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Community shares the byline at new Asheville venue Story Parlor

Erin Hallagan Clare in a front-row seat inside Story Parlor.
Matt Peiken | BPR News
Erin Hallagan Clare in a front-row seat inside Story Parlor.

The prologue is set in Austin, Tex. Erin Hallagan Clare and her husband have a young son and another on the way when the pandemic hits. They decide to move.

“And similar to that move to Austin—what’s next? What’s the next adventure? And let’s go do the next thing,” Clare said.

That next thing is Asheville. They don’t have personal connections to the area, but Clare brings with her a longtime dream—opening a dependable co-op space dedicated to storytelling. Flash forward in the story to a Friday night this past month. Clare is welcoming another cozy crowd to Story Parlor in West Asheville.

“There’s power in community, there’s power in connection, and just being in this room together is powerful,” Clare tells the audience at the start of the program.

Clare’s story is really a doorway for others in and around Asheville to tell their stories – performers in film, poetry, music, comedy, dance and, yes, literature.

“In your film or in your poem or in your comedy piece, it’s relaying a story. That story is being informed, in some way, shape or form, from your personal narrative,” Clare said in a conversation with BPR.

“Your worldview and your experiences and the stories that have shaped your perception in your life are ultimately feeding into the work that you’re producing or contributing to. Story serves as a container for all that,” she said. “Even though process and technique is so wildly different from one to the other, that connection between other artists is really powerful and that glue between the creatives amongst us.”

Clare opened Story Parlor last spring as a handful of other venues closed, including Ambrose West, a music venue which was just around the corner on Haywood Road. Further west along Haywood, Isis Music Hall held its last show on New Year’s Eve.

The Story Parlor building is an unlikely home for performance. It’s taller than it is wide. No more than a few people can stand on stage at the same time. Capacity is only 49, and that includes the front row of a balcony hovering above the stage.

“The capacity is one of the downsides, I think, but one of the things that makes it special,” said Tim Hearn, the founder of Speakeasy Improv and a member of the Story Parlor co-op.

After looking for a permanent home, he now holds improv classes twice a week, a monthly improv jam and monthly curated performance at Story Parlor.

“It’s like a little home living room meets a cathedral,” he said. “It’s dimly lit, doesn’t have a lot of high-tech stuff, and that’s what we’re trying to create as a community. That doesn’t necessarily have a lot of flash, but it does have authenticity.”

Clare developed the concept in Austin, debuting what she called Story Bar in 2015. She staged evenings wherever she could. Clare said she and her husband left Austin, in part, because of rising and unpredictable rents. In Asheville, they were eating at Taco Billy when they noticed a building nearby for sale. Money they scraped together from Story Bar went to the down payment.

“I’ve really tried to stay present and open to this growing organically. That’s a big personality shift for me,” she said. “As kind of the controlling puppeteer I was in my former decades, that’s made all the difference. We are responding to the needs of the community, rather than the other way around.”

Clare said earning a living through Story Parlor would likely mean expanding into virtual and off-site programming. For now, she said she’s focused on growing the diversity on stage and in the audience.

“It’s just been really like one step in front of the other, one deep breath after the other to make it work,” she said. “I keep looking back at why we didn’t have space work out in Austin, and it’s very clear to me now that it’s because it was always supposed to be here. The community that’s rallied around it and helped make this doable in all of the ways has been nothing short of outstanding.”

That community has come through for Story Parlor in a big way over the past couple weeks. People have donated more than $7,200 to date to a GoFundMe campaign to cover damages and lost cash from a break-in earlier this month. People are also supporting the programming. The next story mixer, January 20, is already sold out.

Music featured in the piece: "Valley of the Bones" by Jane Kramer.

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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