Each summer, several groups of students receive Juilliard Community Engagement grants to help them create and carry out outreach programs around the world. Last month, we learned about a grant for students who taught in a Jewish-Arab school in Israel. This month, we hear from three actors and a singer—Emma Pfitzer Price, Katherine Turner, Hayward Leach, and Andrew Munn—who spent a week in May working with, and listening to, artists of all sorts in rural Kentucky, near where Pfitzer Price hails from. During the workshop, local participants had a story circle—each person told stories based on their own experience and inspired by a common prompt—which generated themes they all explored further through improvisation exercises. “The combination of authentic sharing, cultural exchange, and co-exploration made for a productive and invigorating workshop,” Munn said.
I was born in coal country—small-town, Huntington, W. Va., raised by flaming liberal parents who actively, passionately protested environmental destruction of the Appalachian region from mountaintop removal coal mining. I spent half my life growing up in those hills, and the other half amid Kentucky bluegrass.
When I saw the red spread across my home region on the electoral map on November 9, 2016, I was quick to condemn the same communities I had loved in and laughed in—the communities I knew largely to not share the bigotry, misogyny, and incivility of the Trump campaign. It is too easy to blame rural America for the election turnout. Too easy to click the “unfriend” button on Facebook. Too easy to cut individuals out of our lives whose political ideologies conflict with our own. Too easy to associate “rural” with silent, misinformed, and “urban” with pretentiously progressive. I think the true evil resulting from the 2016 election was the simple blame-and-run-away game I and many others have sometimes succumbed to playing.
These labels, these instances in which we blame and do not engage, only aggravate the myriad malicious narratives that can separate our nation and communities into fragments. This divide exists in many forms. To me the most personal—and what I feel to be the most apparent—divide after this election is urban and rural miscommunication and lack of empathy.
So the Urban Rural Artists Exchange Project—whose work was funded by a Juilliard Community Engagement Grant over the summer—came into being in hopes of beginning to make this conversation not only possible, but long-lasting.Beginning last November, we met during every Wednesday to hone the questions at the core of our inquiry, to identify possible partner organizations, and once we had agreed to work with the long-established Appalachian arts organization Appalshop, in Whitesburg, Ky., we began imagining how to structure an artistic exchange rooted in the differences between communities and ideologies while gesturing toward an American pluralism.
After six months of conversation among ourselves and with Whitesburg community members and Appalshop, we arrived in Whitesburg for a three-day collaborative with youth members of the Appalachian Media Institute and community elders.
The culminating performance was an unlikely convergence of our classically trained craft with the storytelling traditions of Appalachian elders and the punk-rock and queer aesthetics of their youth program members. While working alongside these incredible artists for those magical three days, I realized that in order to begin re-writing this American narrative, we cannot continue speaking for one another. Speaking over one another. Speaking under one another. To achieve solidarity, we must fight to end stereotypes together, urban and rural.
This work reinvigorated my love for art-making, as I realized the true healing power it has. When you converse, challenge, or tell stories through the mediums of theater, music, an empty canvas, film, photography, an instrument, or movement, empathy is not an afterthought. And in order to heal, empathy must be front and center.
Emma Pfitzer Price is a member of Drama Group 49.