Scott Walters on the Importance of Rural Theater

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Theater seats in the country

Scott Walters wants more arts funding to go to rural America. He understands if you aren’t so keen on the idea.

Theater seats in the country“In a time where people feel there’s scarce resources, any suggestion the resources that do exist be distributed more broadly feels as if they are having someone reach into their pocket and take away their opportunities. And I totally understand that. There’s a sort of self-preservation aspect to it. ”

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As Associate Professor of Drama at the University of North Carolina in Ashville (North Carolina), Walters also understood how some theater students didn’t want to go to New York or Chicago to launch their careers. They felt as if there was nothing for them to do after graduation. Others went to New York City and then returned home, feeling like failures.

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But that was only part of the reason Walters founded CRADLE: The Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education three years ago.

“Most of the media coverage and most of the thought that is focused on theater and the arts in general has a tendency to be urban-oriented and really centered in just a few fairly large cities, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Some others are starting to move forward, but those three particularly. And there’s a tendency, I think, because of the media attention, for people throughout the education system and in the arts world in general to have only that as an idea of where they should be headed. What CRADLE is set up to do is to encourage people to make, create art and empower others to be creative in small towns. And to develop a business model that can be sustainable in that environment.”

He believes American theater’s focus on a handful of cities has had a negative effect on the arts. People in small communities often see stories set in large cities, but they rarely see their communities in art. As a result, there is a perception that the arts serve only a small portion of the American population.

“Every time the NEA comes up for refunding, it’s very easy for politicians in states or towns that don’t see any benefits from the NEA funding to vote against it. It doesn’t cost them anything politically. They don’t have constituents who are not making a living with that. It becomes seen as being this elite, northeastern, big city… And the arts are just connected with these… The Responsive Philanthropy group (The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy) that did the fusing the arts and social responsibility report showed the nonprofit arts organizations that were in the top 2%, had budgets over 5 million dollars, received 55 percent of the foundation money. And those were almost single-handedly huge, serving wealthy elite urban white audiences. And so, I don’t know the attitude toward the arts that is felt throughout the rest of the country is inaccurate. I think they respond to what reality is.”

How did theater become so centralized? Is it centralized due to politics? What is the difference between his ideas and community theater? Listen to an excerpt of the interview.

In the Huffington Posts’ “The Wal-Marting of American Theater,” Walters also observed that how the emphasis on large cities had a homogenizing effect on theater. While many readers agreed with his ideas, others took issue with the idea that there was anything wrong with continuing a professional career in New York City. So is there any circumstance where Walters might recommend going to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles?

Yes.

“Sure, I’ve sent my students there… There are people for whom New York is the perfect place for them to be. I don’t have any problems with that. I have a student who currently is in Chicago at the Goodman School of Theater, the DePaul, I guess it is. He was very, very good. That was the first piece. I think he could be competitive. He has a certain look that could be marketable. He has kind of a red-headed Irish punk kind of look. And a personal style that feels very urban. He said he was interested in doing this and I said, “Yeah, you should go and try it if you are interested in that.” But he could make a living at it wherever he wants to go. If that’s what he wanted to do, he seemed to have the chops for it.”

Are you saying then that the people who go to the rural areas don’t have the chops for it?

“No, it’s a different set of chops. I think there’s a very 21st Century style of theater and film and television that rewards certain acting skills. That may be different from the kinds of skills you need for a rural area or a smaller area.”

“For instance, in order to function in a small town. I’m finding this myself right now, you have to be willing to listen as much as talk. You have to be personable. You have to be open and patient. And you have to be generous… broader in your focus… You have to look at life a little more broadly than just my art, my art, my art, my art. I think there are certain people who can’t do that. Who don’t want to do that. They just want to eat, sleep and drink this theater stuff. The only chance there might be an option would be someplace like New York or Chicago.”

“In a small town, you have to have versatility. I think those skills are not developed in a university and not developed in drama departments. It’s a personal thing. It should be developed, but it’s not. You know, the ability to interact with a large variety of people, for instance.”

In Part II, Walters talks about how theater makers can become more independent.