This issue of NASAA's Partners publication is the seventh in a series on state arts agency projects assisted by the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program.
Emerging arts organizations can have a hard time making a go of it no matter where they're based. The challenge is even greater in smaller cities and rural areas where the lack of funding and limited audiences can stifle the growth of small arts groups.
Two Virginia arts organizations--the Dance Theatre of Lynchburg and the North Street Playhouse--are emerging arts organizations that have defied the odds. They've chosen to locate in less affluent, artistically underserved places. But through a combination of vision, drive, high standards and some strategic help from the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) Challenge America partnership with the Virginia Commission for the Arts, they have not only grown, but flourished--gaining regional reputations in the process.
The Dance Theatre of Lynchburg
Dancer and teacher Keith Lee grew up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area and knows firsthand the difference the arts can make to children growing up in low-income neighborhoods. Lee took tap lessons at age three, thanks to a grandmother who washed other people's clothes in order to be able to expose her grandson to the arts.
Lee went on to dance and teach with the American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. But he eventually recognized that his real mission in life was to provide children--especially those from impoverished inner-city areas--with the opportunity to study dance. "If you can get a child into the proper setting and educate them in different kinds of ways, then you avoid the shootings, drugs and all the other horrible things that can happen," he says.
The place he chose to carry out his dream was Lynchburg, Virginia. Lee had originally come to this medium-sized city (population 85,000) for a teaching stint with an arts school. He decided to stay and open his own dance studio because opportunities for lower-income, African-American children were limited there, and because, he says, "I wanted to do it where it would really make a difference."
Lee initially began teaching dance in church basements and school cafeterias, but soon recognized that to really have an impact on young people's lives, his school would need a building of its own. He eventually found a suitable space: an abandoned 19th-century warehouse in Lynchburg's downtown area that would offer the big rooms, tall ceilings and central location he'd envisioned. Plus, the city was offering the building at a reasonable price to organizations willing to undertake renovations.
The Dance Theatre of Lynchburg has blossomed into a thriving company that is a linchpin of the city's revitalization.
With the help of a Community Development Block Grant as well as some historic preservation grants and loans, the Dance Theatre of Lynchburg restored the buildings' exteriors, created two large dance studios and decorated the outside with colorful banners. The vibrant space has contributed to the rejuvenation of Lynchburg's downtown, enticing other arts and social services organizations to move nearby.
With a highly visible presence, the school has been able to diversify its funding base, attracting more contributions from individuals, corporations and local foundations. "If you're in a church basement, people think this is kind of fly-by-night," explains Nathaniel Marshall, Dance Theatre's board chair. "If you give them a building with a name, and everything says this is a successful dance facility, then it really does give credence to the program."
In 2001, Dance Theatre also began receiving critical general operating support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts (VCA). Operating grants are important to young organizations trying to get on their feet, because "they are the hardest funds to raise," says Peggy Baggett, executive director of the VCA. "Nobody finds it glamorous to provide funding to pay for the electric bill or the janitorial bill."
The operating support helped underwrite the costs of scholarships for lower-income students. Additionally, Dance Theatre received special project funds from the Challenge America program for the school's innovative Pioneers of American Dance initiative. Under that initiative, the school acquires the rights to works by legendary choreographers and then, in an unusual twist, has its young students learn and perform the masterworks.
As Dance Theatre's reputation has grown, it has attracted more students and an increasingly diverse student body. Today, 68 percent of the students are African American, 26 percent are Caucasian, five percent are Asian and one percent are Hispanic. Students also come from a range of household incomes. With their differing racial and economic backgrounds, the students are learning not only dance but also the art of getting along with people from other walks of life. Lee explains, "When they're all in the same room, listening to the same music and doing the same steps, they become joined together."
North Street Playhouse
In 1985, when attorney and theater devotee Terry Bliss arrived in the tiny town of Onancock, Virginia (population 1,500), a colleague predicted that she wouldn't last more than a few months because of the dearth of cultural opportunities in the area. Nearly two decades later, Bliss is still in Onancock.
Shortly after she arrived, Bliss enlisted volunteers to put on plays in the town hall, school auditoriums and nursing homes. Her efforts gained a more solid footing in 1995, when her theater company acquired its first permanent home--a 1,300-square-foot rented storefront on North Street. With a tiny, six-foot-deep stage and seating for 50 people, the North Street Playhouse launched its first regular season, and continued to build its reputation for doing entertaining, challenging productions that, according to Bliss, "have something to say to our community."
Virginia's Eastern Shore is an unlikely place to develop a theater, but Bliss' efforts to draw together the white and black communities through her choice of plays created a growing and increasingly diverse audience. She also exceeded expectations by holding as many as 30 rehearsals for each play, setting an unusual standard of professionalism for this community theater. North Street won regional theater awards and laudatory reviews. According to one critic, "North Street displays a core group of performers who would seem right at home on the stage in Washington or New York." Yet this region is isolated--connected to the rest of the state by a 17-mile thread of concrete across the Chesapeake Bay--and in one of Virginia's poorest and most rural areas.
A permanent home allowed the North Street Playhouse to expand its professionalism, reputation and community support.
North Street's success outgrew its space, and when a local store closed nearby, Bliss, with the help of several large gifts and many smaller donations, bought the building and began renovations. The new building allowed the company to enlarge the stage and meet rehearsal and storage space needs, as well as rent out leftover space to defray the mortgage. The new theater gives the playhouse more of a presence, and has contributed to the theater's continued growth by accommodating larger audiences. "We were doing three to five performances of a particular play at maybe 50 people a night; now we're doing seven to eight performances and selling out at 90-100," Bliss says.
Over the years, state and federal support have given the theater a much-needed boost. Using a mix of state and NEA Challenge America funds, the arts commission has provided support to the playhouse in each of the last three fiscal years. Among other things, those grants have allowed the theater--run almost entirely on volunteer labor--to hire a part-time, paid administrative assistant and provide Bliss with a small monthly stipend.
In addition, these grants have helped the theater increase the professionalism of its productions, which, in turn, has generated greater community support. "The better the lighting, the better the show looks. The better it looks, the better the audience responds. The better they respond, the more they come back. The more they come back, the more diverse programs we can do," Bliss says.
The theater has branched out into even more challenging fare, offering readings or full productions of plays like Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart, about women nurses in Vietnam. It is also offering more programming for children. Thanks to a special project grant from Challenge America, the theater developed a study guide and offered performances for schoolchildren of Captains and Courage, a play by Israel Horovitz based on the Rudyard Kipling novel Captains Courageous. Employing a multiracial cast of 17 actors, the play tells the stories of Atlantic Ocean fishermen in 1890 and their descendants 100 years later. It was the first live theater many of the students had ever seen. Mary Browning, a teacher from Arcadia High School, says, "This was an awesome experience for the students on many levels--not the least of which is it happened right in their own backyard."
The operating and special project grants have been important to the theater, Bliss explains, "because they've given us a little bit of leeway to be able to go forward with programming that we might not have been able to do." But while the money has been important, so has the additional credibility that has come with the prestigious grants. "They provide recognition that what we're doing is not only up to our own standards, but up to someone else's as well." And for emerging arts organizations, that kind of recognition can go a long way.
Carol Dana is a freelance writer and producer. She lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.
Partners is a publication of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 1029 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005, 202/347-6352, email@example.com.
Editors: Kimber Craine and Jill Hauser Design: Benson Design Source:Virginia Commission for the Arts Photos: North Street Playhouse and Dance Theatre of Lynchburg
Partners is published in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts. The work of NASAA and of state arts agencies is supported and strengthened in many ways through funding and programming partnerships with the Endowment.