In September and October of 2013, sixty artists and other residents of Harlan County, Kentucky came together with visiting artists from Community Performance International to present an original musical drama, Foglights, to community audiences at four locations in Harlan County. The play, which was the fourth in the Higher Ground series of community performances produced by the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College, explored the storied past and foggy future of this Appalachian coalfield community. The performances were the culminating events in a year and a half of arts-based community development in Harlan County undertaken in partnership with ArtPlace America.
During November, cast members interviewed audience members to find out what they took away from the performances. The following are quotes from Higher Ground 4: Foglights audience members:
“I was taken by the amount of talk in town. I heard no negative comments. I heard lots of people telling their friends they should see it and describing the scenes.”
“I feel like we have to realize change. Young people are going to lead us in a different direction than we’re used to. Wendy loved her dad [a hoarder symbolizing the older generation’s failure to make room for the next generation] but helped him realize he had to change. I hope change can come without disrupting the good things about our culture and area.”
“I like that [the play] is community oriented. I like that it was performed in different places to give people access. I like that some of the venues are old schools. Other abandoned schools are empty but this play brought life into a few schools. I love that the cast was multigenerational, multiracial, and just every kind of person you could imagine. The play was true to the different cultures within the larger Appalachian culture.”
“It was true to the area. The play did a good job balancing the sadness and humor and quirks. You didn’t leave depressed. It represented Harlan County in a good light but was also true.”
“Celebrate the past and tell people now of the past. The way it ended, it was almost like the story was dying. Everything dies in the end. Things seem happy but, in the end, everyone is still in a cemetery.”
“It says the future hasn’t been written. This place evolved into what it is now. It’s what you make of it. If you leave nothing will change but, if you stay and invest, things can be better. It’s okay to embrace the culture and past and keep traditions going.”
On December 7th, eight cast members and summer arts students traveled to Washington, DC to present the story of Higher Ground 4 and perform excerpts from the play as part of the 13th annual conference of the Appalachian Teaching Project (ATP).
ATP is sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency. As part of ATP, thirteen Appalachian colleges and universities engage students in research and community-based action designed to help build sustainable economies for Appalachian communities. Higher Ground students presented their work to an audience of their peers, and also to staff of the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.
While in Washington, Higher Ground staff also met with Summer 2013 collaborating artists from the University of North Georgia to plan Summer 2014 offerings by UNG in Harlan County. The UNG courses would be part of the Creative Development Center, a Harlan County-based creative placemaking project. Also in December, Higher Ground staff are working with partners in Cumberland Gap and Whitesburg to develop a regional approach to creative placemaking and the training and retention of young creatives in the coalfields.