Rue 151 Productions, a buoyant bunch of Shakespeare-based actors and educators, will be kicking off its Band of Bards educational tour in Wheeling later this July.
The creative team for this production, consisting of Dani Heslin, Richard Colley, Avery Sedlacek and Joana Tsuhlares, is based in New York City, but their working relationships began back in college. The cohort attended Shenandoah Conservatory together, quickly fueling their affinity for the Bard’s classical text with numerous self-produced Shakespeare shows. Now, with several years of post-grad experience under their belts, the team is hoping to extend that same passion to audiences across the east coast with dynamic workshops and staging of Romeo and Juliet — starting right here with Wheeling.
Selecting Wheeling to pilot their tour was no random dart on the map either — Joana Tsuhlares, one of the founders of the company, has a long history immersed in Wheeling’s art scene.
Joana was born and raised in Short Creek, a small community nestled between Warwood and Wellsburg. She explained that growing up in the Ohio Valley, the arts quickly carved a part of her identity. Her journey on stage started with Towngate summer theatre camps, but it wasn’t until high school when joining Wheeling Park’s award-winning speech team cemented her decision to continue pursuing theatre. The arts are in her blood. Her father, Lambros Tsuhlares, has created a well-established name across the state for his work as a full-time potter. Raised under his artistic prowess, her choice to pursue what others might perceive as a “nontraditional” career just made sense.
Rue 151 Production's creative team (from left): Avery Sedlacek, Joana Tsuhlares, Dani Heslin, and Richard Colley.
Avery and Richard practice a stage combat scene.
“I was shown that you could be a working artist and make a living. You could explore your creative avenues without it all being based around ego and fame,” Joana said. “It was about the work, and it was about strengthening your community.” She explained that getting the unique chance to connect with West Virginia artists from a young age continues to influence her work today.
“When I was young, my dad would take me to deliver orders across the state. We’d drive down to Beckley and Lewisburg and Charleston and all these different places,” Joana continued. “I got to meet all these different artists in the state as a piece of my education, which is really, really special. I got to see how people are able to create art no matter where they are, and to support themselves in their creative endeavors.” Now Joana and the team are carrying out this mission, and aiming to translate Shakespeare’s centuries-old poetry for a contemporary audience.
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“I think what Shakespeare does is he uses powerful archetypal characters and situations to explore the human experience.” Joana explained, “And that never gets old. We can use those archetypes to explore things that are happening in our lives today.”
This “Band of Bards” tour is the first step in that exploration and a throughline the team hopes to carry with them into even larger productions. Rue 151’s next phase is to stage a large-scale production of Hamlet set within an Appalachian context, seeing how that affects the narrative in a truthful, grounded way.” This tour will help not only support the company in future endeavors, but embolden their Hamlet concept with firsthand experience within West Virginia and Appalachian communities.
“For our production of Hamlet, we want to make sure that we’re genuinely engaged with the communities that we’re producing in,” Joana said. “There’s a very strong, unfortunate tradition of stereotyping Appalachian communities when they’re being produced in the media and we want to avoid that.” She emphasized the importance of forging genuine connections. “All this to make sure that we’re actually speaking from the voice of people of the region, and not making assumptions about those people without talking to them,” Joana concluded.
On July 22 the team will be producing an afternoon workshop from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Towngate Theater, and then hosting an open rehearsal performance at 7 p.m. at the Stifel Center, offering audiences a first-hand look at producing a show.
On July 23 the team will be hosting another afternoon workshop from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and a final evening performance of Romeo and Juliet at 7 p.m. both at the Towngate Theater
Performers of any experience level are invited to attend the workshops and all are welcome at both showings. Tickets for both performances are $14 each and both workshops are $45, and interested patrons can register in advance and purchase tickets here.
• Adam Payne is a Wheeling native and the editor-in-chief of YNST (You’re Not Seeing Things) Magazine. He is a lover of Thai food and all things arts and culture with a MS in Digital Marketing Communications, BS in Journalism and BFA in acting from West Virginia University.