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Calliope Stage, Premiering In Sylva, Built To Disrupt Norm For Rural Theater

Matt Peiken | BPR News



The loading dock behind the former post office in downtown Sylva was never intended as a theatrical stage. 


But beyond the location, Ashlee Wasmund has created something rarely seen in rural Western North Carolina—a theater company focused on new, original, locally produced work.


“I think that has always been on my bucket list,” Wasmund said.


She and her husband moved to Sylva from Chicago six years ago when she became the program director of musical theater and dance at Western Carolina University. Her new company, Calliope Stage, premieres on this loading dock over the next two weekends with a program of 10 original theatrical shorts. The vignettes jump from drama to comedy, music and dance—all created by people in the far west of this state, all inspired by an event, person or place from the region.


Six performances run through Aug. 5-14 on what Calliope is calling the Loading Dock Stage.


“As I sort of settled in and was able to explore the area more, I started just randomly connecting with all these new-to-me artists in the area,” she said. “It opened me to the vibrancy in the area.”


On a recent Monday night, rehearsals for three different shorts were happening at the same time at what is now the home of Triple Threat Dance Academy.  


Few theater companies focus on original work, and that’s particularly so in smaller towns. There are long-held reasons for that. Patrons of live theater tend to be older and prefer to see what they know. At least that’s the conventional wisdom. Wasmund said that’s short-sighted, self-perpetual thinking and that the public appetite for new work simply needs better marketing, akin to the Shop Local movement.


“It should be no different for the performing arts,” she said. “There are incredible artists here. There are incredible stories that go hundreds, thousands of years back. There’s magic here and I’m just excited to be part of an organization that wants to cultivate that and bring it out of the mountains and give it a platform for others to share.”


Caroline Lloyd spent the past six years dancing professionally in New York City before escaping with her partner in an RV and settling earlier this year in Franklin. Now working in the nonprofit arts sector, Lloyd jumped at the opportunity to choreograph a piece and collaborate with a composer.


“Just the chance to be creative, that sometimes gets lost, especially in rural communities,” Lloyd said. “They do a few weekend runs of ‘Mama Mia,’ and you can definitely take creative liberties there, but to really be able to tell stories, branch out, to create something out of nothing, is really a beautiful process. I’m really excited to see what (this company) brings to the community, both from an audience perspective and from a creator perspective.”


Calliope was already active before this production, developing a podcast during the pandemic called “The Nectar Series,” and community education and training classes for the coming fall. Wasmund wants to form a teen ensemble and draw stories for future productions from Western Carolina University’s LGBTQ Oral Archive.


Wasmund is planning a full-length play in 2022 and has her eye on one benchmark of success: Sustainably paying her artists beyond thank-you notes.


“Much like anybody else that’s working with a group of people to start something, I’m scared of failure, scared of how it will be received, scared if there will be support,” she said. “I really want to do things that scare me but exhilarate me at the same time, so although it was a source of fear, I felt strongly it was something I could do with the right people around me and there were people here that would be interested in it, as well.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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