The great Alfred G. Arvold, founder of the Little Country Theater at North Dakota Agricultural College, was a heckuva storyteller. His classic work on his life’s work, The Little Country Theater, published in 1923, begins with a scene, a scene that is about a scene.
Two young Icelandic immigrants named Thorfinnson and Briem arrive in Arvold’s office at the college. They have come for counsel. They want to produce a play they are writing, a play entitled, The Raindrops, a metaphorical drama about love, separation, sacrifice, and humanity. Not exactly what you might expect from a couple of farm boys. The playwrites have a problem. The drama is set in the old country, and no one possesses a painted backdrop depicting a quaint cottage in a mountain valley in Iceland.
Arvold told them they should paint the scene themselves. They were skeptical. But they did it. “When the play was presented,” writes Arvold, “the audience sat spellbound, evidently realizing that two country lads had found hidden life forces in themselves which they never knew they possessed. All they needed . . . was just a chance to express themselves.”
Alfred Arvold was North Dakota’s foremost exponent of the Country Life Movement--an inspired and organized effort to enrich life in rural America so that farm boys and girls would stay on the farm, sustain communities, and live well. Because he was a theater guy, Arvold thought community theater should be the center of community life, but this was in the context of his vision for contentment in the countryside.
Arvold delighted in going into communities and galvanizing theatrical enterprises. He also established the Little Country Theater, on the upper floor of Old Main at NDAC, as a laboratory, so that graduates would go forth and do likewise in their own communities. Perhaps most of all, he praised, validated, and promoted the work of organizers across the state.
Across the northern prairies today, there are stirrings in the pot of community theater. I am familiar with the actors in that hive of the arts, the Ellendale Opera House, but I know of similar activity in Lisbon, Ashley, New Rockford, and countless other towns across North Dakota. There is today, however, no Alfred Arvold to stand as the prophet and inspiration for these local enterprises.
The field is open for someone to fill Arvold’s shoes: to pull together the local partisans of theater laboring where they are; to provide support, technical and artistic, for their efforts; and to start a conversation about what community theater might say and do in prairie communities of the twenty-first century, a century after Arvold. I have long thought we should be stimulating, supporting, and rewarding playwrites who can provide us with new works that speak to prairie people where they are.
I now turn the story back over to Arvold, as he receives another aspiring playwrite, this one from Edmunds, North Dakota. Arvold talks with him about his life on the farm and the theme for his play. The conversation turns to the decision whether to stay on the farm or move to the city. “Good,” says Arvold, “there’s the theme for your play, country life versus city life.”
The play, A Bee in a Drone’s Hive, was staged, to great acclaim. Further, as to its author, Arvold recounts, “Today he operates nearly four hundred acres of land. He has forty head of cattle, eight of which are registered shorthorns. He is a successful farmer in every respect. During his spare moments he takes part in home talent plays. He loves the drama. He is married and has a family.” ~Tom Isern