Speaking of Stories Special Features Editor Janet Moore talks with Story Parlor's Erin Hallagan Clare

by Janet Moore

On a sunny March morning I met up with Erin Hallagan Clare, founder and artistic director of Story Parlor, the narrative arts space in West Asheville. It turned out to be a small-world, six-degrees-of-separation encounter for the two of us. Erin and her siblings grew up with my nieces and nephew in McLean, Virginia.

I wanted to know what brought the former creative director of the Austin Film Festival and producer of the festival’s On Story Project—who is also a Certified Creativity Coach, Enneagram practitioner, yoga/mindfulness instructor, and mother of two little boys—to Western North Carolina.

“Getting closer to family was a priority, but so was finding ways to slow down and connect with community in a more meaningful way,” she said. At the time the pandemic hit, Erin and her husband Matthew had a one-year-old son. “We found ourselves questioning whether Austin was the right place for us anymore.”

They found answers and a home in Asheville.

“My undergraduate degree is in film and theatre, and I have always been fascinated with storytelling. It exists in all art forms, and yet what I observed from my work was that very little intermingling takes place between and among them. I was curious what it would look like to break down the silos.”

The idea of creating an interdisciplinary art space where that could happen developed over a number of years, and in 2015, while still living in Austin, Erin opened a venue called “Story Bar.”

Getting there wasn’t easy. “To start with, we had a hard time finding space that would work for what we were trying to achieve. When we did, we found rents were high and unpredictable. I recruited some programming partners. We staged evenings whenever we could, but we found it difficult to keep Story Bar going even before the pandemic. When 2020 hit, I moved my teaching and coaching entirely online, making the possibility of a move more tenable.”

From the onset, Asheville felt like a good fit for Erin and Matthew. “After multiple attempts to get the business off its feet in Austin, I was burnt out from the struggle of making it work. The dream was put on the shelf, and I thought—Maybe in retirement I could revisit this. Then one day, on parental leave with our second son–getting our Tex Mex fix at Taco Billy–we saw a building available in West Asheville. It had been vacant for three years, and the owners were eager to get it off their hands. Within a few weeks, the old dream was resurrected, and we had keys in hand and a long to-do list to get things up and running. In comparison to the effort of attempting all of this in Austin, here it felt fairly effortless.”

They bought the building in 2021 using funds raised during the Story Bar years, and rebranded as Story Parlor. Revealing only a slight difference from the outside looking in, the business was no longer a bar with arts programming, but rather arts programming with a bar. Erin said, “In French, ‘parler’ means ‘to speak,’ and ‘parlor’ felt like a homage to the layout of the space, with its traditions of being a room used for the reception and entertainment of guests.”

Story Parlor opened in spring of 2022. Soon after, Erin reached out to Lilly Danzis, Administrative Assistant for the Great Smokies Writing Program and then to the Program Coordinator Jennifer McGaha. The three of them immediately saw the potential in teaming up. Since then, Story Parlor has hosted both “Writers at Home” events and Great Smokies classes. In November, it hosted “Lit Night,” a literary celebration that included the Flatiron Writers Room, The Rumpus, Poetrio, and Lit Loca, as well as the Great Smokies. “We look forward to doing more with these groups, and continuing to find ways to support one another,” Erin said.

She also draws inspiration from Story Parlor’s Advisory Board, a diverse group of local artists that includes writers, photographers, storytellers, a cinematographer, a poet and multidisciplinary artist.

“I’m learning to loosen my grip. That’s a big shift for me because my nature is to have a plan for everything. I’m getting more comfortable with staying present and open to letting Story Parlor grow organically. This means responding to the community’s needs. The Advisory Board is one way I can stay attuned to what those are.”

A good example is Story Parlor’s additional partner initiatives, welcoming in groups that need space for their own creative pursuits. Currently Story Parlor is home to Listen to This: Stories and More on Stage; Juniper Bends Literary Series; Classical Guitar evenings presented by the Asheville Classical Guitar Society; and Bilingual Birdies Asheville, a language and culture awareness program using music, puppetry and movement games for toddlers and children up to six.

In 2023, Erin launched a summer residency program that champions the work of local artists and art groups from under-represented and historically marginalized communities. In addition to public performances and events, artists-in-residence receive dedicated rehearsal time in the space, an artist stipend, creativity coaching sessions, and marketing and promotion assistance.

“We want to make it easier for artists to make a living,” Erin said.

The most recent addition to Story Parlor’s class line-up is its Creative Facilitator Training, an 18-week program focused on teaching how to create and encourage artistic work that is rooted at the intersection of personal stories and the human condition. “As part of the course, we look at academic research that reveals what’s happening in the brain during the creative process,” Erin said. Now in its second year, the program has graduated 10 students, and the 2024 session, commencing this summer, is already full.

“When Story Parlor first opened,” Erin said, “I found myself looking back and wondering why the concept didn’t work in Austin. I realized it was always meant to be here. The way the Asheville community has embraced this concept and supported Story Parlor is nothing short of amazing.”

Janet Smith Moore writes essays and short stories from her home in Asheville, North Carolina. In 2020, she co-authored In Pursuit of a Greater Good, a 70-year history of rural economic development in western North Carolina. Her short stories have appeared in the 2018 Fish Anthology and The Great Smokies Review. She is currently working on a short story collection set in the Carolinas.