Monday, March 28, 2011

Rocking The Rural Cradle, Rocking the Theatre

We're back today, and no better way to begin the week than with The Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education

Dr. Scott Walters, a theater professor and director based out of UNC-Asheville, leads CRADLE in its mission of "'bringing the arts back home' to small and rural communities with populations under 20,000," and in "'[rebuilding] the front porch of America' (as Patrick Overton puts it) by strengthening pride of place through a rich expressive life available to everyone." While more of the program's comprehensive philosophy can be read here, it's worth pondering how long-overdue (and increasingly necessary) their three-part mission could be for our rural communities:
  1. Communication: through its website, CRADLE will collect, summarize, and distribute information important to rural arts organizations. In addition, because by definition arts organizations in small and rural communities tend to be geographically isolated, CRADLE will facilitate conversations through conferences, meetings, and on-line forums. It is our goal to be a source of inspiration.
  2. Support: CRADLE seeks to promote the creation and growth of arts organizations through fundraising and assistance with administrative tasks. A long-range goal is to provide health insurance and retirement benefits for the full-time staff connected with CRADLE-affiliated organizations.
  3. Education: the knowledge and skills necessary for creating healthy, engaged arts organizations in smaller communities usually go untaught in traditional theatre department. CRADLE, through the Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation (TACT) project, will devise a curriculum that emphasizes those skills. Through a combination of partnerships with colleges and universities and on-line components, CRADLE will make this training available to those interested in becoming rural arts leaders. CRADLE will also provide ongoing workshops and other training for those running arts organizations.
Regardless of the angle through which we are engaging with the rural arts, the CRADLE project certainly offers a "source of inspiration," and an opportunity for us (as farmers, folklorists, musicians, writers, sustainability advocates, etc) to come together and to find ourselves connected to the much larger project of revitalizing our rural communities.

Another element of Dr. Walters' work that is worth spending some time considering is his writing on his Theatre Ideas blog. While, in the space of The Art of the Rural, it has been a challenge to locate and discuss the rural components of contemporary theatre, Dr. Walters is able to seamlessly connect the real-world issues facing rural America with the practical and aesthetic challenges of making great theatre in the twenty-first century. There are a lot of ideas and connections contained in those virtual pages, and I recommend that folks give it a look. 

The Studio 360 radio program also recently featured a discussion between Dr. Walters and host Kurt Andersen in response to NEA chair (and former Broadway producer) Rocco Landesman's contention that, in the world of contemporary drama, “demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply." Dr. Walters presents a provocative take on the prospect of "artistic death panels," and offers the Stage North theatre in Washburn, Wisconsin, as an example of how rural and small-town theatres can survive--and even flourish--in this new economic landscape:
"All these organizations rely 50% on unearned income—I don't think that's sustainable."  Walters isn't against government funding per se, but he thinks there should be more grants for theaters outside the New York-Chicago-LA circuit.  "They don't need anymore fertilizer, we need it in South Dakota and Nebraska and other places where there is a lot of demand and not much supply."