Western Kansas’ lack of arts opportunities deters young people from living on the plains

March 26, 2022 3:33 am

Esmerelda Corado, Emma Lightner and Hayley Loya act in “Crimes of the Heart” at Garden City High School. (Garden City High School Drama)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Brett Crandall is an actor, writer, producer, puppeteer and LGBTQIA+ activist based in Garden City.

Garden City saw a weekend packed with theater performances from the local high school and community college in late February. Audiences were treated to productions of “Godspell” and “Crimes of the Heart,” but they had to choose between the two: Each scheduled Friday and Saturday evening performances and a Sunday matinee.

Overlapping show weeks isn’t a new trend with theater in Western Kansas. Smaller districts’ annual plays have been historically slapped into “Buffer Week,” the break between fall and winter sports, as a student’s one chance to perform with friends as a cast. This trend of “feast or famine” when it comes to performance opportunities is quite modern, since the craft of acting and storytelling have been around to entertain and educate since our most primitive civilizations.

What our modern culture chooses, in the end, to promote and fund has shifted. Thus today’s young Kansans’ dreams have been turned away from the plains. 

Emma Lightner appears onstage in “Crimes of the Heart.” (Garden City High School Drama)

Since the rise of remote work due to COVID-19 more than two years ago, we’ve seen employees across the country rethink their trajectories. Young artists in Kansas could see a renaissance of remote jobs in their chosen creative fields during “The Great Resignation.” But will these young, creative minds be around to apply, or have they already set their sights on greener pastures?

The cast of Garden City High School’s production of “Crimes of the Heart” by Beth Henley sounded anything but optimistic about finding work in a creative field in Kansas.

Hayley Loya, a sophomore, is “thinking about studying musical theater or music.”

When asked if she wants to stay local, she responded, “No. I’m leaving the state. Probably somewhere in Colorado or Oklahoma.”

Esmerelda Corado, a junior, has been active in the theater department for years but hopes to later pursue a career in fashion.

To do so, though, she says she’ll need to “go and see the world a little bit.”

The lack of performance opportunities or artistic outlets are enough to scare one’s creative desires away before they even put a pen to paper.

Sophomore Emma Lightner played Lenny in the show. She couldn’t recall the last production she’d seen outside the high school, college or at the Annual Kansas Thespians Festival.

“It was kind of crazy having two performances going at once,” she said. The casts of both the high school and community college’s shows were able to attend invited dress rehearsals to foster artistic camaraderie.

The cast of the community theatre production of “Godspell” gathers at Garden City Community College. (Garden City Community College Music)

Not having had the opportunity to perform since a Christmas show in pre-pandemic 2019, the cast of “Godspell” at Garden City Community College was simply grateful for the chance to perform. Made up mostly of current students and local teachers at neighboring schools, this small but mighty cast relished in what richness live performance could bring to their lives, as well as the audience’s.

Giselle Martinez, a Soph. at GCCC, spoke about being a member of the ensemble and this sense of community.

“This is my first community show,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t think I would’ve talked a lot of [the cast] if it wasn’t for the community show. It’s a really nice way to meet new people.”

Zoe Deschaine, a Garden City educator, has always been taught the value of theater.

“My parents always made it a point to go see live theater whenever we could,” she said.

Originally from rural Michigan, Deschaine can relate to art enthusiasts in western Kansas, where travel is certainly necessary. 

“It was a family bonding experience,” Deschaine recalled, “but we had to travel to see those shows. I think they did that so that we were better thinkers. That’s what theater does. It’s important that people broaden their horizons.”

The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission has been actively gathering data on how arts communities in rural parts of the state stay connected. A recent public meeting with local arts industry professionals discussed arts-centered infrastructures, reestablishing the arts’ place of priority in any society, and how to fund these much-needed industries.

In an age where we can carry a microphone or camera on us at all times, getting your creative work seen as an artist is seemingly more “accessible” than ever, but the funds to perform live in one’s hometown are a constant struggle.

Until we have a local industry to take part in, the artists we rely on to tell our stories will remain unseen or unpaid, or burnt out from ensuring an expressive platform for their communities simply “for the love of the craft.” 

If we want to see our creative kids after they graduate, the time to invest in arts-based infrastructure is now.

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Brett Crandall
Brett Crandall

Brett Crandall is an actor, writer, producer, puppeteer and LGBTQIA+ activist based in Garden City. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts-NY, he tours regularly with his puppetry practice, Brett Crandall Studios, with a focus on all-ages, queer-inclusive stories. He is a proud member of the Reflector's arts writing cohort.