October 5, 2006


Mudslinging men show their dirty little DVD at Little Art

The mud guys of the Theatre in the Ground, David Epley, left, and Jonathan Crocker will screen their new DVD at the Little Art Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 5.

By Virgil Hervey

It’s wet. It’s gooey. It’s what kids and dogs love to play in. It’s mud, and the Yellow Springs area is (sometimes) home to two of the few adults who make their living flinging it around.

Jonathan Crocker and Dave Epley, sometimes known as “the mud guys,” form the core of Theater in the Ground, an independently-produced show which travels the Renaissance festival circuit six months out of each year. Currently, the two and their co-mud-flingers are performing at the Ohio Renaissance Festival in Harveysburg, about a half-hour’s drive from Yellow Springs. This year the festival runs from Labor Day weekend until Oct. 22.

Theatre in the Ground contains three shows, “Beowulf in the Mud,” “Dante’s Inferno,” and “The Viking Show.” The performers put on four performances daily on weekends, doing the popular “Beowulf” twice. All are performed in a pit of brown, gooey mud. According to Crocker, Theater in the Ground is a primary draw at all of the festivals where they work.

This Thursday evening, Oct. 5, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Little Art Theatre, Crocker and Epley will honor their fans, as well as their community of friends from town, with a party and a showing of their new DVD of “Beowulf in the Mud.” Crocker did the editing and effects on the DVD. Afterward, at 9 p.m. the Little Art will show an independent Icelandic/Canadian film titled “Beowulf and Grendel” at matinee prices ($5.50).

Both men have substantial ties to Yellow Springs. Crocker was raised in the village until the age of 8 when his family moved to Vermont. He attended the Antioch School, and has many happy memories of growing up in the village, he said.

Seventeen years ago, Crocker had been performing “Beowulf in the Mud” for six years when he got a call inviting him to bring his act to Ohio. He was reluctant to come until he checked out a map to see where Harveysburg was, Crocker said, and realized that it was fairly close to Yellow Springs. For the past 17 years, he has been living here three months out of the year, spending most of the rest of the year in Norway with his wife and two children.

Epley was introduced to Yellow Springs, when Crocker invited him to join his act 15 years ago, he said. He had been spending three months out of the year here as well, until he and his wife purchased a house out on State Route 343 five years ago. Since then he has immersed himself in village life, by serving as a certified EMT and firefighter for Miami Township Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on a project he calls “Dr. Kaboom: big fun with simple science,” for which he hopes to get funding so he can perform it in the local schools, Epley said.

The Ohio Renaissance Festival lasts for eight weeks, but with set-up time, especially for the mud, it is a three-month commitment, the men said. If they are going to a new festival, they can send ahead the specs for the stage, but they insist on taking care of the mud themselves, in order to be sure it is clean and free of debris. They use only the finest sifted topsoil.

“We form a bond with our mud supplier,” Crocker said. “We can’t use the same mud from year-to-year, because things grow in it.”

The mud adds an element of risk. Although audience members are warned before the show that they might get dirty, they sit up front anyway, Crocker said. And then there is the weather…. On warm days like recent ones, the mud absorbs body temperature, Epley said.

According to Crocker, their shows are character-driven improvisation, heavily dependent on audience participation and interaction. Crocker, who created the show, has been doing “Beowulf in the Mud” for 23 years, for over 1,000 performances. Crocker said that Epley, with a Disney World street performance background, is well suited to the concept.

The same fans keep coming back, because the show is different every time. And, because they have caught the spirit of the event, they often come in costume, usually renaissance dress, but not always.

At the Ohio Renaissance Festival Crocker and Epley must always remain in character. At the party their fans, many of them from Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton, will have a chance to talk to them out of character. The party will also be a chance for family and friends, who have not seen the show, “to get together in the context of what we do,” Crocker said.

There will be live music, refreshments and door prizes. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for kids. Little Art discount ticket cards will also be accepted. The DVDs will be available for purchase and there will be a signing session as well as an opportunity to ask questions after the screening.

“You are allowed to come in costume,” Crocker added.

The History of Yellow Springs