New holiday play shares local stories and songs

LET IT SNOW: After a rockslide strands passengers in a train depot, they pass the time by sharing Christmas stories and songs. Snowbound by Western North Carolina native Tom Godleski, center row, sixth from the right, with the full cast, premieres at Asheville Community Theatre.
LET IT SNOW: After a rockslide strands passengers in a train depot, they pass the time by sharing Christmas stories and songs. Snowbound by Western North Carolina native Tom Godleski, center row, sixth from the right, with the full cast, premieres at Asheville Community Theatre. Photo by Tommy Propest

Tom Godleski loves to tell tales, though the local musician and playwright insists he got a late start. “When my boys were little, they would beg me to tell them stories, but I didn’t know any good stories,” he says. “I didn’t know how powerful storytelling is.” Though Godleski’s children are now adults, he does spin yarns in his work as a teacher. And, as if to make up for lost time, he’ll pack the anecdotes and memories of friends, family and community members into his new holiday production, Snowbound. The play debuts at Asheville Community Theatre on Friday, Dec. 2, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 18.

The idea for the dramatic work came out of a conversation with ACT marketing director Jenny Bunn. She suggested that Godleski write a Christmas play set in a depot. “And then the wheels got to turning really quickly,” Godleski says. “It’s a great process because I started thinking of all the things I could add in.”

His initial idea for the 1950s-era show was for a group of travelers to be stranded in a train station following a rockslide. Forest Jarrett, a retired Norfolk Southern police chief, filled in some details for Godleski — including the fact that, in the case of a rockslide, the marooned passengers would have been picked up by a Greyhound bus. Godleski worked that into his script, along with holiday tales that the travelers share to pass the time.

“I used my own story from when I was 10 or 11, and my brother and I got bikes for Christmas,” he says. “My mom was real tricky with it. She didn’t have the bikes out in the living room on Christmas morning, and [we thought] all we got were some apples and oranges and some nuts.”

Another story comes from Godleski’s wife’s childhood, when she took the baby Jesus from the family Nativity scene so she could sleep with it. There’s also one culled, almost word for word, from a newspaper clipping — in 1919, a woman named Vernie Allen was too poor to buy presents for her children, so she baked them giant gingerbread cookies.

“People tell me stories all the time,” Godleski says. “I love it.” Often, the hope is that he’ll work an anecdote into one of his songs. Also a musical late bloomer, Godleski sang a little bit in school (“sometimes on pitch”) but didn’t pick up the bass until he was 29. With a friend, he started a country rock and blues band, “and I grew me a mullet. I had the best mullet ever,” he jokes.

Godleski eventually formed Buncombe Turnpike; the bluegrass outfit has been performing for nearly two decades and is set to release a new album next year. Members of that group, as well as players from fellow bluegrass collective Sons of Ralph, will be the onstage band for Snowbound. They’ll play an array of songs, including classic Christmas carols and some Buncombe Turnpike originals.

“I write about death, I write murder ballads, and I have written a love song or two,” Godleski says. For the show, he penned a pair of holiday songs, as well — something he says he’s always wanted to do. A two-song CD with those new tracks will be available at the Snowbound performances.

While the band onstage adds to they folky feel of the production and allowed the playwright a way to tap his full skill set, it’s not a departure for Godleski. His previous scripts include Fresh Preserves, based on his solo album of the same name. That show also incorporates both actors and musicians.

“If I know somebody has a talent, I love to use it,” Godleski says. During the casting of Snowbound, Godleski realized two elementary school girls both played violin. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be for them to play twin fiddles on “Silent Night?”’” he says. “I think that’s going to be a real special moment.”

The show, directed by theater veteran Mark Jones, is already inspiring other local efforts. Catawba Brewing is releasing a Snowbound Winter Warmer; $1 from every pint sold goes to Asheville Community Theatre. Those funds benefit a good cause: Snowbound will be the final production staged at ACT before the theater undergoes an extensive renovation concurrent with its 70th anniversary. Godleski sees the timing as auspicious. “Maybe it’ll put an asterisk beside it,” he says of his show.

Then he tells the story of how, 20 years ago, he was in Dark of the Moon — he sang an a cappella version of “Barbara Allen” and played in a band, onstage — during ACT’s 50th anniversary. That bookending of theatrical performances seems in alignment with Godleski’s personal mission.

“I love to be creative as much as I can,” he says, “As I get older, I can hardly think of anything without trying to make something creative of it.”

WHAT: World premiere of Snowbound by Tom Godleski
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 2, through Sunday, Dec. 18. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $18 opening weekend. All other shows: $22 adults/$19 seniors and students/$12 children younger than 17

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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