Celebrates 10 Years
of Mischief, Merriment,
and Breaking the Mold
“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night / May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
—Curt Siodmak, screenwriter of the 1941 horror film The Wolf Man
In 2008, a group of friends in Appomattox was determined to find a venue for their production of Bat Boy: The Musical. After reading the musical, director and actor Dustin Williams wanted to bring it to life, and he and several of his friends happened to comprise the perfect cast. Finding a venue, however, was not quite so easy. “I went from theatre to theatre, asking if they would be willing to host our production,” Williams says. “Bat Boy is a bit risqué and not-quite-your-standard theatre, so we were met with a lot of hesitation.”
After a long and fruitless search, Williams decided to break the bad news to his fellow actors. He intended to call his friend Larry first, but instead he accidentally called Larry Hart, Heritage High School’s theatre teacher, who had already passed on hosting the production. “When I realized I had reached the wrong guy, I floundered a bit and made up some excuse for the random call,” Williams recalls. “Just before I hung up, he stopped me and said that he’d been thinking a lot about my request to do Bat Boy and it was a show he really wanted to see, so since we hadn’t found any other space, he went ahead and gave me a green light. We had a space!”
Hart’s one caveat was that Williams come up with a name for his company so people wouldn’t think that Heritage High School students were involved in what Williams calls a “bloody, insane show.” Williams decided on Wolfbane, taken from a quote from the 1941 horror film The Wolf Man, because it speaks not only to the theme of Bat Boy, but also to his personal philosophy about the transformative power of theatre. “The theme of Bat Boy was ‘don’t deny your beast inside’ and we loved the idea of theatre transforming folks into a wilder, freer version of themselves and fighting against the stuffy stereotype,” Williams says. “So we became Wolfbane.”
Nearly ten years later, Wolfbane continues to push the envelope and deliver unconventional, high-caliber shows to unconventional, delighted audiences. “We work hard to pick shows that are not focused at a traditional theatre audience,” Williams says. “We are on a mission to re-brand theatre and let the general public know that it is not only for the wealthy or the stuffy or the elite. Wolfbane shows are first and foremost immersive and experience-based. We have a base that is not your typical theatre group. In fact, we try to avoid using the word ‘theatre’ in our branding. This way we reach a lot of folks who would typically shy away from seeing live theatre.”
In addition to putting on inherently offbeat productions like Evil Dead: The Musical!, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Bubble Boy: The Musical, Wolfbane has also created and produced original adaptations of several Shakespeare classics. “Probably the most fulfilling productions have been our original adaptations of the Shakespeare classics,” Williams says. “We’ve done a reimagined Tempest that was set on a fantasy Celtic island and a Macbeth staged outside in the middle of the Blue Ridge, where we built a massive castle set and had full battles that stretched across the countryside. We produced a 90’s pop musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the forest at the Devils Backbone Brewing Company in Roseland, and this past year we produced our Civil War adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at Appomattox Court House Historical National Park. All of these are tailored towards Wolfbane’s unique brand of theatre and it’s wonderful to see audiences fall in love with them.”
Williams, who divides his time between New York City and Appomattox, was casting for a Wolfbane production in NYC in 2012 when he met actor Ken Arpino. “I met Wolfbane’s founder Dustin Williams five years ago in New York,” Arpino recalls. “He was casting Bare: A Pop Opera at the time and wanted me to consider one of the roles. I said no. He was persistent and eventually talked me into it.” Arpino quickly felt at home at Wolfbane and is now its Director of Development. “Wolfbane was unlike any other theatre I had worked for,” he says. “The company members have such a genuine passion for the work, an energetic, creative drive, and true sense of family. I felt so welcome—and challenged—and knew I wanted to be a part of it.” Arpino and Williams agree that Appomattox is the ideal home
“Wolfbane is comprised of a bunch of self-described nerds—history nerds included—and Appomattox’s rich history is a huge draw for us,” Arpino says. “The Civil War ended here. Slavery ended here. The stories we could create about this area are unending. Also, the landscapes in this area are gorgeous. As an outdoor theatre, it is important that we feel connected to the natural environments we work in. We feel very at home here.”
Williams adds that “the community has absolutely embraced Wolfbane and we are beyond excited about the future of Wolfbane in our Appomattox home.”
That future looks bright indeed. After becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and increasing their season from 10 weeks to 23 weeks in 2015 and bringing their entire season to the outdoor amphitheater Wolf P.A.C. (Performing Arts Center) last year, Wolfbane has cemented itself as a major Appomattox attraction. As the vice-chair of the Experience Appomattox campaign, Arpino hopes that this initiative will generate even more interest in Wolfbane and other area attractions and thus bolster the community. “The Experience Appomattox campaign was created by a group of Appomattox entities with a vested interest in tourism growth,” he says. “We love our community and want to see our visitor numbers and spending increase. Tourism is a huge revenue generator, job creator, and opportunity provider. As a committee, we hope to attract a diverse array of visitors from all over the world to our little corner of Central Virginia.”
Despite an increasingly demanding schedule, Williams, Arpino, and Resident Designer Christine Yepsen also make time to promote arts education. In addition to offering master classes for both high school and college students, Wolfbane has established an annual theatre exchange for high school students at Heritage High School after a hugely successful inaugural exchange this year.
“The theatre exchange gives students the chance to show off their talents and meet other creatives from the area,” Arpino says.
“It is a great way for students to work with industry professionals, ask questions, and work on new material. The Theatre Exchange is valuable to students looking to work on the stage or behind the scenes, and it’s a great chance for Wolfbane to meet local talent.
We have offered internship and acting opportunities to students who have participated.” He adds that arts education is important for everyone in that “the arts build confidence, sharpen public speaking skills, enhance team building, promote strict discipline, and challenge critical thinking daily. These are traits that are pivotal to potential employers, college interviews, and leadership roles in general.”
As Wolfbane forges ahead into its second—and likely even more exciting—decade of operation, its staff hopes to continue to entertain audiences from both near and far, boost tourism in Appomattox, share their expertise and enthusiasm with students, and perhaps even to break into a little thing called Broadway. “Eventually, we would love to see one of our pieces produced on Broadway,” says Arpino, who has acted in the Broadway touring companies of Mamma Mia!, Legally Blonde: the Musical!, and Hairspray. No matter what audience Wolfbane reaches, its ultimate goal is to create a fun and unique experience that particular audience will never forget. “Not only do I get to play in the woods, work with some of the best people you’ll ever meet, and lose myself in the most awesome shows; I also get to watch audiences go on the ride we’ve set up for them,” Williams says. “Their reactions and enjoyment are everything.”