When Mary Swander, Iowa’s Poet Laureate, lost her mother, she immediately faced a number of challenges, including: “How do I get my mother’s body back to the family burial plot on the other side of Iowa?”
As Swander’s friend, actor, educator and writer, Karan Founds-Benton describes, “In those days somebody didn’t drive and then you sat in a hearse and the body was in the back in a coffin … They actually would put the body on a cot, you brought whatever car you had, and you fit the body in the back. So it was a very immediate experience.”
Swander’s godmother joined her for the journey and told her stories of all of her relatives, how they lived and how they died.
“At the same time Mary was grieving she was also in her writer’s head thinking: ‘Oh my gosh. I got to keep this woman talking.’”
She took those stories and wrote “Driving the Body Back,” a poetry collection that traces the lives of her various family members, showcasing where their lives divide, and where they intersect.
While the collection received vast critical acclaim when it was released, “Driving the Body Back” is now experience a resurgence thanks to a new theatrical adaptation. Performer Karan Founds-Benton and director Michael Sokoloff worked closely with Swander to develop the one-woman show, which has received glowing praise in Chicago, St. Louis and other major cities.
The next stop on their tour? The Elgin Public Library.
“As a longtime theatre person I love unusual pieces,” says Founds-Benton. “I love to put theater where theatre usually isn’t seen. … I came across a grant from the Puffin Foundation and they were saying they like to support arts projects in places where the arts are not. So I thought, why not see if they would support a little tour to very small libraries?”
The foundation agreed and with support from Humanities Iowa and community members, Founds-Benton has embarked on a tour of five small libraries across the state of Iowa.
For the performance Founds-Benton takes on eight characters and uses music to transition from one character to the next. “When I approached ‘Driving the Body Back’ and all these different characters, I became a student of the characters, and let them … tell me their stories. I started out with that, and then as time goes by — I’ve been doing this piece for three years now — I still will find something new that I’ve learned from one of these characters.”
This technique makes it possible for audience members to connect with the work. “People get emotionally involved. Many will say, ‘That character you did is my uncle.’ The universality of the piece comes out.”
But the one-woman show is about more than interesting characters.
“For me the theme is the comfort of belonging to this family cemetery, the comfort of no matter who you are … you’ll still be buried in the family cemetery. It doesn’t really focus so much on dying as it focuses on this family commitment, belonging.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Driving the Body Back”
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Elgin Public Library, 214 Main St., Elgin
Cost: A freewill donation to defer performance fees will be accepted.
Extra: Poet Laureate Mary Swander will give a stage talk after the performance.