Salvation in the sticks

They call me the arts king of Sullivan County

6 minute read
Which way to the Academy of Music? Who cares?
Which way to the Academy of Music? Who cares?
I lived most of my life in the city and hated it, always dreaming of going back to the semi-rural time and place of my kidhood in South Ardmore (now part of Havertown). Strange that, considering that I also hated being a kid.

But out of inertia I sat and whined in Philadelphia until 14 years ago, when my wife, Linda, and I took the smallish inheritance from her father and bought a vacation home in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania.

No, you probably don't know where Sullivan County is, but no matter. It's small, sparsely populated, intensely rural. It's my kind of place. And place is important to me— maybe my major determinant of mood. Moving upstate has been my personal salvation.

In Philly, I never joined anything. Up here, I joined the county arts council because— couldn't say exactly why. Maybe because the arts were what I'd been doing for years, in a half-assed sort of way. Five years ago I was elected president of the arts council and have been stuck with that since, because everyone else knows a sucker when they see one.

Turgid mission statements

There's a weird lack of external aesthetic here. The land, settled in the very late 18th Century, was so inhospitable that even the Indian guides would run away in fear of the sunless hemlock woods. Clearing the land for farming was a massive, bone-wearying endeavor with a reward, if any, far in the future. So it's not surprising that "pretty" was hardly the first thing on the settlers' minds. Still....

When you travel through New England or the Pennsylvania Dutch country, you find inviting stone houses and a love of beauty, balance and comfort. Up here, drab frame houses are scattered higgledy-piggledy, aligned neither with the roads nor the landscape, like castoff packing crates. It's not the kind of area that takes "art" seriously (except in the high school, which puts out amazing student work).

So what does the arts council do? We're one of those "umbrella" organizations (a term I detest) that means whatever you want it to mean. It provides great filler for the ridiculous "mission statements" that government handouters insist you stick at the top of your grant applications. Our mission statement essentially says, "We do everything artwise in the county"— but of course in more nebulous, turgid and impenetrable wording.

Insects in the art gallery

The council is entirely volunteer and has no home. Our overhead, in a word, is zilch.

For years, we had been overseeing student awards in the visual arts and holding a bare-bones adult art exhibit in the ramshackle Forksville Fairgrounds. The ingeniously named Blue Building where we hold the exhibit had four inches of dead insects piled in carcassal splendor behind its broken window screens, augmented by snaking, dried-blood streaks from aged roof leaks. And no heat.

All these programs doled out cash prizes funded by council memberships and a declining state grant.

We also operated a small gallery in a nearby country store that did fairly well, but the new owners kicked us out. So we set it up again in a used furniture store on Route 220. Let's just say that was a mistake.

Cause for excitement

After this minor hurly-burly, as newly minted prexy I didn't have much sense of what changes to make (or if any were necessary). But one thing had come up earlier that excited Linda and me. I'd attended a few meetings intended to form a regional group that would create a historical play to bus around the north central counties. But it soon became clear that each county wanted to do its own thing.

Especially Sullivan County. We brought in a great guy, Jerry Stropnicki from the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble, who had shepherded local-talent endeavors around the country, most notably, in Georgia, with a group called, delightfully, Swamp Gravy. The Gravians took local tales"“ historical, social, mythical— and wove them into distinctive annual productions.

Hmmm, thought Linda and I (Linda having acted and directed in Philly). Wonder what the arts council could do with that?

Word of mouth

What we came up with was something at least as distinctive, I like to think, as Swamp Gravy. We call it the Roving Historical Theater. Each year"“ we're now in our seventh season"“ we write (mostly me, with Linda directing) a play based on the history of a particular teeny community within the county, and we hold the production in that community, in a fire hall or something similar.

The Roving Theater plays went over well enough at first, but it's hell getting the word out up here. There's one county newspaper, a delightfully rustic weekly. Beyond that, it's solely word-of-mouth: Despite its small size, Sullivan County is divided into minuscule enclaves by a combination of mountainous terrain and a plethora of state game lands. Some older folks in the eastern half of the county have never visited its northwestern corner, and vice versa.

For whatever reason, in 2010 the Roving Theater matured, like an aging cheese. Everyone suddenly knew, as if by osmosis, who we are and what we're doing. People stop us in the street to ask what's next. Actors who had hemmed and hawed before now demand parts.

Literary prizes

The last two plays have been a smashing success. This year will be a real test, because the play will be held in a Russian Orthodox church hall that 95% of the countians know nothing about. Not much parking either.

The Roving Theater has become something of the arts council's backbone. At the same time, we've expanded the student programs, adding a theater award and a bunch of literary prizes (the winners get published in our annual magazine). The haphazard music program hit its stride this year with a terrific family group, the Celtic Martins, and Simple Gifts, a folk duo who developed a student workshop.

Come May, if all holds together, we'll have our gallery back in a little bay-windowed storefront in Forksville. The questionable side is that Forksville has only one other store. Well, we are rural.

Asking for money

Our minimum state grant doubled this year (in theory, though we've yet to see the check). One of the gas drilling companies that are infusing jobs and money into the county while harrying the landscape has also helped out, contributing to the student prizes and funding an overhaul of the Blue Building— now bugless, with hand-crafted (by me) display racks, spiffy (by Linda) curtains and a new paint job.

Overcoming my quivering horror of asking for money, I've collected a fair chunk of cash from local businesses that advertise in our play program (which I design and print).

What we do here may bring a snicker from seasoned urbanites. But ya know, it's strangely satisfying in its hands-on immediacy. We're encouraging, promoting and producing art for our neighbors, who give us the high sign on the street.

It's not something I would ever have expected in my life, but I'm glad. I'm a far, far happier dude than I ever was before.♦

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