ELKHORN CITY — One good thing about putting on The Wizard of Oz: Lots of little kids want to play Munchkins, so lots of little kids get interested in drama classes offered at the community theater.
The 15 Munchkins at Artists Collaborative Theatre's recent dress rehearsal were impatiently wiggling in seats and fussing with one another's costumes before it got under way. But after they went on stage, they confidently interacted with grown-up cast members. They listened to cues and choreography and notes about character development.
For rural students especially, the chance to learn how the world works through theater is important, director Stephanie Richards said.
"There's no safe place for them to explore life without having to explore life," she said. "If you're in a play, if you're in Little Women, and you get to explore what it's like to be a Jo March versus a Meg March, then you don't have to go out in life and figure that out for yourself. You've already played around with that as a character."
Artists Collaborative Theatre is in the middle of its second season in its new home in downtown Elkhorn City.
Two 14-year-olds, who participated in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever for years, directed the show in December, Richards said. "They had 40 kids on stage. And adults," she said.
This semester, Richards has handed teaching duties to two high school students and to a new assistant. East Ridge High School juniors Samantha West and Sarah Haynes said they hope to pass on to other children what Richards has taught them about drama and art.
"It's a better life with it," Samantha said. "It just becomes a part of you."
Samantha, who plays the Wicked Witch in Oz, said she has been taking classes at the theater for two years. She sees younger students learn to trust one another and communicate on stage.
"They've really opened up week by week," she said.
Sarah, who plays Auntie Em, said she tries to teach through games. They ask children to read monologues, such as excerpts of The Diary of Anne Frank, or to improvise telling a story to the group.
"Sometimes they don't know they're learning," Sarah said.
Usually about 20 — but sometimes as many as 50 — students from Pike County attend the drama classes. Tuition is on a need-based sliding scale.
East Ridge High School, closest to Elkhorn City, has a theater but no drama program. The school's music teacher, Emily Robinson, volunteers at the community theater. School buses from East Ridge and Elkhorn City Elementary drop students off at the theater, built largely with $250,000 in coal severance tax money.
Having arts near home is important, said Melissa Ratliff, the theater's program assistant who is from Pike County and remembers having to drive too far to dance classes growing up.
"Getting to do this here and to be able to give the opportunity that I didn't have" is good, Ratliff said.
The Wizard of Oz production "has brought in a lot more new faces" into the drama classes, she said.
That's allowing Richards to focus on getting programs going in other parts of Pike County, under the theater's parent program, Pike Arts, which was a pilot project of the University of Kentucky Fine Arts Extension Cooperative.
Stone Heritage Council is renovating buildings in Red Robin coal camp in the northern part of the county. The Pikeville Artisan Center recently moved into a new home. Richards is hoping to start arts programs in Phelps and the Shelby Valley area.
The UK Fine Arts extension is also growing, said extension cooperative director Jimmy Henning. He said he hopes to hire an agent for Whitley County soon. Vocal music programs are going in Muhlenburg and Greenup counties.
The focus has been giving residents a chance to participate, more than bringing outside art into the county. The vocal programs are community choirs and singing education, he said.
"It increases the human capital of a community," Henning said.