Troy Mink knows how to tell a story.
"I was taking my uncle, who's schizophrenic and disabled, to see Scooby-Doo . . . ," he begins.
It's a sideways way to enter an account of how he ended up with a show based on an anthropologist's collection of ghost tales, but then, that's the point—the storyteller's heart is often revealed in the odd details. Attention to those seemingly random particulars, in fact, is what drew Mink to Dr. William Lynwood Montell, the Western Kentucky University professor whose decades-long commitment to oral traditions provided the source material for Kentucky Ghosts (opening Friday, Oct. 8, at Northwest Actors Studio, 206-325-6500), in which Mink, along with an ensemble of seven other actors and a small bluegrass band, plans to bring to life spine-tingling real-life anecdotes culled from several generations of supernatural experiences.
On the afternoon in question, before he and his decidedly fraught uncle took in Scooby's cinematic hauntings during a hometown visit to Lexington, Mink ducked into a bookstore and stumbled upon the specters that Montell had been lovingly gathering since the 1960s. Montell's work, in books like Ghosts Along the Cumberland and Mysterious Tales From the Barrens, collects spook tales and remembrances from the hills and halls of rural Kentucky. It's all committed to the understanding that within the stories of headless spirits and howling apparitions there is always a common kinship, an essential folk history of a people, a place, a whole way of life. That respectful nostalgia struck a chord with Mink.
"I remember my grandmother, who was a fundamentalist Christian, telling me these ghost stories," he says. "And they were really eerie because you knew the woman wouldn't lie."
Warm-voiced, round-faced Mink has done ghosts—and fundamentalist Christians, for that matter—onstage before. His stellar one-man The Haint animated an eccentric Tennessee town caught in the wake of a poltergeist. Mink's singularly Southern background, full of church meetings and small-town pride, has been fodder for most of what he does ("It's the thing that I have readily available," he shrugs), and what he does is mainly unassuming and mostly unlike anything anyone else is doing in Seattle. For the past several years, he's been Carlotta Sue Philpott, plain and simple, a gossipy Midway, Tenn., matron he portrays as the hostess of Carlotta's Late Night Wing-Ding, an off-the-wall chat show on Capitol Hill. Carlotta isn't drag, isn't caricature, isn't even, it seems, acting. She just is. The quietly hilarious inhabitation is funny in the way real people are amusing— because they don't know they are.
Mink's ability to define characters without intrusive comment should serve Kentucky Ghosts well, and he couldn't have a found a better co-conspirator than K. Brian Neel, who directs and helped create the piece. Neel is another expert in one-man extemporanea (Prick, Double Climax), and his eloquent hand in staging the very different tales of The Erotica Project several seasons ago proved he knows his way around a group of actors.
"It's like creating a really great mix tape," says Neel, by way of explaining the woven-together effect he hopes the multiple- tale telling will have on an audience.
A lot of his job, he says, has been keeping the tales free of actorly ornamentation. He's got a great cast full of Southern ex-pats, but they've had to be careful to be as guileless as the people they're portraying.
"It's been, 'Don't tell that story that well,'" he notes of the process.
Again, the truth is in the matter-of-fact minutiae. Mink remembers the particular quality of the story his mother and father used to share about a hometown murder (which showed up in The Haint).
"My parents used to tell that story as though it were nothing," he laughs, recalling how they'd instead get caught up in the finer points of the street names or family trees.
In order to better capture the commonplace, Mink and Neel decided to utilize the same space in the Northwest Actors Studio where Carlotta works her magic: a living room–type setting with old couches surrounding a stage, so that "everybody can see everybody else's reaction."
"I want people to experience what I did growing up," says Mink, audibly excited at the prospect. "You saw so much of who the person was through the storytelling."