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Exit Through the Gift Shop: A Small Town With Big Dreams And Bigger Blunders

March 24, 2023

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes these good intentions make for some great comedy.

We love to watch when foolish characters take on a problem with a lot of vision, a lot of drive, and a lot of creativity…and an underwhelming serving of smarts. We grin and guffaw as their eyebrow-raising “solutions” escalate in lunacy. And in response, we’re not let down in the comedy department.

This is where we find our nine characters in Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!), FST’s newest World Premiere to hit its Mainstage.

The townspeople of Beaver Gap, PA are in a bit of a bind. Businesses are being boarded up and the town is on the brink of fiscal collapse. It’s up to the Town Council to come up with a brilliant, new idea that will turn the tide for this dying town.

Their big idea? They’ll rename the town to honor a dead, Native American, war hero and sports star who never even visited their town during his lifetime. That will be sure to draw the tourists in!

Let's pause a minute here. Is this all sounding completely far-fetched? What if we told you it was based on true story?

“I grew up thinking that Jim Thorpe, PA, was the home of Jim Thorpe,” said playwright Bruce Graham. “It wasn’t until I got to college that someone informed me that not only was he not born there, he’d never even visited.”

The real Pennsylvania town of Jim Thorpe was renamed after an Olympic Gold Medalist who, despite never setting foot in the town during his lifetime, now finds his final resting place there, where his burial site welcomes almost 200,000 visitors each year. Today, nestled in the Poconos Mountains, Jim Thorpe is a popular tourist destination, drawing outdoors enthusiasts for skiing, snowboarding, and white-water rafting, as well as year-round visitors who enjoy the local restaurants, shops, museums, and small-town charm.

“The absurdity of this story sat in the back of my mind for many, many years,” said Graham. “Why would a town rename itself after a dead Native American man who never even drove through?”

Ultimately, at the heart of this new play is humor – humor in the ways we try, we struggle, we trip, and we stumble through this life – all the while well-meaning, though incurably human. But beneath the humor, this play also deals with more serious topics of cultural appropriation, ethics, and civic responsibility.

“The play explores how American culture is transforming and the importance of being sensitive to other cultures,” said FST Artistic Director Richard Hopkins. “But, through comedy, it does so in a way that doesn’t make anyone a ‘villain’ or ‘evil.’”

FST played a key role in the development of Visit Joe Whitefeather. The theatre commissioned the work as part of its 2020 Playwrights Project, employing 33 of the country’s top writers to develop new works for the stage. Beyond the commission and financial support, FST nurtured the development of this new work, providing artistic guidance, play readings, and live audiences to give the playwright much-needed feedback as he edited and re-edited the work into the version audiences will experience for the first time on FST’s Mainstage beginning April 5.

“With a comedy it all comes down to one thing: did the audience laugh?” said Graham. “You can’t ‘do comedy’ in a vacuum, so FST’s support was huge for the play’s development.”

“After three years in development, we are proud to be able to finally give this play its World Premiere,” said Hopkins. “Without new plays we would only have old plays. And with only old plays, we would only have old thoughts. I hope you enjoy Visit Joe Whitefeather, and its many opportunities to think and laugh. And laugh some more.”

Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!) is now playing in FST's Gompertz Theatre through May 21, 2023.