Memories of WCTC’s feline director of all things theater

Back in the days when WCU was WCTC (Western Carolina Teachers’ College), I was one of a few kids that hung around “the little theatre” with Mabel Crum, the Chair of the English Department (circa 1950’s). In the absence of a “professional director,” Mabel (we never called her “Dr. Crum” when we talked about her) volunteered for the job and immediately announced an impressive schedule of productions.

Nothing daunted Mabel; she was perfectly willing to take on Shakespeare (“A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”) Arthur Miller (“The Crucible”) and Sophocles (“Oedipus Rex”). We had a great time. It didn’t matter that we were mostly mountain kids with pronounced nasal twangs. After all, the audience was mostly our peers and no one seemed to notice ... Well, except for the Dr. Hayes, a recently-arrived Rhodes scholar, who stood during the intermission of “A Merchant of Venice” and announced, “Sounds as though the Avon has mingled with the Tuckaseigee.” (Mabel had to explain to the cast that Dr. Hayes was talking about our dialect.)

There were other embarrassing incidents, of course. When I did Tieresias, the blind prophet wrapped in a bed sheet, my eyes taped shut and blacked out with shoe polish (Mabel’s idea), the audience laughed the first night when I delivered all of my lines to back wall. The Western Carolinian mistakenly reported that the current production at the Little Theatre was “Oedipus Wrecks.” Mabel was philosophical about that. “Well, he does, you know ... wreck, I mean.”

And so we bungled on. In “The Crucible,” the half-crazed minister, Rev. Hale, rushed on stage and managed to loudly mispronounced a crucial word, substituting “crouch” for “crops,” as in “the stench of burning crouch hangs everywhere.” In “Sabrina Fair,” the lighted ships that sailed serenely across the bay (on a painted backdrop with movable vessels) began to fall, fluttering to the floor like fat fireflies during Sabrina’s love scene. In “Twelfth Night,” Sir Toby Belch rushed on stage five scenes before his appointed entrance to discover that he was among strangers. After delivering a few lines he bowed and announced, “I will have more to say about this later!” and promptly departed. I envied him his skillful recovery. We sped recklessly on through “Bus Stop,” “The Rainmaker” and “Antigone,” never dreaming that our unbridled fun was about to come to an end.

When, Josefina Niggli arrived, Mabel called a meeting in the WCU “Little Theatre,” and told her little rustic band of thespians that “theatre” was about to become a serious affair. While Mabel struggled through the highlights of Josefina’s astonishing career prior to coming to Cullowhee (two Book-of-the-Month Club novels, an illustrious career in Hollywood, movie and television scripts, etc.), we looked at the large woman who sat like a sleepy Cheshire cat down stage center in an ornate chair (from “Sabrina Fair”) and staring at us (we were in the audience, of course). She was alternating sips of coffee with puffs from a cigarette.

When she finally spoke in a deep Tahullah Bankhead contralto, she said, “Darlings, I’m so gratified to see you.”

We were charmed in the true meaning of that word. We sat like a hapless flock of birds, mouths agape, gawking at this feline woman who spoke in a voice that both whispered and thundered. She talked about her life in Mexico, told anecdotes of famous movie stars (she called Henry Fonda “Hank” and Lawrence Oliver “Larry”). Although we immediately became Niggli disciples, it soon became obvious that our feelings were not reciprocal.

All of us gamely registered for Acting 101 and found ourselves reading nursery rhymes aloud on the stage while Ms. Niggli drank coffee from a thermos and occasionally said, “Read it again, dear. This time pronounce ALL of the syllables.” At the end of the class, she smiled serenely and said, “Darlings, when you speak, I positively shudder.”

She then delivered a long diatribe on how communication was essential to get on in the world, and we appeared to be unable to do so. “How can you teach or work in any jobs that require communication?” When we ventured to ask about the next play, she said, “Darlings, you are a long way from being in any play that I would direct.” Then, she rose and floated slowly up the aisle, leaving us alone on a brightly lighted stage.

Students began to drop out of Acting 101, muttering that the fun seemed to have gone out of theatre. A stalwart handful persisted because they thought that perhaps Ms. Niggli was merely weeding out the “undesirables.” Eventually, Ms. Niggli directed “My Three Angels,” but ended up casting the primary roles from the English Department faculty. Many of us were banished from the theatre (I was among them), and we found ourselves reading one-acts and practicing diction. Ms. Niggli announced her resignation, saying that she found the challenge of molding us into thespians “too daunting.”

When we returned the following semester, a bright-eyed UNC graduate named Charles Barrett sat at the “Speech and Drama” table at registration. “Call me Chuck,” he said. The rumor spread that he had spent the summer as “Sir Walter Raleigh” in the outdoor drama, “Lost Colony.” He announced that he would be doing “Inherit The Wind,” and although the play had a large cast, the two major leads would be “experienced adults.” That meant the roles of Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryant) would be played by “Chuck” and a retired insurance salesman who lived off campus. The rest of us would have to be content with character roles and mob scenes.

I was in the Townhouse when I heard that Ms. Niggli was back. “That’s correct,” said Dr. Crum, “She arrived back on campus last night from Baylor. Said she would be content to teach Basic Speech 201 and Fundamentals of Grammar 101.” I got the definite impression that Mabel was as surprised as I was by the return of the Cheshire cat, but she noted that “considering her experience with theatre and film, we are lucky to have her.”

Poor Chuck. He was just beginning a career and had bought a house. He had cast “The Glass Menagerie,” and had a full teaching load ... but he was sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli, who had decided to teach her classes there. Frequently, when he was directing students, he would turn to see Ms. Niggli, sitting silently in the darkness watching him. At first, he attempted to solicit Ms. Niggli’s opinion.

“Don’t you agree, Ms. Niggli?” he would chirrup, referring to a stage movement or a line interpretation he had just given a student.

“Chuck, darling, you are the director,” she would say and lapse into silence.

After Chuck resigned (he once said that sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli was like living too close to the sun) and fled to Raleigh and a government job that required him to produce educational films for the state highway department, Ms. Niggli graciously agreed to once more become the head of the Speech and Theatre Department. She quietly moved into the vacant office and began directing again. In a few years, she became the campus celebrity and hundreds of students rushed to enroll in her classes. She often “held court” in her homes in the evenings where she sat in a great upholstered chair while the “Nigglites” sat on the floor around her, enraptured by her stories of James Dean, John Garfield and “Monty” Clift.

Many years later, when I returned to WCU to work on my masters, I dropped by Ms. Niggli’s office. By this time, she was something of a legend and a dozen students attended her every whim. Finding that we were alone for a few moments, I couldn’t resist broaching a question that had troubled me for years.

“Why did you come back?” I said. She laughed and said, “You mean when I renounced you all and fled to Baylor?” She drank her coffee and looked at me as though she were deciding just how much truth she wanted to tell.

“When I got to Baylor, I found a large theatre department filled with notables. They had playwrights and novelists that were far more significant than I! I was not ... unique. That is it, darling. I wanted to be honored and pampered, so I came back to this mountain college and all of these nasal twangs.”

So, there you have it. I guess I was a “Nigglite,” too, and I also sat on Josefina’s carpet, sipping coffee while I listened, enthralled by a magic world through which this remarkable woman moved with ease. She had known Thomas Wolfe, Paul Green and Tyrone Power! But yet, I will always remember Dr. Crum and the wonderful world of drama that existed “before Niggli.” When I grow sentimental about the past, it is usually for that innocent time when my heart quickened and I felt a pure joy at discovering something wonderful on a brightly lighted stage ... before it all became ... serious.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Beyond the rules of fiction

2666 by Roberto Bolano. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. 898 pages

Dear reader, it seems altogether fitting to begin the New Year with a review of the novel that is being hailed as “the book of the century.” Now, before you get cynical on me and dismiss such accolades as typical promotional blather, let me hasten to add that this is an international judgment. Here is a sampling: “A masterpiece,” says Le Magazine Litteraire (Paris); “An often shocking and raunchy tour de force,” says The New York Review of Books; “A cornerstone that defines an entire literature,” says La Vanguardia (Spain); “A world of a novel in which the power of words triumphs over savagery,” proclaims L’ Express magazine (France). The reviews from Italy, Chile (Bolano’s birthplace), England and Germany are equally enthusiastic.

The critical response to 2666 seems excessive. Certainly, no major work has been greeted with such enthusiasm since some 40 years ago when Gabriel Garcia Marquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude. In fact, one major critic noted that if Marquez laid the cornerstone of literary excellence, then Bolano has “shifted that cornerstone.” Essays are cropping up that compare Bolano to Jorge Luis Borges, the acknowledged master of South American literature and a number of American magazines are already publishing lengthy articles that evaluate the significance of Bolano’s “magnum opus.” One of the most impressive is Francine Prose’s “More is More” in Harper’s this month.

However, there are dissenters. A handful of critics found the 2666 either “chaotic” or “bleak and depressing.” Even some of the novel’s strongest advocates found the writing “ugly,” (Adam Kirch in Slate magazine) but defended the repugnant aspects as “a new an unexpected kind of beauty.” Critics are at a loss for comparisons. One critic notes that 2666 resembles the eerie, surreal atmosphere of a David Lynch movie. Another rhapsodizes about apocalyptic themes. The words “daring” and “courageous” appear in the majority of the reviews. Finally, the most appropriate critique calls the novel “a leap into the darkness,” because the author has broken all the rules of current fiction and established new ones.

2666 consists of five sections (novels?) that appear to be unrelated to each other. However, in the final section, the reader discovers that the five divisions are like “five planets orbiting the same dark sun.” Suddenly, the pieces effortlessly unite like an interlocking jigsaw puzzle.

Section One, “The Part About the Critics,” deals with a quartet of academic critics (Italian, French, Spanish and English) who devote their lives to tracking down an elusive writer who may be a candidate for the Nobel Prize. As they globetrot from city to city, they bicker, drink and fornicate with abandon (three males and one female). They finally end up in Saint Teresa (Ciudad Juarez), Mexico.

Section Two, “The Part About Amalefitano” concerns a mentally unstable professor at the University of Saint Teresa and his daughter. The professor lives in a constant state of dread because he suspects (imagines) some evil is imminent and his daughter is in danger. As it turns out, Amalefitano’s fears are well founded.

Section Three, “The Part About Fate,” deals with an Afro-American journalist who travels to Saint Teresa to cover a boxing match and ends up accompanying other journalists to a prison to interview a serial murderer.

Section Four, “The Part About the Crimes,” provides a disturbing history of the unsolved murders of female factory workers in Saint Teresa. (The style in this section resembles crime fiction and is based on the hundreds (perhaps over a thousand) of rape/murders around the maquiladoras (NAFTA plants) in Ciudad Juarez.

Section Five, “The Part about Archimboldi” chronicles the life of a German writer who survives WWII, changes his name to Benno von Archimboldi and writes a series of novels that attract national attention. However, he avoids publicity and refuses interviews. Then, a series of personal dilemmas brings him to Saint Teresa, “the city of paper houses” (cardboard slums).

It is impossible to discuss the plot of 2666 since its complexities would require extensive explanations. Suffice it to say that it is a frustrating, bewildering and, at times, an exhilarating work. Dozens of characters, including prophets, corrupt policemen, tormented lovers and psychopaths appear only to vanish and never return. Bolano shifts genres, veering for science fiction, to crime novel to “magic realism,” to erotica to folk tale and myth. Eventually, it becomes evident that the author purposely creates unstructured and meaningless action because he perceives life to have those same qualities (unstructured and meaningless).

Certainly, one of the most perplexing questions is the significance of the title. Is 2666 the future date in which the world will be reduced to sterile waste? Is that why this novel contains several thinly veiled references to the William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” and the approach of the final Apocalypse? (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”)

Note: Robert Bolano died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50. However, aware of his impending death, he spent the last three months of his life preparing 2666 for publication. The final translation and publication has been an arduous, complex process. 2666 finally arrived in the United States about six months ago.

(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Tuning in once again

The Sweetest Sounds

The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear

Are still inside my head.

The kindest words I’ll ever know

Are waiting to be said.

— Rogers and Hart


Over the past 40 years, as my hearing has steadily declined, most of my friends became accustomed to my evasive behavior. Instead of saying, “I can’t hear you,” I developed a habit of nodding, smiling and saying, “Yes.”

Rash's Chemistry "notable"

Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash. Picador, 2007. 230 pages

This remarkable collection of short stories has already been named one of the 15 “notable books” of 2007 by the Story Prize Committee — an award that is presented annually in recognition of the nation’s best. The top award, $20,000, is the largest literary prize in America. In announcing their selection, the contest officials stated “The Appalachian Mountains are the setting of this beautifully crafted collection that begins and ends with a fish and spans several generations in an isolated region with characters as craggy as the landscape.”

When the snows fell on Babbie’s house

When winter comes now, and I see those familiar pale shafts of sunlight that briefly touch the tops of the Balsams — just before total darkness settles on Rhodes Cove — I find myself remembering a trip to see my great grandmother some 60 years ago.

A look at the dark side of the season

The Christmas Curmudgeon is available at: Barnes &, the Western Carolina Internet Café in Dillsboro, or directly from the author at James Cox, P. O. Box 272, Whittier, NC, 28789. Send check ($14.95 plus postage) and your name and address.

Hark! Do you hear it? It is the faint drum rolls of “The Little Drummer Boy.” Rumma-Tum-Tum, and it is growing nearer every day. Yes, the “Holiday Season” is coming. In another week, the malls will be packed, the traffic will gridlock and our TVs will resound with hearty enticements to max out our credit cards.

What is wrong with teaching in the US?

In 1991, 30-year veteran and master teacher John Taylor Gatto resigned immediately after being named “Teacher of the Year” in New York. A number of educators and concerned parents took note — especially after the disillusioned teacher’s reasons for resigning appeared in the Wall Street Journal, under the caption, “I Quit, I Think.”

Heir to the King

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. William Morrow, 2007. 376 pages

Although both the publisher and the author of Heart-Shaped Box seem reluctant to admit that Joe Hill is actually the son of Stephen King, there is ample evidence to support this conclusion.

Stories from the dead

In the small Southern community where she lives, Finch Nobles, the narrator of A Gracious Plenty, easily qualifies as a “quare woman.” Disfigured by a household accident at the age of 4 (a pot of boiling water), Finch finds that the townspeople commonly regarded her ruined face with pity or revulsion.

War can be murder

Recently, a distressing bit of information surfaced on CNN about the war in Iraq. There has been a significant increase in the number of civilian rapes and murders in Iraq and Iran (and correspondingly in West Africa). New evidence indicates that many of these crimes may be the work serial killers who are using the war as a convenient camouflage.

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