Stories connect the past with the present and the future. They help us make sense of our identities.
For the 125 people who will fill the seats of a small theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville the evening of Nov. 14, the stories will be a multisensory experience.
Comedy sketches, poetry readings and live music will have the audience laughing, tapping their feet and clapping their hands. They’ll learn about the history of their hometown and see its landscape depicted in short films.
And, if the inaugural production of “Swamp Radio Jax” goes as intended, many will glean a deeper experience than they might expect from a variety show: one of nostalgia and belonging and community.
Playwright, director and “Swamp Radio Jax” creator Ian Mairs remembers a greater emphasis on community pride and history when he was growing up in Jacksonville in the 1970s and 1980s, and he’d like to play a part in restoring that sentiment by bringing local stories to life through the arts.
“I knew about so much more than when I talk to kids today, but that’s because it’s been dry — it hasn’t come to life for them,” he said. “It all centers around storytelling, and I don’t mean library time.”
Mairs’ love for Northeast Florida runs deep and spans more than four decades. He was captivated by Jacksonville’s humid, swampy landscape and Southern hospitality from the moment he arrived from Los Angeles with his family in 1970 at age 6.
His other young love was acting. Mairs co-founded the Jacksonville Actors Theatre experimental company before his 18th birthday, later leaving it in the capable hands of other actors while he finished college at Florida State University.
Mairs spent the next 30 years acting, writing, directing and teaching between Jacksonville and New York, building connections in arts communities along the way and often looking for opportunities to enliven and enrich the culture of his hometown.
“Ian’s contribution to the cultural life of our community, particularly to the performing arts, is of some longstanding and real significance,” said Robert Arleigh White, “Swamp Radio Jax” contributor and recently retired executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. “Ian has gone to other places where he could learn how to hone his skill, and he’s always brought that back to us. He always uplifts the gaze of the community of artists and audience members who participate in his projects.”
After learning of a friend’s work with writing and recording short plays for radio, Mairs decided to collaborate with a handful of fellow Northeast Florida-loving artists to create a storytelling cabaret with a local flair. He wanted it to be performed before a live audience and recorded for podcast.
Mairs recruited community activist and Riverside Arts Market founder Wayne Wood to share stories of local history, like the Great Fire of 1901. He contacted well-respected local singers like Lauren Fincham to sing old hometown songs and asked New York-transplanted composer and musician Rich Campbell to be the show’s musical director. Longtime Jacksonville actress and teacher Simone Aden-Reid agreed to play locally influenced roles in Mairs’ own sketches. Florida Times-Union columnist Mark Woods offered to chronicle his year-long travels through the National Parks system. Mairs said that once the idea was presented, he had no difficulty finding talented artists who wanted to help tell the stories of the city they love.
“There are millions of artists who want to do that in New York, so let’s let them!” Mairs said. “We need more of them coming back to their hometowns and making cool, weird stuff.”
The “Swamp Radio Jax” proposal was awarded one of four Spark grants last spring by the Cultural Council. The privately funded grant program raised $61,000 over a period of several years to support projects that aim to revitalize culture in the Spark district in Downtown Jacksonville, according to the organization’s website.
“The great thing about this money from the Cultural Council is that it allows us to have a year with a laboratory setting,” Mairs said. “We’re going to play around and see what works and what doesn’t.”
After securing funding, a performance location in MOCA and plenty of local interest, Mairs began working with his cast of contributors in a writing lab, preparing for a preview presentation of “Swamp Radio Jax.” The script that emerged was a storytelling tapestry of music, comedy, poetry, history and ecology, told by a varied company of local performers before a live, sold-out audience on July 25.
In the preview, Ian Mairs shared a comedic monologue about the freedom and terror of driving his first car — held together by his father’s mechanical use of “paper clips, pipe cleaners and some chewing gum” — down Arlington Expressway.
Kevin Roberts, director of artistic operations for the Jacksonville Symphony, reminisced about working at a Florida summer camp in his early 20s and being followed around by a kid he called “Booger, because his nose was constantly running.”
Percussionist Charlotte Mabrey provided a beautiful underlay of sounds for White’s vocal rendition of “Red River Valley,” intended as an allusion to the vitality of the St. Johns River.
“It was totally charming! It was quite lovely. I didn’t think anything stunk, and parts of it were really terrific,” said preview audience member and Florida Theatre President Numa Saisselin.
Saisselin, a New Yorker who moved to Jacksonville in the fall of 2012, said he especially enjoyed Mairs’ skit about a transplanted New York businessman attempting to order bagels and coffee from a spirited Northeast Florida waitress, played by Aden-Reid.
“It was really sincere. You can tell that everybody who’s involved with it really has a great love for Jacksonville and Northeast Florida and wants to convey that using this as a vehicle,” Saisselin said. “You know, if you read the writing of Dave Barry, Miami bleeds through it. Or Pete Hamill’s is very New York. This came across as very uniquely Jacksonville.”
Mairs said he knew something amazing and very Jacksonville had transpired between the company and the audience by the curtain call of the preview show.
“We sang ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ They were going to have the company sing it and say good night, but then the audience stood up, clapped, and started singing this song, so we just kept going. There was this amazing sense of community in the room, and when it was over, there was a lot of conviviality and joy and exchange,” he said.
Though the audio of “Swamp Radio Jax” performances will be captured and posted online shortly after each quarterly show to live on in podcast form, the producers and contributors agree that the variety show is best experienced in person.
“The fact that an audience is there is very important. They enliven the stage, bring their own energy and kind of encouragement or questions,” White said.
Mairs said he was encouraged by the audience’s participation and reactions to the preview show, especially more solemn components like the story of the Great Fire of 1901 and a coastal engineer’s explanation of the ecology of Talbot Island state parks.
“I knew the storytelling would be powerful, but that was interesting to me that people dug the science and the history,” Mairs said. “People said, ‘I felt like I’d lived here my whole life and just looked at it through a fresh pair of eyes.’ ”
The Nov. 14 performance will bring to mind fried favorites at the Greater Jacksonville Fair and revisit significant local historical events that took place in autumn. Local artist Jim Draper will share his affinity for all things swampy, and coastal engineer Kevin Bodge will explain the science behind Florida’s sinkhole phenomenon. Aden-Reid will become an Interstate 10 flea market booth operator, a surprise celebrity guest will stop by, and the audience will sing a camp song.
Mairs said ideas for future “Swamp Radio Jax” productions have been flooding in since the preview. He’s making plans to expand the show to be performed at The Florida Theatre in the spring and to schedule two-day runs so that more people can attend. Mairs said he would like to eventually produce the show in and for particular neighborhoods, allowing artists and locals from Brunswick to St. Augustine and everywhere in between to share their intrinsic community stories.
“I’m trying to lasso a butterfly right now. There’s a lot of excitement and energy because there’s a group of people in Jacksonville who want to celebrate where they’re from,” Mairs said. “I’m surprised by that, and I’m digging it. I don’t do it if I don’t dig it.”
The introduction of “Swamp Radio Jax” comes at a time when Jacksonville is hungry for identity and cultural revitalization. It coincides with the forward-looking fire of the One Spark festival and a multifaceted push to energize the urban core. For Ian Mairs, this project is about remembering the history and good things that are already in place and building roots.
“I don’t want it to be New York. I want it to be the swamp! But the swamp can be full of very cool stuff — we just have to be a little more open.”