A New London Woman Aims to Revitalize the Prairie Through Arts
As small towns across the state lose their historic theaters, individuals and community support have kept some of them alive.
On a recent Saturday evening, people gathered in a century-old theater to move their feet and enjoy the live sounds. It's happening in New London, a rural community of less than 2,000 people, hours away from a major city. But the town's theater is thriving today because of the work of one woman.
"I grew up, went to school here, started in kindergarten," Bethany Lacktorin said. The 40-something-year-old returned to her childhood town a few years ago. She was adopted from Korea and became rooted to the community from her early years. Though she left to pursue a career in performance art, music and audio production in bigger cities like Minneapolis or Prague, she came back to her small-town roots.
"I always knew I'd be back. My adoptive family owned property that had been in the family for generations, since 1868, so I'm fourth-generation to own that property and live there," she said.
When the local high school gave up using an old theater in town, Bethany saw an opportunity to get involved.
"They kept [the New London Little Theatre] in good shape, the past Board had installed some sort of solar panel in the back, they installed LED lights," she said of some of the upgrades done in the 1980s. Lacktorin realized the New London Little Theatre just needed some new energy. She decided to hang a strobe light and fashion a new, modernized logo that incorporated a lunar moth, a nod to the feminine spirit that Lacktorin embodied.
"We are sitting in the auditorium, this is what I like to call the dance floor," Lacktorin said, as she gave a quick tour of the space. Lacktorin's long hair was wrapped in braids. With a knit hat, she was dressed in casual sportwear that made her look like she would be be at home on a snowboard, as well as the volunteer program director for the theater.
"At one point, it used to be a basketball court, the stage used to be an auction house for livestock, so it has history. It's 101 years old this year," she said.
Historic theaters are disappearing across rural Minnesota. Their survival now depends largely on local residents like Lacktorin and community support to transform them into modern-day places that attract and connect people.
"The Little Theatre had always been a place for community theater and plays. That wasn't my expertise, I've done performance art, been in many bands. When I looked at this space, I thought you could do so many things, but we need a bar to make it pay for itself," she chuckled.
Lacktorin and the theater board built a bar across the dance floor opposite the stage. A colorful mosaic of broken glass by artist Maria Novak created the bar backsplash. Community members came up with a bespoke cocktail menu, and even volunteer their time to tend bar during events.
It's what you do in small towns, Lacktorin said. There aren't enough people to do everything, so a small number wear a lot of hats. Lacktorin, herself, works full-time at the local newspaper, Lakes Area Review, as the graphic and layout designer. She is also on the boards of the local human rights commission, arts alliance and serves as the treasurer for an upcoming food cooperative in town.
Lacktorin said she sees this aspect of small-town life a benefit. In large cities, it's often difficult and competitive to get involved. In communities like New London, taking on different roles is often a matter of just stepping forward. As an Asian-American, Lacktorin also sees her volunteerism as a way to make her community a place that people of color would want to live and work.
"With everything going on in the world in late 2019, 2020, one thing growing up here I really felt there wasn't a space for BIPOC people to express the lives they were experiencing," she said.
Lacktorin, who is also a performance artist, has tried out for community plays in the past. But she was turned away because she said there weren't roles for "people like me."
That is part of what drives Lacktorin with her work at the theater. She has brought Native American artist Fern Cloud in to teach traditional beadwork, pushed for BIPOC musical acts and even gotten creative by giving the stage to a burlesque act. During the pandemic, Lacktorin set up an open-mic night that allowed audience members to watch online.
Non-profit Springboard for the Arts opened an outpost in Fergus Falls a decade ago to address the needs of rural artists. Thew organization offers $10,000 in unrestricted stipends to help support the work artists like Bethany were already doing. The artists also receive mentoring and connection to others to overcome isolation.
"We've really seen the critical role artists are playing in rural spaces. They're not just doing art for the sake of art, they're hosting gatherings that push conversations forward that help identify solutions, " said Michele Anderson, director of rural programs for Springboard for the Arts.
"With the way that rural economies have changed, we need new ideas to help these communities stay intact."