By Jesse Wood
Jan. 20, 2014. Ensemble Stage, a theatre company in Blowing Rock, is exploring moving its entire operation to West Jefferson, a town that has successfully transformed into an vibrant arts district.
On Thursday, Jan. 29, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., the Ashe County Arts Council is hosting a public meeting with the theatre company at the Ashe Arts Center in West Jefferson to gather input from Ashe County Arts Council members and meet-and-greet with Ensemble Stage’s artistic staff and board.
Ensemble Stage representatives will cover a number of topics, including: “[reasons for] considering a relocation, where they plan to present their performances, their vision of the support, promotion and consideration they’ll offer the other local arts organizations and businesses,” according to a release from the Ashe County Arts Council.
Ensemble Stage was formed in 2009. A year later and again in 2013, the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce awarded the stage company the Cultural Enrichment award. It’s held more than 200 performances of more than 50 productions.
Since its inception, Ensemble Stage has performed in the auditorium of Blowing Rock Elementary School. Last fall, Ensemble Stage Director Gary Smith stood before the Blowing Rock Town Council to request renovating an old fire station in downtown Blowing Rock into a theatre.
Smith said that the school auditorium is no longer a viable option because of scheduling logistics, auditorium condition and patronage growth. In February, the Blowing Rock Town Council agreed to allow Ensemble Stage to move forward with the transformation of the old fire station into the Firehouse Theatre, which was proposed to feature 125-seat auditorium and a number of pertinent amenities for operating a theatre.
The council’s agreement was contingent upon Ensemble Stage, which is free of debt, securing all of the funding necessary for refurbishing the facility and operating the theatre. Ensemble Stage announced its capital campaign in June. According to its schedule that was released at the time, the fundraising for the project – $1 million for capital funds and $350,000 annually for operations – was to be completed by February 2015 and a grand opening was scheduled for May 2015.
Since June, however, Smith said that Ensemble Stage has found that folks wanting to contribute significant funds pause to write a big check to renovate a building that the Town of Blowing Rock owns – and not Ensemble Stage.
Smith called the 10-year lease as opposed to outright owning the facility “one of the biggest contentions” from potential donors.
“They weren’t thrilled with the idea of writing a big check to completely renovate a building to only have it for 10 years,” Smith said.
Smith said that residents of Ashe County initially reached out to him about exploring a move to Ashe County and that since then, Smith has met with officials at the Ashe County Arts Council a couple of times.
As for the benefits of a potential move to Ashe County, Smith said right now property in West Jefferson is about one-third what it costs in Blowing Rock and that now would be a great time to enter West Jefferson because “in a couple years that’s really going to be an arts Mecca.”
He added that scheduling conflicts with other organizations using the school auditorium and the unpredictable weather affecting the school calendar year, it is impossible to schedule events and advertise in publications that require at least six-month lead time.
“We really need to have a place to call our own,” Smith said.
The Ashe County Little Theatre currently produces plays in the Ashe County Civic Center, but Smith said the Ensemble Stage would compliment the arts in Ashe County and not compete with other arts programming in the area.
As it stands, Ensemble Stage will perform its 2015 summer season in the auditorium of the Blowing Rock Elementary School. Asked if the Firehouse Theatre project is finished, Smith said, “Who knows? Nothing is written in stone … The one thing I probably learned about the whole Firehouse [project] was that with these kinds of things, you’ve got to give it time to flesh out.”
“We love Blowing Rock, but we want to see what else is viable and sustainable and what better opportunities present themselves,” Smith said. “Whether that’s in West Jefferson or some place else, we have to look at that. That’s what this is all about: exploration of viability and feasibility.”
For more information about this meeting, contact the Avery County Arts Council at 336-846-2787.