Speak Easy: NKU’s Sue Ott Rowland Talks Snake Charmers

Actress, director, world traveler, and since January of last year, Northern Kentucky University’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, Sue Ott Rowlands shows off her performance chops this month with “The Play’s the Thing” at the Mercantile Library as part of NKU’s Six@Six Lecture Series. Ott Rowlands intersperses the lecture with excerpts from her solo show, Mud Nostalgia, about a woman’s struggle in an Appalachian Holiness religion—where faith and snake-handling collide.

So snake handling—where did that interest come from?

In the late 1990s, when I was at Ohio State University [as head of the Acting and Directing Program], I read Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington, about a preacher who tried to murder his wife by thrusting her hands into snake boxes. I began to reflect. I was raised in a small, conservative Oklahoma town—there wasn’t snake handling, but it resonated in some ways: the patriarchy, issues of faith and betrayal.

How did the theater piece develop out of that?

I approached an OSU grad student, Mark Evans Bryan, who had already written a play about snake handling. It continued to evolve, and by the time I performed it at the Prague International Fringe Festival [in 2011] we added music, re-wrote the text, added video. Now, I’ve added a new lecture.

The heart of your lecture is about the power of theater. How does that fit your role at NKU?

Art connects everything. To create citizens of the 21st century, we have to give them a global view, and the best way to understand is to experience. In October, I took a team from NKU to Sri Lanka. I wanted to open their eyes to possibilities. I’d like to see our students living in villages and doing service, creating poetry, music, performance, not just in Sri Lanka but wherever.

Does your arts background impact the administrative aspects of your job?
Administration is an essentially creative activity—understanding the world at large, for me, has come from the research I’ve done for various theater projects. Actors learn to read and understand human behavior.


“The Play’s the Thing,” Mercantile Library, 6 pm, Feb 11, mercantilelibrary.com


Originally published in the February 2015 issue.

Illustration by Pablo.

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