Professional, Community-Minded Theater in the High Country; Ensemble Stage Prepares For New Season

Published Monday, April 23, 2018 at 8:37 am


Gary Smith – Photo by Frank Ruggiero

By Lauren Miller and Jonathan Ocheltree

“I can’t think of anything, with doing what I do, that I don’t look forward to, which is pretty awesome.”

Gary Smith, the artistic director of Banner Elk’s Ensemble Stage, cheerfully directs our attention to the stage and the auditorium facing it. In this intimate 99-seat theater, every seat feels arm’s length from the stage, and every sound crisply bounces across this converted gymnasium in the heart of the Historic Banner Elk School. It’s an intimate, community-driven theater experience Smith is eager to share with the community, a community that has given him and countless others the ability to do what they love right here in the High Country for nearly a decade.

“The town itself, the town government, I cannot tell you how amazing it’s been to be in this town and how wonderful it’s been. We’re like partners.”

Founded in 2009, this nonprofit professional theater has entertained the High Country community with a wide array of shows, from thoughtful dramas to suspenseful thrillers. While always an important member of the High Country, Ensemble Stage has truly been able to flourish since moving to their new home last year. This new venue, along with the community support Smith is quick to praise, have only strengthened Smith’s commitment to giving back.

“The town really wanted us here and they were so excited about the fact of us coming out here, and they’ve been so supportive. And it literally is a town effort. We’re a professional theater, but we’re certainly a part of the community and understand our place in the community.”

For Smith, the magic of his theater is created from start to finish by the community, from table reads to set design to furnishings. Before Ensemble Stage chooses a production, community members are invited to participate in play readings. Hearing the plays read aloud helps Smith determine whether or not a given production is a good fit for Ensemble Stage, while also helping Smith choose which production would be most impactful in any given moment.

These community readings heighten Smith’s already keen awareness of the need to engage his audience by challenging preconceptions and examining complex themes.

“I don’t mind there being things that occasionally cause patrons to feel uncomfortable, as long as those things aren’t gratuitous. But I also weigh what my patrons enjoy. Part of my job, and part of theater’s job, is to push those patrons a little bit farther each year. I won’t put something in there just to push them. I’ll put something in there that will have some kind of relevance to what’s going on today. It seems to be working because, since 2009, we’ve had so many people that have been season subscribers’ year in and year out, and we gain more every year… So I think we’re doing something right.”

It is difficult to properly measure that success without simply looking at the odds Ensemble Stage overcame to get to where they are today. Founding a company, working with what many would deem a restrictive budget, in the height of the Great Recession, would seem daunting for most. Keeping professional theater alive in the High Country, despite the turmoil it’s weathered, is a job Smith considers well worth the effort.

“When you love the town you’re in, when you love the space you’re in, when you love the people that support you, when you love shows that you do, you love the actors you work with — I mean, every day is exciting,” Smith said.

Smith attributes much of this love to the High Country itself, with the mountains of North Carolina being a draw for many actors. As a nonprofit, Ensemble Stage isn’t always able to entice potential actors, extras, assistants, and stagehands with a hefty paycheck. Instead, Smith offers a unique chance for outsiders to experience the High Country, an experience he and the community already know to be a special one, and for longtime residents to provide something entirely new.

“It’s too hard of work to have somebody be a part of it that isn’t having fun. They get paid, sure, but it doesn’t pay enough to not have fun. The fact that we’re in the mountains of North Carolina, that in and of itself is a big draw to them [actors], and a lot of them will look at it as a working vacation.”

Smith also knows that a major draw to his company is the intimacy of his stage, where actors can almost feel every gasp and every chuckle from the patrons, and they theirs. Smith describes the advantages actors have in smaller venues, where they can forego large, sweeping gestures in favor of simply talking with an audience, utilizing subtleties in their performances that would go unnoticed on larger stages and in larger crowds. It’s one of the many factors that makes an Ensemble Stage production feel closer than almost any other.

The result is a win-win scenario for all involved. Ensemble Stage gets to set up shop in a supportive, exciting environment, and the High Country community gets access to high-quality, low-cost professional theater productions. What’s not to love?

For Smith, a simple “nothing” would suffice.

“This town amazes us every day and we cannot wait to get out here and do our thing. It’s like every morning, and I know this sounds very cliché, but every morning is like Christmas morning.”

This is all possible because of community — both the community of dedicated Ensemble Stage members and the High Country community who benefit so much from their performances.

“It’s an ensemble effort. It includes the actors, it includes the crew, it includes the builders, the designers, all of it.”

Best of all, this ensemble would simply not be possible without a vibrant community effort at every stage.

“There’s all kinds of ways of getting involved and being a part of theater without being on the stage or having it cost anything.”

Smith implores anyone who has an interest in theater to volunteer with something as simple as community table reads, which he considers just as beneficial as attending a show, to helping his crew create and transition stage elements. For the Ensemble Stage, it’s only natural that the community creates the theater that all can enjoy.

Ensemble Stage is located at 185 Azalea Cir SE, Banner Elk. Their summer season opens June 8th with the exciting suspense thriller, Deadly Murder. Tickets and season subscriptions may be purchased at

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