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Introducing the Ensemble Stage Company

Article Published: Nov. 19, 2009 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Introducing the Ensemble Stage Company

From left, Gary Smith, Lisa Lamont, Jesseca Terheer-Johnson, Robert Miller Jr., Melanie Miller, Jamie Billman and Tim Billman are the Ensemble Stage Company.

Photo by Mark Mitchell

It's not community theater, but theater for the community.

The recently established Ensemble Stage Company has raised the curtain for professional theater in the High Country, and just in the time for the holidays.

Its founders bring to the stage a combined 70 years of professional experience, but more importantly, a dogged devotion to theater. The company's first production, War of the Worlds, premiered Halloween weekend, but was developed entirely over two months.

"Most shows you prepare for six months in advance, but we wanted to give something to the community," co-founder Gary Smith said.

The show featured both actors and local celebrities performing a dramatization of Orson Welles' infamous broadcast, staying true to the stage company's agenda of "getting people involved as much as we can."

Involved from the start were Smith and co-founders Lisa Lamont, Bob Miller and Tim Billman, veterans of the Blowing Rock Stage Company, which suspended operations following its 2009 summer season due to a negative economic climate.

"It's something we'd talked about for a while," Smith said of founding Ensemble, "and when the announcement was made that the Hayes (Performing Arts) Center and the Blowing Rock Stage Company were closing, that spurred it on. The communities here have gotten so used to have some performing arts venue to attend, and we really felt it was our responsibility to offer that."
Ensemble, though, decided to offer more.

"We want theater to be a full sensory involvement with the audience," Smith said. "If a show is set in a certain time period, like War of the Worlds, we want you to walk into the theater and feel like you're in that time. If a character's baking bread on stage, you're going to smell it."

For War of the Worlds, the auditorium was decorated accordingly, a movie screen showed period trailers and shorts, and even ushers donned clothing styles of the late 1930s.

"Theater's all about going to another place, taking people to another place on all sensory levels," Smith said. "I want people, when they walk out of the door, to have been so involved they forget where they really are. That's what theater is - escape and explore."

According to Smith, the community embraced War of the Worlds, its Oct. 30 performance at the Blowing Rock School auditorium (the Blowing Rock Stage Company's former home) seeing 225 of 248 seats filled. The following day, Appalachian State University's student radio station, WASU, broadcasted the performance.

"To me, that just solidified the fact that this is the right thing to do," Smith said. "There's obviously a market for it here."

A necessary component was community feedback, he said, as ticket-holders completed surveys following the show, indicating what sort of performances they'd like to see next. A Christmas variety show, akin to those of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams, topped the list, and Ensemble is providing.

"Even on our fully professional shows, we'll have the community involved as much as we can," Smith said.

For Christmas in Blowing Rock, the company has asked Blowing Rock Elementary School students to make ornaments for the tree on stage, and community members have volunteered to deck the halls.

Smith said the company is exploring alternate venues throughout the High Country, rather than solely Blowing Rock.

"To me, this is one great big giant community," he said. "We're going to get rid of that stigma that there's Boone and then there's Blowing Rock. We want both to be equally involved."
This leads to a broader audience, which Ensemble also hopes to attract with affordable ticket prices. Smith said admission should remain in the $10 range.

"We want a rate that can let a family of four come see a show without using their whole paycheck to do it," he said. "Even when we get into doing the bigger shows, that's something we want to keep. If our board members do their jobs, we can keep our prices for even our most professional shows under $20."

Community participation plays another role, like with War of the Worlds, when area businesses and agencies contributed items for sound effects - the Children's Playhouse, a drum, and the Blowing Rock Police Department, tuning forks.

At present, Ensemble Stage is filing for nonprofit status, while also assembling a board of directors.

"We need members who are passionate," Smith said. "All of them will need to have a love of theater and participate by coming to the shows. It's not about the paycheck or how much money you make, but about giving people the opportunity to do something they love."

A company auxiliary will organize volunteer efforts and public relation events, but Smith said board members must remain accessible to the audience.

Ensemble was founded with funds from the pockets of its four founders, as well as some passionate community members. An advisory committee of Smith, Lamont, Miller, Billman and three others charts the company's course, "and all of us have been involved in theater for a combined experience of 70 years, and close to 600 productions," Smith said. "And we work well together, too."

Sixty of those performances were with each other under the Blowing Rock Stage Company. Some of Smith's memorable roles include Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Smee in Peter Pan.

"If you look at all the things the co-founders and advisory committee have done in theater, it's an insane list - artistic directors, producing artistic directors, directors, set designers, lighting designers, everything down to box office manager, and all professional shows," Smith said. "I can't think of any job in theater that at least one of us hasn't done."

And they're willing to work others. As theater for the community, Smith said Ensemble wants to participate in every feasible aspect, be it festivals, special events or private functions.

"We want to hear the community's ideas and see what they're thinking - you can't sell the community short," Smith said. "They all believe in what we're doing and have donated time and talent to help us. We want to do the same."

For more information about the Ensemble Stage Company, call (828) 406-2884 or visit

'Christmas in Blowing Rock'
Ensemble Stage has scheduled auditions for Christmas in Blowing Rock, seeking children ages 6-14 with good singing voices, and men and women ages 18-60 with good singing voices and acting skills.

Boone auditions are scheduled for Nov. 22, at 6:30 p.m., at a location to be announced. Blowing Rock auditions are scheduled for Nov. 23, 5:30 p.m. for children and 6:30 p.m. for adults, at a location to be announced.

Performance dates are Dec. 18 and 19. For more information and to schedule an audition time, call (828) 406-2884.

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