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Appalachian Artists Collective wants to shake up local theater

WANT TO GO?

The Tennessee Williams Project

WHERE: Alban Arts Center, 65 Olde Main St., St. Albans

WHEN: 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday

TICKETS: Adults $20, students and seniors $10. INFO: Call 304-721-8896

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There was a point a little more than a year ago when actress and acting coach Leah Turley was really ready to leave West Virginia for good.

The 27-year-old had plans to move to Washington, D.C. to pursue acting and had come home over the summer to teach a few theater workshops.

"I'd actually been gone for almost 10 years when I came back," she said. "And the thing I noticed was not a lot had changed with local theater since I'd been away."

All the people were the same.

"What I noticed was that the same companies were producing pretty much the same kind of work with the same leadership intact," she said. "I kind of wondered, 'Why aren't more young artists staying and kind of picking up the slack?"

Turley and the Appalachian Artists Collective, for which she's creative director, hope to remedy that. Today, the group presents its first production, "The Tennessee Williams Project," a collection of scenes from Tennessee Williams work including "Talk to Me Like the Rain," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "This Property is Condemned" and "Summer and Smoke."

Using a broad series of acting methods from Sensory Awareness to Meisner and Suzuki, Turley and Collective member Evan Wilson will create a journey through eight characters and four locales. It's not the usual theater show, Turley thought, and that's kind of the point of the Appalachian Artists Collective.

Turley said she began working on the project after she decided to stay in West Virginia.

"I called up Evan. I asked him if he wanted to do something acting work with me -- nothing serious, just do some scenes and see what happens."

The idea sort of expanded and evolved.

"We tried a little bit of everything," Turley said. "We decided to look at the romantic relationships in Tennessee Williams's works. They're complicated and not always beautiful or perfect, but he really illustrates the point that the way we love each person is different. I think that comes throughout the scenes we chose."

During the many months of preparation for the show, Turley decided to start the Appalachian Artists Collective. She called on friends like Wilson, who she'd acted with since junior high, and they sort of threw themselves into building a for-profit theater company.

She said they did it keep some semblance of control and because non-profits are struggling.

"Part of the reason we chose to do this as a for-profit company is we want to look at theater as really more of a small business for us," she said. "We figure out amongst ourselves what we want to do. We gather the funds and create our production that way."

Appalachian Artists Collective has no board to answer to, and the members are not looking into a lot of grant writing.

"That's usually the first thing you do when you start a non-profit," Turley said. "You hire a grant-writer; we hired another actor."

Grants are not a dependable way to raise funds, she said.

"Even if you get the grant, sometimes it can take up to a year to get the funds. Why go through that when we can take our product straight to the people?"

The Collective cobbles together funds in the usual ways. They sell ads in their programs and tickets at their shows, but they also hire out some of their members to give theater workshops and teach acting lessons.

And they plan to remain small, she said. If the collective needs photography, graphic design work or something they can't handle amongst themselves, they hire it out.

"We're not going to have a big staff," she said.

Learning the business of running a theater company has been a lot. Turley said most theater students never really take classes on how to run a business, though she thought they probably ought to.

"As an actor, you don't think about paying the bills or taxes to keep your group going," she said. "We're learning."

Turley doesn't know if Appalachian Artists Collective will be successful, but they're young and passionate about what they're doing. That has to count for something. Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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