Katie Emerson as Kira, surrounded by the Muses. Courtesy of Wolfbane Productions 2022 Xanadu photo/Parker Michels-Boyce

APPOMATTOX – It’s still unclear if Wolfbane Productions creates magic, or is itself magic.

In the last 15 years, the company has gone from having one show a year – just for fun – to a full-time production company, with five shows per season and programs that seek to empower women, educate students and promote equality.

“We’re just gonna keep growing and hopefully the more we grow, the more amazing stuff we can bring to Appomattox,” said Wolfbane founder Dustin Williams as the company prepared for the opening of “Xanadu” and the 15th anniversary season.

With all that Wolfbane is doing, it’s crystal clear that its productions are about more than theater. 

Wolfbane now provides education, runs The Feminine Project, works with Experience Appomattox, which it helped create, and is active with Appomattox for Equality.

All while Wolfbane’s front office staff has climbed from just four to seven employees. 

“Wolfbane has this wild power to transform lives. I’ve seen this happen time and time again since I first came to Wolfbane as an actor in 2016 with ‘Bubble Boy, the Musical.’ As someone who grew up in a rural Southern county myself, I understand the power that a place like Wolfbane has on young lives, as well as folks of all ages,” said Gabrielle Mirabella, Wolfbane’s development director.

“Access to theater is imperative for the well-being and growth of any community, and it’s been a privilege to watch Wolfbane, Appomattox and the surrounding areas continue to flourish. On a personal note, as an actor who has worked in commercial touring and New York theater for over 15 years, working for a nonprofit professional theater has reenergized my love of the industry. Theater here is made not for profits, but for the love of the art form and the joy of the community.”

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Gabrielle Mirabella as Melpomene. Courtesy of Wolfbane Productions 2022 Xanadu photo/Parker Michels-Boyce

Wolfbane’s origin story is well known. 

In between shows in New York, Appomattox-native Dustin Williams set out to have some fun staging the racy musical “Bat Boy” in a pretty conservative part of the state. In 2015 Wolfbane became a nonprofit and opened Wolfbane Performing Arts Center (Wolf PAC) an outdoor amphitheater in Appomattox. In 2019 Williams and (his now) husband Ken Arpino, Wolfbane’s Executive Director, moved from New York to Appomattox to run the theater company year-round. 

Now firmly rooted in Appomattox, Wolfbane sets out to take audiences on an audacious ride with its 15th anniversary season.

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It begins with Olivia Newton-John’s infamous “Xanadu.”

“We really wanted a party to start the season with,” Williams said. The team has been working on “Xanadu” since breaking down “Stranger Sings” in December. 

“It’s really a stupidly silly party,” Williams said.

Wolfbane 2022 season

WHAT: “Xanadu”

WHEN: Thursdays through Sundays, March 10-April 10

TIME: Matinee doors open at 2 p.m.; curtain at 3 p.m. Evening performances doors open at 6:30 p.m., curtain at 7:30 p.m. 

WHERE: INDOOR Venue: Wolf Den, 197 Old Courthouse Road, Appomattox

TICKETS: $25-$40

*Thursday Theme Nights:

March 17: St. Patrick’s Day

Wear green gear. Drink green beer. Then join us post-show next-door at Loose Shoe Too.

March 24: Preshow ‘80s Trivia (starting at 6 p.m.)

March 31: Preshow Broadway Trivia (starting at 6 p.m.)

April 7: Ladies Night: Hosted by the Feminine Project.

Patrons who donate $5 or a box of feminine products will receive a raffle ticket for a basket of goodies. All proceeds from the Ladies Night raffle will directly support women of the greater Appomattox area, who may not have access to the products they need.

WHAT: “Into the Woods”

WHEN: 8-10:45 p.m., May 26-June 26

TICKETS: $25-$40

WHAT: “Camp Crystal Lake: The Musical.” A “Friday the 13th” parody

WHEN: 8-9:45 p.m., Aug. 4-13

TICKETS: $25-$40

WHAT: Wolfswood Faire

WHEN: 7:30-9:45 p.m., 7-9 p.m., Aug. 27

TICKETS: $25-$40

WHAT: Hocus Pocus Movie Night

WHEN: Oct. 9

TICKETS: $25-$40

WHAT: Wolfbane’s “MacBeth”

WHEN: 7:30-10 p.m., Sept. 29-Oct. 29

TICKETS: $25-$40

WHAT: “Noises Off”

WHEN: 7:30-10:30 p.m., Dec. 1-18

TICKETS: $25-$40

Visit https://www.wolfbane.org/calendar for the full schedule and tickets.  

If you were impressed with the waterfall Wolfbane built last season, brace yourself because “Xanadu” comes with its own roller skating rink and a full dance party. Thursday theme nights – think St. Patrick’s Day and a Ladies Night – will only up the ante.

“We definitely put a Wolfbane twist on it,” Williams said of the 1980s movie that flopped but struck gold with its soundtrack. 

Remember “I’m Alive,” and “Magic?” 

“The cast is incredible. …the voices are just ridiculous,” Williams said, giving a nod to cast members Katie Emerson, Alec Nevin, Bill Bodine, Gabrielle Mirabella, Beverly Owens, Hubbard Farr, Ellee Evans, Stephen Shelter, Shelbie Filson, and Olivia Wray. 

Audiences should be prepared to have “Xanadu” tunes stuck in their heads long after they’ve driven home. 

“This show is truly the magic of theater,” Arpino said.

The season’s second show, “Into the Woods,” is one that has been on Wolfbane’s wishlist “forever,” according to Williams and Arpino. The show drops all your favorite storybook characters into the Wolfswood, where their wishes come true and then come back to bite.

Things take a hard left turn after that for an R-rated “Camp Crystal Lake: The Musical,” a “Friday the 13th” parody. The gory experience comes complete with an audience blood splatter zone – have your ponchos at the ready.

It will be followed by Wolfbane’s “Macbeth,” which takes place in an outdoor medieval mead hall. Arpino describes it as “‘Game of Thrones’ meets ‘Outlander’ meets ‘Skyrim.’” Although the company initially did Wolfbane’s Macbeth as a benefit, this one is a full stage version. 

The 2022 season closes with “Noises Off,” a comedy that Wolfbane calls “the perfect way to cap off 15 years.”

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Wolfbane forces audiences and actors to eschew everything they thought they knew about theater. 

Fans – lovingly dubbed “the pack” – typically arrive on four-wheelers and set up barbecues outside. 

“We kind of learned early on that we were trying to be like, ‘This show won the Tony Award’ and our audiences didn’t respond to that, or like, ‘This show was on Broadway,’ and they just didn’t respond to that. But then you say, ‘You get a blood splatter zone’ or ‘You get to be sword fighting outside,’ and people responded to that, as opposed to the [word] theater,” Williams said. “We found this unique audience that was down to the experience and they’ve just been super supportive and so we keep trying to surprise them.”

“Xanadu” brings New Yorker Katie Emerson back for her second Wolfbane appearance after playing Frau Blucher in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”

“Young Frankenstein” “was my first public show since the pandemic started and I was quite nervous to be thrown into the fold suddenly after not performing in public for over a year, but this community welcomed me with open arms,” Emerson said. “I love the out-of-the-box thinking that happens here. Dustin and Ken give you the freedom to play like no one else I’ve worked with.”

Witnessing a Wolfbane-style production is magical, said Ashley Sandman, who attended Appomattox County High School with Williams and has been part of the company since the beginning.

“There’s this weird thing that happens when you sit down at a Wolfbane [show],” she said. “You get pulled into this trance.”

That’s in large part because Wolfbane shows are immersive. The audience is considered part of the cast, which means shows don’t take place upon some hoity-toity stage – they unfold around you. 

“They’re doing stuff that nobody else in this area is doing,” said Aaron Burstein, who has been recruited to host Trivia nights at several “Xanadu” shows. “It really inspires me.”

Witnessing audiences respond to a Wolfbane production is healing, said Sandman, whose two daughters Aislynn, 11, and Adalynn, 6, are already captivated. 

For the girls, Sandman said, it’s like walking into a fairy world.

“It really is Dustin and his ability to tell a story,” she said. “He takes you out of your seat and into the story.”

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Alec Nevin as Sonny Malone. Courtesy of Wolfbane Productions 2022 Xanadu photo/Parker Michels-Boyce

The first time Tabatha Robertson attended Wolfbane, she fell in love. 

“Wolfbane is like this family. I always feel like it’s magic,” said Robertson, who has now joined Wolfbane’s board of directors and bought her first power tool so she can help work on sets.

Wolfbane is interconnected with the community, said Sandman, explaining that community connectedness is the foundation of Wolfbane’s strategic plan. 

Members are active with Appomattox for Equality, and Wolfbane helped create the tourism initiative “Experience Appomattox” and in 2021 launched “The Feminine Project” to support local women and girls.

Wolfbane’s relationships with the other companies in the community have become so strong that they now operate as one. When you visit The Babcock House, the owners invite you to purchase tickets to Wolfbane. When you visit Wolfbane, you get to eat at the Blended Soul food truck and drink Loose Shoe Too brews.

“The arts are such a huge revenue generator and we do care about Appomattox,” Arpino said.

“For the community, we just want to make Appomattox an arts hub.” 

Wolfbane’s NYC Teaching Initiative provides affordable masterclasses to all ages. This month it offers “The Business of Acting” and next month features “Audition Prep.” 

“Being a nonprofit gives us flexibility in how we meet the needs of the community,” Sandman said. 

She and Robertson helped lead Wolfbane’s “The Feminine Project” which began in 2021 with the ambitious goal of making sure every woman in the county has access to free menstrual products while challenging men to join the conversation. Members collect menstrual products to be distributed free of charge through one of the Little Free Pantries in the area, the county’s social services department, foster care and victim-witness programs, at every elementary school and in high school and middle school classrooms that request them. 

“It’s shame-free,” said Sandman, a social worker by trade. 

Wolfbane Productions has truly given people a reason to come to Appomattox, according to Sandman.

“It has made Appomattox a space we don’t feel like we need to run from,” she said.

Williams and Arpino are proof.

“When we were in New York, we couldn’t wait to get here for this,” Williams said.

“During a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ken was going up [to New York] on Wednesdays to be off-Broadway and do a show. And then we were here and we realized it doesn’t really matter where you live. You can still audition because you can audition anywhere and book and do your work from anywhere. … It’s kind of like the same world that we were living in New York and the same opportunities exist here just as much.”

Amy Trent

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists,...