Butcher Holler Here We Come begins with a bang. The show, presented by Brooklyn-based theatre company Aztec Economy, tells the claustrophobic story of five men trapped in a West Virginia coal mine. It skips the boring parts and opens with the chaos and confusion of the mine collapse. The intent, says actor and Aztec Economy Artistic Director Cole Wimpee, is to keep audiences pinned to their seats for the show’s duration.
“It’s a very big responsibility to grab ahold, and keep ahold, of your audiences,” says Wimpee. “You get the audience right from the get-go and don’t let them go--do not let ’em go.”
Originally from McClendon-Chisholm, Texas, Wimpee founded Aztec Economy in Brooklyn with his identical twin brother Casey and fellow Texan Michael Mason. The company has grown to include additional performers, but the root of the company’s aesthetic comes from writer Casey. Cole says Casey is often drawn to the specificity of place, a detail revealed in the titles of some of his past works, like Alabama Goddamn, Kansas City Book of the Dead, and Adventures in the OK Skin Trade.
Butcher Holler follows in the same vein, focusing on characters from the rural community in Eastern Kentucky best known as the birthplace of country singer Loretta Lynn, which she memorialized in the song “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Butcher Holler is just west of the West Virginia border in a part of America that relied on coal mining as an economic necessity for much of the 20th century. While the mines are still there, the number of miners dropped significantly starting in the 1980s, when the process of mining became increasingly mechanized. Butcher Holler is set in 1973, an era in which both Loretta Lynn and the dangerous job of coal mining were still in their prime.
The play eschews conventional lighting and staging, relying on the actor’s headlamps as the only lighting in the room. The action is confined to a small space in a small room, immersing the audience into the story. Cole says the plot and narrative structure of Butcher Holler are less “experimental” than many of Casey’s other works, but within that structure the writer has a lot of room to explore the mental strain of being trapped underground.
“It’s not only how you survive the human aspect of the situation--not having enough food or water, your oxygen starts to run out--the biggest threat is actually each other and your own secrets or fears that come boiling to the surface,” says Cole. “It’s the psychological stuff that’s the real danger.”
While the story is straightforward, Cole says the writing is not. Cole admires his brother’s ear for language, and he says it’s one of defining traits of the company’s work. While he admits that living and working with his twin can be “complicated,” their tight-knit relationship makes it easier to bring their shared artistic vision to the stage.
“As an actor working on his stuff, I really can just fall into it so easily. I understand his imagination and his writing so well that for me it just rolls off the tongue,” says Cole. “He does have a very specific rhythm and sound that goes on with the delivery of the language, and some people struggle with it, but I never have.”
Butcher Holler was originally developed during an after-party performance at last year’s New Orleans Fringe Festival. The guys from Aztec Economy were in New Orleans to work with writer/director Matthew Hancock on the show Helpless Doorknobs (which Southern Glossary editor Ryan Sparks called “unpredictable to the end”). While they were in town, Aztec Economy premiered an “explorative sketch” of Butcher Holler in the attic space at Shaolin-Do, a martial arts studio on St. Claude Avenue that Cole affectionately refers to as “the karate shop.” It’s also where Alabama Goddamn premiered during the 2011 New Orleans Fringe Fest. This year, in collaboration with Texas theater company Ad Hoc Beaumont, they’ll revive a past Aztec Economy production at the karate shop, Casey’s short play The Queen is Dead. The story is set in Louisville, Kentucky, and includes “bourbon, horses, heroin, Judy Garland, and a little game called 'Belorussian Roulette.’”
“We like trying to do stuff on the side that doesn’t necessarily compete with what we’re doing or what other people are doing, but creates a way for people to get together and spend a bit more time together,” Cole says.
The shows at the karate shop, and the evolution of Butcher Holler, illustrates the creative possibilities for a group like Aztec Economy at the Fringe Festival. In addition to having the opportunity to present polished, if unconventional, pieces, it also gives the group a chance to collaborate and perform with other artists from around the country, workshopping new ideas or finding a new take on an old idea. For Cole, Fringe allows him to revel in the creative energy of theater and let that energy drive the final product. In fact, he says, the name Aztec Economy refers to the group’s efforts to reconnect art with rituals and mythologies of past civilizations.
“We like the idea of bringing something that’s ancient or lost--some kind of mystery from our forefathers or from a lost period of time--back into the fold for people to experience,” says Cole. “That’s true with theater, too. Theater itself is kind of like a lost city.”
Butcher Holler Here We Come has seven performances at the Mudlark Public Theatre. For showtimes and tickets, click here.
Aztec Economy's side show The Queen is Dead plays midnight, Friday, Nov. 22nd, at the Shaolin-Do Attic at 4210 St. Claude Avenue, free to all.
Go to our dedicated New Orleans Fringe Festival page for more feature previews and reviews.