Katie Emerson as Kira, surrounded by the Muses. Courtesy of Wolfbane Productions 2022 Xanadu photo/Parker Michels-Boyce

We need a new road.

Some might think that’s Interstate 73 or the Coalfields Expressway.

Or a revamped Interstate 81.

Not that kind of road, although we may need some of them, too.

We need another road like the Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail, except this time for theater. Or theatre.

(The Associated Press, the style-setters for most media sites, prefers the former. There are a lot of cultural politics involved in that. Some may think it’s simply the difference between the American spelling and the British spelling, but others think it’s deeper than that – that “theatre” suggests something hoity-toity for the upper classes, while “theater” is for the masses. We’ll stick here with the American version, the people’s version. Even Shakespeare knew how to play to the groundlings, those ordinary peasants who got the cheap seats on the ground while the lords and ladies were in their special boxes. We’re all groundlings here.)

So, back to the matter at hand. The Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail was founded in 2004 as a way to promote the region’s rich musical background. It certainly seems to have done that: A 2016 study by the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development found the trail generated $9.1 million in spending from out-of-town visitors each year. A previous study, in 2008, looked at both out-of-town visitors and locals and concluded the Crooked Road generated $23 million in spending annually. If you factor in inflation, those figures today would be $10.76 million in spending from out-of-town visitors and $30.31 million in total spending. That’s not bad money for something that was already here and happening, but now simply has a brand name for promotion purposes. People are pickin’ and grinnin’ all the way to the bank.

The Crooked Road has even inspired an imitator – the Mountain Music Trail in West Virginia – and it was founded for pretty much the same reasons. To cash in on what’s known as “cultural tourism.”

So here’s the question: Can we create a similar type of “trail” for live theater and see similar economic results?

Here’s why I think we can. This part of Virginia has an amazing amount of live theater – quality live theater, too. We don’t always appreciate that because there’s always a natural tendency to discount the things around us in favor of the new, the distant, the exotic. In music, there’s always the belief that the band from out of town is better than the local band simply because it’s from out of town. In the common vernacular, the grass is always greener on the other side.

Now, before I go on, let me declare my interests here: I happen to know a little bit about theater. In my side hustle, I’m a published playwright. (You can hold the applause. I tell people I make so much money from playwriting that I get to have a day job.) So, yes, I’ve been produced in New York, Toronto, London, Melbourne, so I’d like to think that gives me some insight into the theater world. (I’m no Lin-Manuel Miranda; otherwise, I’d be writing for Disney now.) Anyway, let me tell you: The theater we have in this part of Virginia is really good.

And, key to our discussion here today, there’s a lot of it.

And it’s in different places, which is really key, because it means we can set up a “theater trail” to connect all these dots.

We can start with the places that have professional theater: the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Wolfbane Productions in Appomattox, Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, the Virginia Children’s Theatre in Roanoke, and the Barter Theatre in Abingdon. (If I’ve left someone out, my apologies but these are certainly our best-known venues.) And even though my focus here is Virginia, which means my official interest stops at the state line, the economy doesn’t always work that way. That’s a fancy way of saying I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Lewisburg, West Virginia, just across the state line, is home to the Greenbrier Valley Theatre. We could forgive that nasty little business in 1863 and make them at least an honorary member.

That right there is a pretty impressive list. You’d be hard-pressed to find another mostly rural area of the country with so much professional theater. And that doesn’t even begin to count all the community theaters in the region which, by volume, produce far more shows. We also have an unusual number of colleges in this part of Virginia, and they, too, are producers of live theater. Hollins University also runs a master’s program in playwriting that draws national, even international, attention. (Again, a disclosure: While I am not affiliated with Hollins, the university has often invited me to take part as a writer in some of its summer festivals – without pay, I hasten to add.)

It is remarkable to me that we have all this live theater in our midst and no one has ever tried to tie it all together in a marketing campaign. There’s probably a good reason for this. Theaters generally don’t have big marketing budgets. One of my biggest beefs is that community theaters, in particular, often do a terrible job promoting themselves. They may produce really good art, but marketing is an entirely different skill set. They could all use interns, which they don’t have, to help them do a better job on social media. (Some clever person at a college with a marketing program could probably figure out how to make this happen, and their students could get some valuable real-world experience and community theaters would get an immeasurable dose of increased reach.) So if troupes can barely advertise themselves, there’s certainly not anybody looking at things more globally and saying, hey, there’s a bigger opportunity here.

But there sure is.

The Crooked Road connects “nine major venues and 60 affiliated venues and festivals.” I just listed five or six (depending on how we feel about Lewisburg) major theaters and I won’t begin to count all the community theaters, other than to say there are a lot. We already have the art happening. All we need is someone to promote all this theater as a destination attraction. If you go to the Crooked Road website, you can get what may or may not be a master list of musical events. (I’m under no illusions that it’s really a master list; there are simply too many events for that, popping up here and there.) The point is, though, people in the outside world pay good money to come here to listen to our bluegrass and old-time music. There’s no reason why they won’t do the same thing for live theater because, in some cases, we know they already are. A whole tourism industry has grown up in Staunton around the American Shakespeare Center. People have been driving some distance to see shows at The Barter for a long time. Would more people come if they knew about all the other theater we have? At some points of the year, it’s possible to take a whole week and see shows five of the seven days. That might be more often than you can find live bluegrass or old-time music on the Crooked Road. We ought to be promoting this as a thing.

What’s the economic potential? Here’s where I’d like to bring out some impressive dollar figure to strut and fret its hour upon the stage. Or the page. Whichever.

Here’s also where I can’t. There are lots of figures available for how much Americans spend each year on “plays, theater, opera and concerts,” but having concerts as part of that category skews things. All the spending on Broadway plays skews things, as well. The best I can do is cite a National Endowment for the Arts study – pre-pandemic – that showed 24% of American adults had attended a live play or musical in the previous year. (That figure seems high to me; it also includes student productions so if you drop out parents attending Junior’s kindergarten class production, you’d probably get a truer figure.) So perhaps this is the place to start: Can someone determine the size of the market we have and what the potential market is? Then we can talk about how to get there, be it on a Crooked Road or some other.  

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.