by Hannah Williams-
The theatre arts can be crucial to a beneficial education in and out of school. However, many do not see the subject as having as much merit as STEM-driven fields. Many politicians have even pushed and financially incentivized STEM-driven fields over those that are art-driven in the past. As a result, theatre has become largely underdeveloped in more rural areas as less funding is distributed to those regions. This includes the New River Valley and much of the Appalachia.
Rhea Perdue is a fan of and participant in the theatre arts. She was born and raised in Richcreek, Virginia, a small town in Giles County. According to the U.S. Census, the town had a population of only 755 in 2020. Perdue recalls how makeshift her experience with theatre was throughout her K-12 education.
“It was all very D-I-Y. We didn’t have a theatre at my high school, it was an auditorium for meetings,” Perdue says. “We had to daisy-chain little things, and we didn’t have mics, lighting or sound for a couple years.”
Perdue discusses how having proper experiences would have prepared her better for her theatre career in college.
“Had we had those things already, I think I would have had a better knowledge of them when I got to college and how to use them and not how to makeshift little things,” she says. “I think the root of the problem is not that I wasn’t exposed to it. The root of the problem is that we did not have money to facilitate the exposure.”
When it comes to K-12 funding, Virginia is still dealing with the effects of the 2008 recession and disproportionately relies on local governments to fund its public education. In order to meet the state’s Standards of Quality, local governments are having to spend twice as much in recent years, which many rural areas struggle to afford. These rural schools end up prioritizing STEM subjects while cutting back on arts to facilitate better test scores and receive grant funding.
Despite arguments vouching for STEM subjects over the arts, there are a number of benefits that attending or performing theatre can have for residents and students of rural communities. A study by the George Mason University Arts Research Center shows the more art classes students take the more they can excel academically in other fields, leading to higher test scores many schools strive for.
Susan Bland, Associate Director of Communication at Moss Arts Center, grew up in Giles County. She says the arts have benefits other subjects might not be able to provide.
“It opens up worldviews and gives [people] perspectives they would never have if they didn’t have access to the arts,” Bland says. “That’s something that math can’t give you. That’s something that science can’t give you.”
There are many reasons why a lack of theatre persists in the New River Valley. However, its benefits often outweigh the costs and could be key to helping underprivileged communities in the area.