MicroFest: Appalachia Essays

How do you capture the rich experiences, discussions, learning, and reflections inspired by Detroit, Appalachia, and New Orleans and that are all part of MicroFest USA?  Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, is pleased to be partnering with NET to help with the somewhat daunting task of documenting MicroFest: USA. For each festival, we are engaging two individuals, one who is of the host community or region, and another from outside, to write about their experiences.  They may be artists, activists, journalists, planners, scholars, or other.  Each writer is capturing not only the stories and dialogue, but encouraged to bring his or her unique local and national perspective, knowledge, experiences, and point of view to the task and to add to the discourse.

In addition, from his deep experience in place-based theater, Gerard (Jerry) Stropnicky, director, writer, actor, and co-founder of the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), will offer two essays.  He provides a through-line to all three MicroFests, taking a focused look at the role of theater and “ensemble” practice in creative placemaking.

As these essays roll out with each MicroFest and as they’re assembled at the end of MicroFest USA, we hope they deepen understanding of the roles of theater, ensemble practice, and interdisciplinary arts and cultural endeavors as vital partners with other sectors to revitalize, renew, and reconnect communities.

We invite you to explore MicroFest: Appalachia through these essays by Mark W. Kidd, Jerry Stropnicky, and Caron Atlas.  Here’s are brief snapshots and links. 

Check out the essays from MicroFest: Detroit by Eddie Allen and Michael Premo, too!


MicroFest: Democratic Arts in Appalachia’s Coal Country
by Mark W. Kidd (Click on the title to see the full essay.)

In his essay on the Network of Ensemble Theaters’ MicroFest: Appalachia, Mark Kidd contrasts a current national creative placemaking trend which emphasizes economic and physical development with creative placemaking in Central Appalachia that is grounded in community-based arts and aims to establish a civic and creative infrastructure capable of taking on and sustaining a variety of projects, including economic development, in an ongoing way. He writes, “The social justice and civic capacity building outcomes of the collaborations that MicroFest is visiting offer an important lens to understand the responsibility of the ‘creative’ in placemaking in Appalachia.”

Mining several MicroFest examples, Kidd illuminates the positive effects of culturally based community engagement, organizing, and activism in Appalachia:  Carpetbag Theatre’s catalytic role (along with other cultural leaders) in downtown Knoxville revitalization efforts; the human economies demonstrated by culturally sensitive food justice programs and projects; and the Higher Ground project whose plays create safe and collective space for revealing common ground, fostering meaningful dialogue related to issues such as prescription drug abuse and the changing coalmining industry, and forming social bonds.  With such potent examples, Kidd asserts, “There is ample evidence that community-based art can work in a lasting way to develop and support coalitions for social justice and community development,” and asks,  “How can we learn from and support this work on a much wider scale?” Read more»

Creative Engagement and a Moral Economy in Appalachia
By Caron Atlas (Click on the title to see the full essay.)

Caron Atlas essay on MicroFest: Appalachia focuses on the connections between civic capacity, imagination, and moral economy in Appalachia. Stimulated by the MicroFest workshop on cultural organizing led by the Highlander Center, Atlas reflects on the work of Helen Lewis, activist scholar who is considered the mother of Appalachian studies and her essay, “Rebuilding Communities: A Twelve-Step Recovery Program,” in which Lewis outlines the values and assumptions that must underlie a responsible moral economy.  Atlas’ essay draws on examples, primarily from MicroFest, to illustrate Lewis’ twelve steps.

Synthesizing her MicroFest experience and her ongoing work, Atlas reflects on questions about the relationship between citizen action, imagination, place-based culture, public policy, and transformative change.  Just some of the compelling questions she explores are:  What is the relationship between insiders and outsiders in Appalachia, both in a cultural and a social justice context?  In a region that birthed the song “Which Side Are You On?” (written during the 1931 coal strike in Harlan County), when does it make sense to work across points of views and politics and when do you need to take a side? How do imaginative ideas and creative methodologies extend conventional modes of civic participation and reframe assumptions about leadership and economy? Read more»

A Community of Practice: NET Learning in Place
by Gerard Stropnicky (Click on the title to see the full essay.)

This is the first of two essays by Gerard Stropnicky who takes a focused look across all three MicroFests at the role of theater and “ensemble” practice in creative placemaking. In this first essay, he reflects on MicroFest experiences in Detroit and Appalachia.  He addresses the question: Why NET and social change? He underscores the growing number of ensembles, many part of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, that include social engagement as part of their practice. Stropnicky also conveys some of the skepticism, aesthetic concerns, and other resistance that challenge members of the theater community to fully embrace theater’s role in community development and change. Bringing decades of experience in place-based theater, including in Appalachia with the Higher Ground project, and others, Stropnicky’s ruminations reflect and urge a sensitivity to the unique dynamics of place, especially locations that are among  “America’s hardest,” in relation to outsiders looking in. With such work comes responsibility and Stropnicky begs hard questions: What are we validating? Do we know what we’re talking about? Are we listening carefully enough? What conversations are we advancing?  In the brief but immersive experience of MicroFest, he underscores the importance to see beyond preconceived notions of place, “to be open to surprise, to observe contradiction, to perceive the pattern, to engage in further research.” Read more»

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