The life and art of Idaho’s James Castle is now a NYC theatrical production

The work and intriguing story of Idaho artist James Castle have captured the imagination of playwright Charles Mee and director Kim Weild, artistic director of Our Voices Theatre, a company that blends professional actors of all abilities and backgrounds.

Mee’s play “Soot and Spit” is now in its world-premiere production at the New Ohio Theatre on Christopher Street in New York City. It opened Saturday, May 27, and will run until Saturday, June 17.

Mee wrote the play in 2004 after a friend bought a few pieces Castle’s art and told him a bit of the artist’s story. Mee is a playwright, and just like Castle, he uses found materials in his work. He used Castle’s story to create his own imagined vision of Castle’s silent world. Weild, whose brother is deaf, read the play a few years ago.

“I could see the whole production in my head,” she says. Though it is not a musical, the production uses bluegrass music, songs, dances and multimedia displays to bring Castle’s art to life.

Castle was believed to have been born deaf and unable to speak. He lived all of his life in Idaho, spending many years living at his sister’s house at Eugene Street and Castle Drive. That house now is being transformed into a cultural center with artist studios, galleries and a residency.

Despite his physical limitations, Castle created an enormous body of artwork. Today his drawings — made with his primary medium of soot and his own spit — as well as his collages and constructions are collected by museums and art lovers around the world.

The play is a nonlinear exploration of the artistic impulse to create, Weild says.

“James Castle is one of the most important American outsider artists. He made art because he had to, and he never stopped,” she says. “We all are James Castle. For all artists, it doesn’t matter if they are dancers, directors or playwrights, the impulse to create drives us. It’s about how we make sense of our world.”

The play and production are influenced by German choreographer and theater artist Pina Bausch and Italian film director Pippo Delbono. The music is inspired by self-taught musician John Hartford. The production incorporates performers who are ethnically and functionally diverse. JW Guido, who plays Castle, is profoundly deaf; Chris Lopes, who plays the narrator, is an actor with Down syndrome.

Castle has been the subject of solo exhibits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Philadelphia and Boise art museums, and other sites around the globe, and of two documentary films.

The city of Boise bought the former homesite of the self-taught artist in 2015. Construction will begin on Tuesday to transform the site at Eugene Street and Castle Drive into a complex devoted to history, culture and to telling the story of one of Idaho’s most celebrated artists.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and other city leaders will host a celebration for the Castle site groundbreaking. Read more here.

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