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NDSU marks 100 years of bringing theatre to North Dakotans

Published February 28, 2014

More than 100 years ago, theatre performers nationwide began organizing to promote social and political change. The result, referred to as the “little theatre” movement, was built around bringing the arts to the people.

NDSU followed suit in 1914 by establishing the Little Country Theatre, a small venue housed in what is now called Old Main. Its purpose, directed by founder and faculty member Alfred G. Arvold, was to use drama to bring people together while immersing students in the arts.

NDSU is celebrating 100 years of Little Country Theatre in 2014. It’s a subject in which Donald Larew is well versed. The professor emeritus and Little Country Theatre historian has spent much of the last 15 years researching theatre at NDSU.

Larew spent 40 years as a faculty member at NDSU, and he’s equally passionate as knowledgeable about the subject. “The Passion of Theatre” sculpture adorning Askanase Hall was his gift marking the 90th anniversary of Little Country Theatre.

He also is the curator for “The ART of Theatre: Master—Mentor—Medium,” an exhibition at the NDSU Memorial Union Gallery celebrating the milestone. It runs through April 10 and a public reception is scheduled Saturday, March 1, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

And while the name Little Country Theatre no longer refers to a physical location on campus, it is used to “invoke a connection of history of American theatre and a longstanding concern for cultural development in the region,” Larew said.

Theatre as outreach

The Little Country Theatre at NDSU was founded at a time when many, if not all, of North Dakota’s residents came from households where English was a second language. Arvold viewed this diversity as a rich opportunity.

Arvold led students on 40-day tours of the state, where audiences would pay up to 50 cents to watch shows lit by acetylene lamps. During the day, his students would interact with the community, learning and compiling information about their way of life for the NDSU Extension Service.

“All of these facts, combined with other data obtained before and since then, make a splendid diagnosis of certain phases of country life in North Dakota,” Arvold noted.

The NDSU Department of Theatre Arts continues its outreach efforts and touring through the North Dakota Governor’s School for the Performing Arts. Every other summer, high school students from across the state come to NDSU for a six-week residential theatre program. The students research, rehearse and create a show, which tours the state.

Rooth Varland, associate professor and department head for NDSU theatre, said Arvold’s vision continues today.

“People needed richness in their lives,” she said. “The traditions keep filtering through today. Students continue to feel they are on the edge of something new, much like when Arvold founded a theatre on the frontier.”

Immersive learning

From the program’s inception, students were encouraged to find their voice as artists and community leaders, Larew said. A student play was a staple of commencement for years.

And while original student work always has been promoted and showcased, a recently formed student-run organization has provided another outlet for student ingenuity. Founded in 2008, the newfangled theatre company manages four shows per season. The shows are directed, designed, performed and often written by students. The company was founded to give students the chance to practice the entrepreneurial skills needed to establish a theatre company.

NDSU alumni Lori and Scott Horvik helped the newfangled theatre company start up by sharing their experiences co-founding Theatre B, a small nonprofit theatre group located in downtown Fargo.

The commitment to a diverse student experience continues with the department’s production of globally focused events. For example, in 2012, visiting Japanese artist Tokuro Miyake spent six weeks teaching students the 600-year-old art of kyogen. For Miyake, the second female to perform kyogen professionally, it was the first attempt at teaching an English translation of the art form.

NDSU theatre also impacted one of the state’s longest-running musical productions. Frederick G. Walsh, who succeeded Arvold at NDSU, directed the play “Ol’ Four Eyes” in Medora, N.D., to mark the 100th celebration of President Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. He also scouted, selected and named the site that became known as the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, home to the Medora Musical.

“The rich tradition of the Little Country Theatre has spanned the last 100 years, and Theatre NDSU is now poised for even greater accomplishments in the next century,” said John Miller, director of the Division of Performing Arts. “As the Bard says in ‘The Tempest,’ what’s past is prologue.”

For more on the NDSU Little Country Theatre centennial celebration, visit


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Vice President for University Relations
North Dakota State University
Phone: +1 (701) 231-1068 - Fax: (701) 231-1989
Campus address: Old Main 204
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Last Updated: Wednesday, October 28, 2015 1:04:09 PM
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