By reaching out rather than confronting their audience, Wolfbane Productions have brought a variety of provocative productions to the rural community of Appomatox. Hedwig is just the latest.
Jo Rozycki | August 1, 2018
For Dustin Williams, the woods around his childhood home in Appomattox, Virginia, were the perfect place for a boy to explore. But he never expected that these very woods would turn into a celebrated entertainment space, or be the home of a limited run of a pop-rock musical about a transgender singer, her botched gender reassignment surgery, and her trials and tribulations — all backed by her rock band, The Angry Inch.
Williams, producing artistic director of Wolfbane Productions, has brought Hedwig and the Angry Inch to his hometown outdoor theatre. Hedwig, a show familiar to the Richmond theatre scene, has made its impression on the small town of Appomattox, sending loud vocals, pounding drums, and crazy guitar licks through the backwoods of the rural town.
“I had seen the movie of Hedwig in 2001,” said Williams. “I had always appreciated it, but I always thought of that show as a New York [show], set in the bar, where it’s traditionally done.” While he spoke, we were avoiding the pouring rain in a building he called the “Evil Dead Cabin.” Pretty self-explanatory.
After his partner, Ken, encouraged him to look at the script, Williams realized that this actually was the perfect show for both Wolfbane and Appomattox. “[On] the first page, [writer] John Cameron Mitchell said ‘This is based on a one night event at this one specific pub. You make this your own; wherever you are is where the show takes place.’ I was like ‘Oh my god, so it’s in Appomattox.’” He was immediately inspired. “Right away, I was like ‘What can we do here?’”
The lack of detail surrounding where and when the show takes place grants perfect flexibility for any theatrical space. Wolfbane’s space includes a castle-like set left over from a past production of Spamalot, a pickup truck rolling through the woods, and a connection to nearby Liberty University. “We’re setting Tommy Gnosis’ concert at Liberty University and we’re ‘live streaming’ between.” The university happens to be 25 minutes away.
With Evil Dead and Rocky Horror Picture Show on their resume, Wolfbane has had its fair share of provocative productions. But Williams insists it’s not to push the envelope or make people uncomfortable. “That would never be our mission. Our mission is entertainment and reaching out.” He pointed out that nowhere in their branding do they use the word ‘theatre.’ “Every single show we had,” he said, “many people [attending] have never seen a live production before. This is their first time.”
He fondly told the story of seeing “good ol’ boys” bringing their wives and ending up dancing to the Time Warp at the end of Rocky Horror. He said people come from all over the county and surrounding area, as well as folks from North Carolina and even Baltimore. “People arrive to our shows on four-wheelers and big pickup trucks,” Williams said. “And we get a ton of students.”
With their proximity to Liberty University, Longwood University, Sweet Briar College, and University of Lynchburg, Wolfbane draws a lot of attention (and talent) from the younger student population. But the most memorable audiences are the ones who Williams least expects. “We did the show Bare: A Pop Opera a couple years ago,” he said. Bare tells the story of two boys who fall in love at a Christian boarding school. “We had a pastor come to protest. He was ready to stand up and protest in the aisles. It was right after that guy from North Carolina said that gays and lesbians should be put behind a fence until they all die off.”
During the show, one of the characters played that sound clip on his laptop. The pastor responded supportively, saying amen for the whole audience to hear. However, having begun the show walking up and down the aisles, the pastor eventually settled down and watched the rest. Afterward, one of the actors brought a message to Williams that he needed to speak to the pastor. “He came to protest, and was planning on bringing his church back to protest again — but he was sobbing and he was like ‘I promise you I will never preach against homosexuality.’”
Stories such as this paint a complex but accurate picture of the folks from Appomattox and similar small towns, according to Williams. “The community is really genuinely a welcoming place.” A show like Hedwig, which unabashedly gets in your face about accepting people for who they are, can be a lot to swallow for folks who do not have much exposure to people like Hedwig.
“If you present it [not] in a way of ‘Look at what we’re doing, are you okay with it?’ but in the sense of ‘Come on in, have a beer, laugh with this guy,’ they’re in it,” said Williams. “It breaks that weird stigma and any boundaries down, without them knowing it’s breaking down stigma or boundaries.” Presenting theatre in the manner of a rock concert or a tailgating event brings the citizens of his small hometown into his beautiful outdoor theatre.
Additionally, Williams said, he hopes that, for those who are potentially in the closet, this show will be beneficial. From the song “Midnight Radio,” Williams highlights the lyrics “For the misfits and the losers/Yeah, you know you’re rock and rollers/Spinning to your rock and roll.” “The outside, the others, you’re rock and roll. Keep being that. I think that’s the message of right now that’s really important to me. It’s not necessarily LGBTQ, not necessarily anything,” he said. “Just anybody that is an ‘other,’ it’s okay to be an ‘other.’ It’s okay to be a question mark.”
After watching a couple numbers, it is safe to say the drive out to Appomattox is well worth it. Plus, the theatrical space and the surrounding area are beautiful. There aren’t many chances left to catch this amazing production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Tickets can be found at the Wolfbane site here. The show runs through August 11.