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Leah Turley: Dramatic Determination, Appalachian Style

When you think of theatre, you might think of Broadway. But, when Leah Turley thinks

Leah taking notes during dress rehearsal for The Neverending Story

of theatre, she sees Appalachian beliefs and traditions that run deep, found in stories passed through the generations by word of mouth, beautiful books, and well-written plays. Leah then brings the folklore she grew up with to life, on a stage, with a set full of actors and stagehands in the wings, and pulls you into a magical world long enough to remind you that imagination is still alive and thriving in the theatre.

As a young girl growing up in Mink Shoals, her first play was Charlotte’s Web with Children’s Theatre of Charleston at the tender age of four years old. Leah tells me, “I had always known what I wanted to do and always knew it would be in theatre. I was lucky to be in a family that encouraged me to be in a theatre.” After graduating from Capital High School, she went on to receive her Masters in Fine Arts in Theatre Performance and became a member of Actors Equity. One of her first professional acting roles was in Coco Karate and The Kung Fu Kittens. “I would have done that show every day for the rest of my life if it meant I wasn’t going to have to wait tables anymore. But, I had to think about theatre through the lens of not being emotionally attached to my work because someone says no - someone will say yes.” And, that’s precisely what Leah did when she formed the Appalachian Artists Collective.

Leah (right) programing light cues for The Telltale Lilac Bush with assistant director Mariah Plante

She sought out the rights to Twilight Zone and spent three months asking CBS if they wouldn’t sue her to do the five episodes she inquired about in countless emails. Finally, they kindly sent her a response. CBS told her they wouldn’t sue her if I would just “stop emailing them.” Leah’s tenacity is rooted in the sentiment that “The squeaky wheel gets the oil. I’m not gonna sit around and wait for someone to give it to me. I’m gonna go get it.”

Leah described the first show as a producer for the Appalachian Artists Collective, “It cost $1500 and I screwed up the performance rights, and it cost me double. I was still waiting tables. You end up living your life from project to project, to eventually it becomes something bigger.” Leah Turley is now the Creative Artistic Director for the Appalachian Artists Collective, Managing Artistic Director for MU Theatre ETC!, Adjunct Faculty and Guest Director for Marshall University Theatre, Education Programs Coordinator at The Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences and Education & Outreach Coordinator for Marshall Artists Series. She’s the youngest female director in Charleston and the youngest producer with; the idea is to make it easier for the next generation to have it easier when it comes to theatre aspirations.

Appalachian Artists Collective’s last three shows have centered around Appalachia. As a stage actor, Leah would go to NY or DC, and the first thing they would ask is, “Where are you from?” When she replied WV, it was like she was talking about a third-world country.

Leah Directing a rehearsal of The Telltale Lilac Bush

People told her she was ruining her life and wasting her talent. Leah then had the vision to expose people in WV to what wonderfully talented artists are in our community. Her esthetic revolves around the fact that everyone should feel welcome in the theatre. “You don’t have to wear certain clothes to see a play of mine. You shouldn’t have to spend $45 to see theatre either. We’ve made it impractical, we’ve made it expensive, and we’ve done everything we can to make people feel unwelcome in our spaces. The goal is - it’s not complicated. We want to see you. It should be such a simple transaction. Everyone is welcome. Come as you are. There’s nothing so complicated about the theatre that people should feel intimidated. People should want to come back. There’s value in this idea of what Appalachian culture is: Make sure you are good. Then you help your neighbors. We are known for this - it’s a commendable trait. You live in a holler with nothing, and if you come out of the holler you change the trajectory for your entire family forever. These stories are valuable. I’m not worried about what Broadway is doing. My theatre is here. My theatre is in this community. The money deserves to stay in this community. Set designers, costume designers, they deserve jobs that they love - here.”

Leah has been told no a thousand times. As a writer, producer, and actor, I could feel what she was saying deep in my soul. Because we both agreed on her comment that “More often than not, those people were dead ass wrong.” When asked about Telltale Lilac Bush (Leah’s most recent production which premiers 10/15 at Haddad Riverfront Park) she told me, “This all started 2 ½ years ago. From elementary school to high school, I knew it as the orange book with the skeleton on it, and one day the idea was presented to me ‘What if we do a stage version of Telltale?’ I called Ash to write the play, and it sat there because of COVID. I figured out the rights. Then we cast it. Then I thought maybe it needs music. Amanda Bridgette wrote a few songs. Next, I thought, ‘What if we get other theatre companies to go in with us on this?’ Six other theatre companies came on board. I just kept making it bigger and bigger. A whole hodgepodge of Appalachian artists decided to go on this crazy ride with us. Because If we’re gonna come back, let’s come back as beasts.”

Leah directing a young actor in Children's Theater of Charleston's production of The Never Ending Story

The Appalachian Artists Collective does not have a set space. They’ve produced at the Alban, Clay Center, and various outdoor spaces. They are for-profit, so they do not get Federal, State, or Local Grants. Leah came into this adventure to build up a real audience base, and when they change to a non-profit, they will make that change for the better of the community. “We created our own infrastructure. It took 18 failed productions - we built our own team and created structure ourselves. I have this talented pool I created, and Get Creative WV is a valuable thing we have never had before. I tried every way to be a part of larger organizations, but I was tired of changing other systems - so I made my own system. My whole thing has always been that I want everyone to be performing at their top and everyone to be doing their best. But then, I want to beat those people. I want to be better than I was yesterday. There’s this Appalachian concept that we are never going to be good enough. So I’m going to give this place my real love. My full attention.”

Appalachian Artists Collective production of The Telltale Lilac Bush is the largest community and educational theatre collaboration in West Virginia adapted by A.E. Gill after Ruth Ann Musick, with original music and lyrics by Amanda Bridgette! Presented at Haddad Riverfront Park, this unique stage adaptation brings to life the ghost stories of WV author Dr. Ruth Ann Musick, including A Skeleton Hand, Seven Bones, Rose Run, The Telltale Lilac Bush, and The Old Horse.

You can see The Telltale Lilac Bush in at the Barboursville Amphitheater October 22nd, 23rd and 24th at 8:00 PM.



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