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Experimental Theater on the Prairie

2/10/2004:

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Little Country Theatre at NDSU. During the early 1900s, North Dakota Agricultural College was on the cutting edge of a bold experiment known as the “country life movement.” The aim was to bring theater to the masses, especially rural communities, by celebrating regional folk lore and history.

One of the key players within this national movement was Professor Alfred G. Arvold, who is being honored at NDSU today. He came to NDAC in 1907 as an English instructor, and four years later, he started bringing in national caliber performers for public lyceums. Then, in 1914, he founded the Little Country Theater, “a country life laboratory,” that became known throughout the world for its work in rural communities.

Arvold’s vision was a big one; he called it, “a sociological experiment station which would depict the different modes of life. Happiness,” he said, “is most often found in social contact and in individual and community expression.”

As Director of Drama for the Extension Service, he spent three months a year traveling across the state to host performances – and then training sessions so that the communities could later stage their own presentations. Traveling by train, Arvold took eight actors and the NDAC Gold Star Band to 40 towns, where they would perform at night and evaluate each town’s resources by day. Arvold also developed annual “Play Days,” where people in 35 different counties participated in folk dances, games and plays.

To further help communities, Arvold developed a huge lending library for those wishing to stage their own plays, pageants, parades or festivals. In a Forum interview last October, Don Larew, the current artistic director of the Little Country Theater, explained, “Folks from across the state could write in and inquire specifically if they were looking for a one-act play with eight characters and a comedy; what would you recommend(?), and they would send out the script to them.”

Arvold also staged magnificent outdoor pageants in Fargo. One of these was titled “The Pastimes of the Ages,” which was performed in front of 15,000 people. A massive set resembling an ancient mosque served as a backdrop, and risers were erected for seating along the sidelines. The entire cast performed on a stage that appears to have been the size of a football field.

Based on the success of that event, Arvold turned his attention to a spot by the river that was slated to become the city dump. What he saw was a beautiful natural amphitheatre, so Arvold, who was a 33rd degree Mason, worked with his fellow Shriners to purchase the land. A subsequent festival honoring Charles Lindbergh brought in a whopping crowd of 30,000 people.

On days when it wasn’t being used for performances, the area was used as a golf course; in fact, the El Zagel golf course is still in use today.

Arvold also started Lilac Days in 1931, which was celebrated on campus for 20 years. In keeping with his larger-than-life ideas, he envisioned 80 miles of lilacs growing from Fargo to Grand Forks. Who knows? Maybe there’s a Johnny Lilac-Seed who could still make it happen...

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm