The Awful Purdies with Big Begonias
Raven Wolf Productions, Williamsburg (105 Welsh St) -- Saturday, June 19, 6 p.m., $15
If you want to accidentally start a performance venue amidst a pandemic, it’s best to start with a barn. Put it outside of the city a few miles where it’s quiet, on four acres of Iowa prairie, most of it pasture for horses, with plenty of places for people to park.
That’s how Nathan and Susan Kula started Raven Wolf Productions, an outdoor performance venue which will host the Awful Purdies on June 19 for the group’s first live show since before the pandemic hit. Tickets are $15.
“We took a break from performing in October 2019 to work on our 4th studio album and never expected the break from live performance to last 20 months,” Awful Purdies’ Katie Roche said in an email. “We’re brushing off the dust, and in our 15th year as a band, are looking at this as a fresh start, deeply appreciative of the perspective that such a long break gave us.”
Like many, the Kulas spent the first few months of 2020 staying at home. They started converting a large part of their century barn into a bar and event space for their friends and family to gather in, once it would be safe enough to do so.
“Our house is an old farmhouse, and it’s made up of lots of little rooms, so there’s no good place to sit and talk to 10 people,” Nathan Kula said.
The Kulas are both musicians who perform together in the nautical folk band A Rogue Wave. In the midst of their remodeling, and the continued, sometimes permanent, closures of area venues, they quipped that the only way they could get back to performing in front of an audience would be to build an outdoor venue.
“We had joked about how we should just have an outdoor stage. We thought that it would be funny that the only way we could get our band to play out is to build an outdoor stage for us to play on,” Kula said. “And then, if other bands felt comfortable, we would invite them in and whoever we could get to show up, that’s who we’d play to.”
And so, off the side of the bar that they had constructed in their barn, they built a stage that “faces nothing but cornfields,” and holds a simple sign that says “Raven Wolf Stage.”
They held their first official show on April 17, a split bill between their own band and the Iowa-based Irish trio Blame Not the Bard. That day, 75 people showed up. There were even more at the next show a month later, and within a few weeks, Raven Wolf Productions had booked events every month until October. Quickly, the Kulas added event insurance to their space, and while it is currently “Bring Your Own Refreshments,” they are looking at expanding into being able to offer food and beverages.
Kula says they never had a conscious plan for the stage, just that they knew that this part of the area was in desperate need of a place for art and music, particularly an outdoor space where people could still gather safely.
“I lived in Iowa City for 19 years before we moved out here, and I just loved the music scene. I loved playing at the Yacht Club, at Gabe’s, at Public Space One. Being in Williamsburg after a couple of years, I mean, you’re just bored out of your mind,” Kula said. “There’s no live theater around here, there’s no inspiration for creativity around here — and I know for a fact, talking to the guys who work at the hardware store and the people who work with my wife at the veterinary clinic, you know it’s like, ‘We’ve got to drive to Iowa City or Coralville or Cedar Rapids to go get halfway decent live music.’”
Currently, Raven Wolf Productions is scheduled to hold one event a month, but Kula said that various groups and performers are continually reaching out to try and hold other events at the venue. In the little time the stage has been operating, the Kulas have been approached about hosting stand-up comedy nights, burlesque shows and even a silks and lyra workshop.
When asked if it felt like a risk to open up a performance venue during a pandemic, Kula said it was simply one of the only things that had made sense to them in the last year.
“It didn’t feel noble for us, it just felt like it was a common-sense thing that we can do and a thing that we have a passion for. We’re not doing it to make money, and we’re not even doing it to break even,” Kula said. “My wife and I agreed from the start that the artists are going to get 100 percent of the ticket sales. I’m super adamant about that. Basically it’s our space, but it’s their show. I’ve had a couple people tell me that’s crazy, and I’m like, it might be crazy, but it’s the way I want to live.”
The members of Awful Purdies found that Raven Wolf Productions offered everything they needed in order to come back to performing live.
“Awful Purdies have followed COVID-19 health and safety measures throughout the pandemic, so an opportunity to play an outdoor venue with control over capacity felt like the safest way to come back to playing shows,” Roche said. “As it becomes safer to play indoor venues, we’ll be happy to play with a roof over everyone’s head, but outdoor summer destination shows are a special vibe!”
After more than a year without events of any kind to look forward to, Raven Wolf Productions is offering a rare combination of intimate performances provided in a safe setting to experience live music and entertainment. It just happened to all come together by accident, and that’s what makes it fulfilling for the Kulas.
“Being able to present a place that a small number of people can come and experience, that is just an awesome way to give back to our community,” Nathan Kula said. “I just want people to be able to come out and have a good time, and you know, cheer and yell and feel safe when they do.”
Avery Gregurich lives in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River, and has never strayed too far from it. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 295.