History Brought To Life: Public gets chance to help ‘Dig Up Arkansas’

History Brought To Life: Public gets chance to help ‘Dig Up Arkansas’

Editor’s Note: Since this story was written, the public performances of “Digging Up Arkansas” have been postponed from Jan. 22 to Jan. 29 due to covid issues.

Even history has to keep up with the times. It’s not that facts change, but our interpretation of them does — and did, when the Walton Arts Center and Trike Theatre prepared to mount a new production of “Digging Up Arkansas.”

Justine Ryan and Jaddy Ciucci sort the history of the state in “Digging Up Arkansas.” (Courtesy Photo)

Written more than a decade ago by actor, teacher and playwright Mike Thomas, “Digging Up Arkansas” was intended to help teachers find “new and fun ways to activate the teaching of the state’s history,” he remembers.

“At the time I was teaching Arkansas history, and I was acting in the area,” Thomas says. “So, I was asked to write a play that would engage students in their state’s history. It has to be less than 50 minutes so it fits a typical class period in the public schools, it should cover as much of the state’s history as possible and have some catchy songs for kids.

“The play became an important resource for Walton Arts Center educational outreach,” he adds. And “in the next four years ‘Digging Up Arkansas’ toured the state and hit all 75 counties.”

“Before rehearsals started this year, the creative team did a table read to review the content of ‘Digging Up Arkansas,’” WAC publicist Jennifer Wilson picks up the story. “It’s not that history has changed but how we look at history and whose perspective we view it from has changed. Updates were made in several places.

“For example, in the play a French explorer meets with a member of the Quapaw tribe. They can’t understand each other, but they must try to work together. In the past version the audiences saw the interaction from the explorer’s point of view. Now they see it through the point of view of the Indigenous person — which is a more inclusive way to tell the story of that meeting.”

“Digging Up Arkansas” is an educational play that uses artifacts, songs, stories and student participation to teach Arkansas history from the year 1000-1936. (Courtesy Photo)

“Thanks to the creative team, we feel confident that we have successfully transitioned the show into the year 2022,” adds Jason Suel, who is one of three co-directors of this year’s production. “Leaving behind tropes, stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals of situations in order to adeptly maneuver the narrative of the show into the current climate of our time period while staying true to the history of our great state!

“One example is how we have worked with culture and script consultant Candice Byrd to make sure we are presenting the Native American tribes that existed in Arkansas in the most authentic way we can,” he says by way of example. “One specific example of her influence is that in the previous iteration of the play, we didn’t mention the Trail of Tears, and now we present that historical moment in order to preserve and remember. In other parts of the play, we are using authentic Indigenous words for historical accuracy.”

Still, Suel promises the thousands of Arkansas schoolchildren would recognize the play they have enjoyed so much over the years. The storyline is that three Works Progress Administration workers are headed to Little Rock on a train to meet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Suel explains.

“All of the artifacts that they have packed away in the train car for their presentation get jostled around and become disorganized. Throughout the course of the play, the WPA workers re-organize their artifacts and while doing so become different historical figures from the state of Arkansas. By putting on a costume piece or a hat, they become the historical figure that originally wore that item, thereby refreshing their knowledge of the history of Arkansas and inviting the audience to help them get ready for their presentation. They are literally digging up the state’s history while prepping for their meeting with the president.”

Actress Jules Taylor has been “Digging Up Arkansas” since the beginning and returns this year for the performances at the Walton Arts Center.

“By putting on a costume piece or a hat, [the actors] become the historical figure that originally wore that item,” says Jason Suel, one of this year’s directors of “Digging Up Arkansas.” “They are literally digging up the state’s history.” (Courtesy Photo)

“Although it is primarily performed for elementary school children, it is fascinating for adults, too, and I can guarantee you will learn something about your state that you never knew,” she promises. “Also, there are many areas in our state that may not have opportunity to see much performance, so it’s exciting to bring it to them. Performance is magical, it’s alchemical. There is an exchange of energy between audience and performer that is completely unique. This connection, along with the music, the kinesthetic movement and audience participation are what help the audience remember not only the experience, but the material.

“This state is rich in history, and there are all kinds of wonderful, interesting people who were Arkansans,” she adds, but also, she points out, the play proves that “arts integration works.”

“The arts are a vital and important teaching tool. There are many studies that prove that using the arts to teach any subject has a high success rate,” Taylor says.

Sallie Zazal, director of learning and engagement at WAC, agrees.

“In short, ‘Digging Up Arkansas’ is a perfect example of WAC’s education mission,” she says. “It was requested by third- to fifth-grade teachers to help them teach Arkansas history standards. It meets many of those standards and does so in a meaningful way.

“It was created by and continues to use local artists, and is relevant to every corner of our state and serves every county.

“In addition to providing educational content, it demonstrates Walton Arts Center’s primary form of teacher professional development: arts integration. ‘Digging Up Arkansas’ helps them think, plan, create and share, aligning with finding from studies that show students remember information better, do better on tests and can better demonstrate what they know when they experience the arts and learn through the practice of arts integration.”

“The show takes place in 1936, Arkansas’s 100th birthday, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is stopping in Little Rock on one of his famous whistle stop tours to celebrate Arkansas,” Jules Taylor says of the plot of “Digging Up Arkansas.” “This is an historically accurate fact, and the perfect jumping off place (beginning of the story) for ‘Digging Up Arkansas.’” (Courtesy Photo)


‘Digging Up Arkansas’

Public Performances

WHEN — 2 & 4 p.m. Jan. 29

WHERE — Walton Arts Center’s Starr Theater

COST — $10-$15

INFO — 443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org

FYI — Everyone 2 and older will be asked to wear a mask.

Categories: Family Friendly