There’s a meeting this week to determine the future of “The Liar’s Bench.” This is a two-year-old throwback of sorts to the old-timey variety show, a gathering of local talent for the enjoyment, amusement and, on occasion, the edification of audiences.
The Liar’s Bench showcases authentic Southern Appalachian culture. None of your hee-haw tricks are found and exploited on this stage. Just good music, interesting and funny stories, and dramatic renderings of life as it really once was, and often is today, here in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Lack of money, however, that too-frequent destroyer of art, music, literature and dreams, is threatening to bring The Liar’s Bench to an end. Performances featuring some of the region’s best entertainers will continue through March and maybe into April at the Mountain Heritage Center on the campus of Western Carolina University and elsewhere in the region.
But after that? Well, the situation isn’t pretty.
“Finances might kill The Liar’s Bench,” founder Gary Carden said. “It has to be able to sustain itself. I’ve depended on the good will of people — really, taken advantage of them — for far too long. We hope we’ll do this again, but it’s not certain. Our future is none too secure.”
A show from The Liar’s Bench this past October was featured on the syndicated television program “Life in the Carolinas.” That’s hitting the big-time for any local talent venue. But, no matter how gratifying to those involved, even Carolinas-wide recognition doesn’t pay the bills.
Carden said the musicians and other performers need compensation to, in turn, sustain themselves and their families financially. He remains hopeful that a plan can be formulated to accomplish both those goals: saving The Liar’s Bench and paying the performers. But exactly what form that plan might take, and who precisely will develop this save-the-day plan, remain unsolved mysteries.
Crowd shrinks with ticket sales
The stage at the Mountain Heritage Center is small and intimate. The performance hall seems a perfect venue for this type of show, which generally features one entertainer at a time. The acoustics are good, the lighting well placed, the performers nicely rehearsed.
A couple of regulars for The Liar’s Bench weren’t here on this night, poet and musician Barbara Duncan and musician Eric Young. But Carden, Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach, claw-hammer guitar specialist Paul Iarussi and vocalist/musician William Ritter (the “boy genius” as Carden dubs this exceptional talent) were ready to take the stage. So were guitarist and singer Ken Beck, vocalist/musician Karen Barnes and dramatic monologist Tom Dewees, who would perform Carden’s dramatic work, “Coy.”
On this night, un-typically, admission of $10 per person was collected at the door as part of an attempt to try to stem the tide of financial insolvency. Admission was charged at a show earlier in February, too. Usually the show is free; the crowd tonight was considerably smaller than usual.
Carden, as ringmaster, was nattily attired in a white dress shirt and black pants and black vest. This was Carden in his native element, in full throat and happily on stage even when down in the audience hugging those he knew and shaking hands with those he didn’t.
Carden said he originally conceived of The Liar’s Bench as an opportunity to tell stories.
“When local musicians and poets agreed to perform, I realized that perhaps The Liar’s Bench was an opportunity to do more than merely entertain the audience,” he said. “Gradually, the show has become a means of showcasing Appalachian culture and presenting it with integrity and authenticity.”
If the show goes under another project now in the works could be lost, too: The Liar’s Bench and the Mountain Heritage Center have been developing a series of programs called “The Balsam Chronicles.” The project is based on the history and folklore of the region.
A future training venue
Arneach is one of the most notable performers participating in The Liar’s Bench. On this night he told two stories, one Cherokee in origin and the other about a veteran of military service. Arneach is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and he served in the Vietnam War.
A tall, barrel-chested man, Arneach quickly captivated the audience with his booming, yet seductive, storytelling voice. His stories are relatively short, maybe 10 minutes in length tops, with defined beginnings, middles and ends. The applause when he finished was sustained and appreciative.
Arneach, in turn, is grateful to this venue and the additional people it allows him and the other entertainers involved to reach. He said that the growth of The Liar’s Bench in popularity over the past two years has been phenomenal to participate in and to watch.
“To get to see this type of diverse talent in one setting is unique to this area,” Arneach said.
He recalled the early shows at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. The Liar’s Bench rapidly outgrew the small room available there and moved through other venues before landing in its current home here at the Mountain Heritage Center. Until this month and the two attempts to fund the show by charging admission, the audience had been standing room-only, Arneach said.
The Cherokee storyteller considers The Liar’s Bench, if the performance venue can survive this financial crisis, as a potential training ground for young talent in WNC. He talked of the need to train future Cherokee storytellers because the youngest of the current group, which of course includes Arneach, is a woman in her 50s. Arneach worries the ancient stories could be lost without direct encouragement of younger Cherokee to take them up.
The Liar’s Bench could serve as a place for teaching this next generation of entertainers how to work with an audience, how to read an audience and general stagecraft tips “that I had to learn the hard-knock way,” Arneach said. “This would give them an opportunity to work on stage and learn what it’s like.”