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Members of the Rural Academy Theater travel into Boone on Wednesday in preparation for two unique shows in which the wagon transforms into the stage. Photo by Kellen Moore

Originally published: 2012-10-04 21:15:14
Last modified: 2012-10-05 09:03:45

Horse-drawn theater rides into Boone

It’s a safe bet that Watauga County has never seen a production quite like what the Rural Academy Theater has in store tonight.

The Burgaw-based troupe arrived in Boone this week via horse-drawn wagon, attracting curious glances from drivers as it prepared to present a never-before-seen combination of theater, silent film, puppetry, song and dance.

“We’re really your standard, horse-pulled theater,” said Gabriel Harrell, who co-founded the theater with his brother, Noah Harrell.

The brothers — who between them have degrees in theater, anthropology and fine arts — aim through their tour to transform ordinary, small-town spaces across the state into live art venues.

The debut tour started on Sept. 29 in Marshall, N.C., and will wind through the Appalachian Mountains before heading eastward for a final show on the home turf in Burgaw. The idea was to travel on a “human scale,” averaging seven to 15 miles per day, Gabriel Harrell said.

Despite hitting a snag Tuesday evening when one of the horses lost a shoe outside Boone, Harrell said Thursday that the experience in Boone has been excellent.

At each stop, the brothers, along with seven others who are presenting the shows, offer an evening of theater followed by a bicycle-powered silent film projection with live musical accompaniment.
“It’s a bit of everything,” Harrell said.

In planning for about a year, the performance also deals with the role technology plays in human lives, including an examination of the Luddite uprising in England in the 1800s. In that age, skilled textile workers violently protested as they were put out of work by new textile machinery.

The unique blend of entertainment and social commentary, along with the emphasis on man-made power and community, was what led Appalachian State University to invite the Rural Academy Theater to Boone.

“We’re interested in bringing these guys here because it seemed to fit in with the whole climate of sustainability here on campus,” said Teresa Lee, a professor of theater at ASU. “It certainly was unique. Where else are you going to see live theater on a wagon?”

Lee said the three-day residency included classroom discussions with ASU students and an opportunity for students to participate firsthand in a performance held Thursday evening on campus.
The presentation was made possible through collaboration among several departments and a sustainability grant from ASU, she said.

“That’s very exciting, to be part of something that is so new and fresh and unique,” Lee said.

The performance is also a new frontier for the Southern Appalachian Historical Association, which is hosting the public performance tonight and providing overnight accommodations for the horses, Doc and Dolly, said vice chairman Steve Canipe.

Canipe said he was jokingly calling the production a “dog and pony show” — until the troupe arrived Wednesday with dog in tow, and his playful term proved true.

Canipe said he is excited to see exactly what the group will offer.

“I’m going to come and see the show just to see what the heck it is,” he said.

Time: 7:30 tonight
Location: Hickory Ridge Homestead, Horn in the West Drive
Admission is free, although donations will be accepted for the theater.