many a sleepover of my youth during which I was dared to stand in front a mirror in total darkness and repeat the phrase “I Hate the Bell Witch” to see if she’ll appear…so…have you ever dared to do so?
JACOB HEINZ: I never have, and I wouldn’t dare. The Spirit has already messed with us quite a few times this year, and the last thing I want to do is upset her any more! Believe me, I know she exists.
JP: This is your first time being a part of SPIRIT. What’s the experience been like so far?
GINA D’ARCO: I have absolutely loved rehearsing in Adams. It’s gorgeous here and there is something really special about telling a story in the actual place where the events took place. I have also been challenged by the fight choreography for this play. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before and I give all the credit to Andrew, our fight choreographer, for pushing me out of my comfort zone and making me feel like Wonder Woman!
JP: You play Betsy. Tell me about her?
GINA D’ARCO: Betsy is a vibrant, moody, and curious teenager at the beginning of the play. After the family is visited by the spirit Betsy’s entire demeanor changes. My goal is to make this shift in personality clear and visceral for the audience. So much was taken from this young woman right at a time when she was coming into her own and discovering who she was. By the end of the play Betsy is “back to her normal self”, but I hope that the audience will see that she has grown up a bit from the first time they saw her in scene one.
JP: You share the stage with J. Robert Lindsey, who plays Richard Powell. What is J. Robert like as a scene partner?
GINA D’ARCO: J. Robert gives me so much to work with! I can trust that wherever the scene takes us, he will meet me there. It’s been fun to play the tension and the push-pull between Powell and Betsy.
JP: What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve learned about the Bell Witch that you didn’t know before joining the cast?
GINA D’ARCO: I literally didn’t know anything about the Bell Witch before I was cast in SPIRIT! I did a lot of research before we started rehearsals and Jacob came to the table with LOTS of historical information for us. I found it interesting to read all the different theories there are out there regarding the cause of the haunting and who the spirit actually was. But the most unique aspect of this ghost story is actually mentioned in our script as one of Richard Powell’s lines– that it’s an accepted fact that “Kate” is the cause of John Bell’s death.
JP: Like Gina, this is your first time to perform in SPIRIT, correct? The show is performed on the grounds of what was at one time part of the Bell Family property. I know as a frequent audience member for several years, that adds to the mystery and thrill of the play. Does it have the same effect on you as an actor in the show?
J. ROBERT LINDSEY: You are correct! This is my time to perform in SPIRIT. For me, one of the most exciting parts about the theatrical process is adding in the elements of the set and lighting designs. The coolest part about SPIRIT is telling the story against the backdrop of the actual location in which the story took place. One of my first lines is, “In this place…on this ground.” Saying that line during our first tech rehearsal while taking in the sounds and smells of Adams, TN that surrounded us was a pretty incredible experience.
JP: What have your discovered about Professor Powell as you’ve prepared for the role?
J. ROBERT LINDSEY: As with most legends, there are several theories about the people involved. Professor Powell is certainly no exception. It has been interesting to research teachers in small towns during this time period. In SPIRIT, I immediately got the impression that Richard Powell brought a sense of culture to Red River. He wasn’t like everyone else in town. He was the only teacher at the only school in the town during the time of the story. David Alford, the playwright, made the brilliant decision to have Powell also act as the narrator of this story. It’s been really fun to be the one who walks the audience through this story. Not only do I get to interact with the characters during some really powerful scenes, I also get to serve as a sort of “tour guide” for the audience as they go on this incredible journey.
JP: Among your SPIRIT co-stars is Bob Bell, an actual descendant of the Bell family. Have you had an opportunity to chat with him about the family history?
J. ROBERT LINDSEY: I have, and it has been an absolute pleasure to share the stage with Bob and other members of the Bell family. Bob has so many amazing stories that center around this legend. It’s hard to not be a believer after talking to him!
JP: So…The Bell Witch….absolute fact or intriguing legend? And why do you feel that way?
J. ROBERT LINDSEY: I am more of a believer than a non-believer. While I certainly have doubts in the paranormal, there is definitely part of me that believes that this actually happened to the Bell family in the 1800s. After being on the Bell property, it’s hard not to believe in it just a little bit. You step onto the property, and there is this instant feeling that something extraordinary happened there. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t check the backseat of my car before leaving rehearsal each night.
RAPID FIRE WITH DANNY PROCTOR, James Johnston and Billy Wall in SPIRIT
JP: Like myself, you grew up in Nashville area. What’s your first memory of learning about The Bell Witch?
DANNY PROCTOR: I think it was in the 5th grade at Joelton Elementary School that I first heard of the Bell Witch. I recall that I owned one of M.V. Ingram‘s “Little Red Books.” I’ve owned several over the years and they have a way of vanishing. But I now have a copy again. I never realized just how close Joelton is to Adams back then.
JP: This year marks your eighth year to be in the show. What is it about the story that keeps you…and audiences coming back?
DANNY PROCTOR: There is something that defies description about being a part of Spirit and working with the Bell family and the Community Spirit board of directors. I have always loved ghost stories and to not only be able to take part in the play but also to have become almost an honorary member of the Bell family is such a thrill. The cast and crew are treated like royalty and I’ve been able to work with the best talent Middle Tennessee has to offer — directors, actors and technical crew. It’s a show of which I’m very proud and it never grows old to me. I cannot wait to have an eager audience sitting in that pavilion!
JP: I’ve heard there is new music for this year’s production. Can you tell me a little about it and how it enhances the show?
DANNY PROCTOR: In the past, hymns from the early 1800s have been used as intended by playwright David Alford and original music director Paul Carrol Binkley. This year, director Jacob Heinz decided to give the show a fresh but still effective music score by the brilliant Wesley King. There are only two songs that we sing as a cast — in the church revival scene and toward the end as we surround the deathbed of one of the characters (no spoilers). Wesley also wrote new transition music and underscoring that will make your hair stand on end. The sound effects were also enhanced for this production and are scarier than ever!
JP: What’s the best part of the show being performed outside at the small amphitheater adjacent to the old Bell school?
DANNY PROCTOR: The words “in this place, on this ground” are a theme for the show and are used early in the play and also at the very end. For us to tell the story of the haunting of the Bell family on the very land where they lived gives those words an added thrill. Some cast members had never heard of the Bell Witch before joining us but we have had people come to see the show from as far away as Germany and other states who are fans of the supernatural and know the story. We visit the private and hidden graves of John and Lucy Bell each year and it gives all of us a deeper connection to the story and a desire to do the story justice. As folks sit in the pavilion or overflow onto the lawn, with the wind coming off the nearby Red River and the rustle of the leaves in the towering old trees, there is a feeling that I’ve never experienced in front of any other audience. It is truly chilling!
JP: As an actual descendant of the Bell family, has the community of Adams, TN always embraced the family history?
BOB BELL: Adams has always had a fascination with the story and I believe everyone has a story of their own to tell. The whole fall festival revolves around it and it is fun to see the town come together for the event.
JP: How exactly are you related to the Bell family members depicted in SPIRIT?
BOB BELL: John Bell is my 5th great-grandfather by way of his youngest son Joel Bell.
JP: As a kid, what was it like being part of such a beloved, yet spooky legacy?
BOB BELL: As a young child I did not really know about the story because it was taboo in the family. The first I remember about the story was when all of my grandmothers china came out of the cabinet while my grandmother was napping and crashed on the kitchen floor. I was seven years old and lived 3 doors up from her at the time. When we came into her house the china was all over the floor and not one piece was cracked or broken. That is when I learned about the story. My father was the first to embrace the story publicly.
JP: What do you hope audience members take with them after seeing SPIRIT?
BOB BELL: I hope the audience realizes that this is a real story that happened. I have learned that there are things I do not understand. I think that they will see how hard of a life it was back then as well. Families were tight knit as well as the community.
While tales of The Bell Witch have enjoyed sensationalized exaggerations over the years, the fact remains…something inexplicable happened in Adams, Tennessee in the early 1800s, something that’s gone on to become a celebrated piece of Southern history and local folklore. SPIRIT embraces that lore and presents it in an exciting, just-scary-enough, yet fun way. SPIRIT is presented in Adams, Tennessee at the Bell School Community Complex Auditorium and Brooksher Outdoor Pavilion (7617 Hwy 41 N, Adams, TN 37010) approximately 45 minutes from downtown Nashville. While making the short drive, why not give yourself time to enjoy a delicious meant and three dinner on-site at the Bell School Cafeteria located inside the Bell School? You can also visit the school auditorium for Bell Witch-related crafts, books and gifts. SPIRIT continues with 7 p.m. performances October 20 & 21 and October 26-28. Tickets to SPIRIT are $20 for Adults and $10 for Students (including college age). CLICK HERE for Tickets. For more about The Bell Witch Fall Festival, CLICK HERE.
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