The heart of McDowell County.

Posted: June 7, 2010 in Uncategorized
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McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County.


McArts Amphitheater stage.

The photos were taken on my first visit to the McArts Amphitheater in McDowell County, West Virginia.  No, it’s not an impressive facility.  It’s at the top of Tom’s Mountain, just a few hundred yards from the relatively new Mt. View High School.  Just about any designer or urban planner would take one look at the place and jump to the conclusion that it’s not a very good space for people.  Let’s see if that conclusion is justified.

First, the blink test.  Is there a reason to enter the space?  Hmmm.  Not really.  Not at the time of the photo, anyway.  Does it feel safe?  It’s deserted.  Kind of secluded.  No, it doesn’t feel safe.

Does it have adequate seating?  Well, there’s quantity.  Not so much quality.

How about the concept of “a room with a view”?  It’s more or less one big room, with a view of an empty stage. 

So maybe it’s a justified conclusion.  Maybe it’s not a great space for people. 

Not so fast.

Before you can judge the success of a place you must understand its purpose.  The McArts theater is not a park.  It’s not a place where you go to meet friends for a quiet conversation.  It has one purpose. It’s a venue for theater production.  It’s not all things to all people all the time.

Ok, I admit that as theaters go, this one is fairly primitive.  On my first visit, I had a hard time envisioning how the facility would be adequate for any kind of production. But that was before I actually went to see a play.

It was a warm July evening when my wife and I went to a production of “The Terror of the Tug,” a play written by local playwright Jean Battlo which chronicles Sid Hatfield and the coal mine wars of the 1920’s.  We pulled into the grass parking area and were surprised to see dozens of cars already there.  Concessions were being sold from fold-up tables.  It was all very down-to-earth.  To say we felt safe would be an understatement.  We were treated like family members at a reunion.  One of the first persons to welcome us was Jean Battlo herself.

The rickety bleacher seating had been supplemented by cheap plastic lawn chairs.  We found some space in the bleachers and watched as the rest of our “family” made their way in. 

That evening, West Virginia Culture and History Commissioner, Randall Reid-Smith, was in attendance.  Of course being a VIP, he was introduced, and with very little prodding, he was coaxed into giving an impromptu performance.  Not knowing his capabilities, I was prepared to be embarrassed for him.  Instead, I was amazed at the great voice and musicality he possessed as he tore through a Broadway-like number extolling the virtues of West Virginia.  The evening was off to an impressive start.

I wasn’t sure if the play would live up to the professionalism of Reid-Smith.  I should have known better.  Jean Battlo has written an engaging play that recounts an important part of the history of our state.  The actors were amazing.

By the last curtain call (sans curtain), the evening had turned cool.  The flood lights dimmed and gave way to the twinkling of a thousand stars in the sky.  We reluctantly said goodbye to our new family and began the trip back to St. Albans.  It had been a great night and our memories of the McArts Amphitheater will forever be colored by that very positive experience.

There’s a lesson in this story for all of us who are involved in planning public spaces.  A public space is successful when it meets the needs of people.  A public space is successful when good things happen there.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  We shouldn’t become so enamored with our designs and facilities that we forget to think about the people that will use the space.

This year, the McArts Amphitheater will get a bit of a makeover.  Now don’t get me wrong, new seating will make the place much more comfortable and accessible.   But I think it will always be about the heart of McDowell County and bringing new people into their family.

  1. Nelle Chilton says:

    Excellent. Will there be other performances of this play? If so how do we find out?

  2. Joseph Bird says:

    Mike Aeiker wrote the following…


    I chose to just email you a personal note. If you are okay with my thoughts and comments you may copy and paste them on your blog if you like.

    Your recent “Spaces for People” writing of the McArts Amphitheater brought back some old memories this morning of the many summer days I spent in rural Clay County as a kid. Local churches were the gathering spot for many local events back then and Clay County was no exception.

    Rural Clay County to my knowledge (at least back then and maybe still today) rarely had public places much less places with fancy water features like fountains and reflecting pools… or a detailed design of brick pavers and concrete to use a performing area for local events. The stages may have been nothing more than freshly mowed lawns or fields next to a church… or if you were lucky, maybe a raised wooden platform like the one you and your wife saw at the McArt Amphitheater. Where ever the place… if a crowd gathered and everyone had a good time… it was thought of as a success.

    Your comments, “A public space is successful when it meets the needs of people. A public space is successful when good things happen there. It doesn’t have to be fancy,” is so very true. But as you would say, don’t get “me” wrong… “hardscape features” like brick and mortar, concrete and steel are nice as long as they meet the needs of the people.

    I have been reading all your postings and have yet taken the time to comment on writings. I must say, I truly enjoy reading them. Keep up the excellent work!


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