What’s their motivation?

Scene from Killer Joe

Serving up a heaping helping of theater: A scene from the Raleigh Ensemble Players’ Killer Joe, one of 29 shows to play as part of the Stoneleaf Theatre Festival.

“The western part of [North Carolina] is really a center of gravity for theater in the state,” claims Terry Milner, executive director of the NC Theatre Conference. As if to prove that point, NCTC will holds its inaugural 10-day Stoneleaf Theatre Festival in Asheville, beginning this week.

“Asheville has venues like nowhere else in North Carolina,” Milner enthuses during an interview with Xpress. “Big, small, art galleries and performance centers — and they’re all walkable.”

And that — along with a long weekend, nice scenery and small-town charm — is what he hopes will attract a theater-hungry audience to Western North Carolina.

There’s more to a holiday than grilling out

Here’s the deal: 26 theater companies from across the state perform 29 shows in 11 locations between Friday, May 27 and Sunday, June 5.

But why Asheville?

To begin with, the 2000 census showed North Carolina as the country’s 11th most populous state, and it ranks among the top ten fastest growing. So what does this mean for theatergoers?

“Creative people are not moving to these places for traditional reasons,” stresses Richard Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic, 2002). “What they look for in communities are abundant high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people.”

Which explains why, when NCTC contacted Asheville theaters, they found a warm reception. So, a welcoming creative community combined with a walkable arts district makes for a promising theater festival — not just for locals but for vacationers from other parts of the state who may not include theatergoing in their routine at home. With many of the plays being staged by theater groups from the triangle area and Charlotte, out-of-town visitors have the opportunity to check out actors they may have been planning to see at home. Locals, meanwhile, can drop in on 14 WNC troupes, or take in something completely different — like a free staged reading of Miss Julie, slated for production in Finland later this year.

And, with Stoneleaf kicking off Memorial Day weekend, there’s plenty of time for tourists to turn into theatergoers.

Taboo or not taboo: That is the question

More than a plethora of theater groups and venues, Stoneleaf offers an almost amusingly wide range of material (let’s just say that world-altering religious conflict and Aesop’s Fables get equal time in the spotlight).

“The selection is incredibly diverse,” agrees Milner. “We tried to make it easy for people to see what they’re interested in seeing.”

Actually, NCTC didn’t have to try too hard — the organization selected theater groups, but allowed each company to pick its own play. The result? Family-friendly musicals, gritty dramas, puppetry, Shakespeare, and a series of staged readings that make use of an entire downtown hotel.

Then there are the odd themes that popped up. Interested in Jewish issues? Check out Mamaleh!, a musical about a Jewish-American housewife; the American premiere of Hard Love, penned by an Israeli playwright; and Via Dolorosa, a one-man exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Looking for something challenging (in a get-a-sitter sort of way)? Check out Killer Joe, a dark comedy set in a Texas doublewide trailer. Compared to a Tarantino script, Joe features characters that smoke, curse, get nude, throw furniture and attack enough social mores to satisfy the pickiest voyeur. (For something a little less risque, see Xpress‘ review of The Nina Variations in this article.)

The festival also offers workshops, plenty of shows for kids, a gala reception, and, as Milner points out, “an opportunity to see a different kind of theater than you’d see with a big tour.”

Participating theaters are listed below (asterisks denote local companies).

• A Telling Experience
• Asheville Playback Theatre •
• Broadway Arts Productions
• Burning Coal Theatre Company
• Children’s Theatre of Charlotte w/the Tarradiddle Players
• Deep Dish Theatre w/EbZb Productions
• Flatrock Playhouse •
• Grey Seal Puppets
• Hendersonville High School •
• Highland Repertory Theatre •
• Holderness Theater Company
• Manbites Dog Theatre
• Manifest Complexity •
• North Carolina Stage Company •
• Northwest School of the Arts
• Off-Tryon Theatre Company
• Plaeides Productions •
• Raleigh Ensemble Players
• Red Herring Puppets •
• Redundant Theater Company Theater •
• Theatre of a Thousand Juliets •
• Theatre Or
• Transactors Improv Company

Tickets for the Stoneleaf Theatre Festival run $9 for children and $12-$22.50 for adults. For more information, call 257-4500 or visit www.stoneleaftheatrefestival.com.

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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