“We wanted to tour at a more human pace and perform in small towns,“ says co-founder Gabriel Harrell. He explains that the typical experience of touring with theater companies involves bouncing between major cities. For him, this is “a way to celebrate the rural, and celebrate small-town life and culture.”
At the lumbering speed of 2.5 miles per hour, the Rural Academy Theater is making their second tour through Western North Carolina. The horse-drawn performance troupe loads all of its supplies, instruments and equipment into a wagon-trailer while a few bicyclists ride alongside the caravan to scout roads and rest stops. Part gypsy, part nouveau vagabond, the troop puts on quite the performance, both on stage and off.
Harrell says that in most theater companies, “If you can perform for larger audiences, you do.” But there are drawbacks. “The bigger the houses that you perform in, the more high-tech the equipment, and the more expensive the gadgetry. We’re aimed at something different. How small of a place can we perform?” Harrell says, “It’s nice to perform for a large crowd, but there’s also something really intimate and rewarding about bringing a small show to a small group of people.”
With live music throughout the show, the musicians set an eclectic tone they cheekily refer to as an “Appalachian-balkan-brass-klezmer-dixieland-string ensemble.” There is something other worldly, even anachronistic about what the group is doing. The show dazzles with its magic: the luminescent stage lights paired with live music, storytelling, theatrical drama and shadow puppets.
When asked how they incorporate modern technology into a stylistically low-tech endeavor, Harrell jokingly acknowledges that, yes, they still use cellphones. “There certainly is a contrast, and that contrast is what we’re trying to promote. It’s not that we’re refuting the usefulness of any of those tools, but that we’re calling them into question.
“Performing in this way and traveling in this way is certainly a steep learning curve for us,” says Harrell. “Traffic is a huge concern when going 2.5 miles an hour on the road and when the average vehicle is going between 50 and 70. It’s not only dangerous, but very upsetting to a lot of motorized vehicle drivers.”
The group encounters a range of human reactions on the road — some scornful, some delightful. Harrell continues, “You also get your incredibly generous people who can’t believe that you’re doing what you’re doing. They invite you in and make you scratch biscuits and hot cocoa, and then ask you to spend the night. It’s a real mix, but mostly it’s really rewarding. … It’s incredible, generous people who are excited about what we’re doing.”
Harrell said, “We hope that people come to the shows that are closest to them. And walk to the show, or ride their bike to the show, or ride their horse to a show. And while it’s nice to have people drive to come see us, we hope that maybe if we’re not coming close to you, that you don’t come. Maybe you make your own horse-pulled-theater and perform it in your own town.” Harrell sums up his viewpoint succinctly: “Art should be seen locally.”
Photos published with permission from Nicola Krebill, documentary photographer who toured with the troupe during 2012 and 2013 performances.
A version of this story was originally published by Asheville’s newspaper, Mountain Xpress.