The recent decision by the Mineral Area College Board of Trustees to cut the theater department has struck a chord with some in the community.
On Thursday, at the first board meeting since the cuts were made, several members of the community came forward to voice their support for the department and their anger over the cuts.
Former MAC theater scholarship student Daisy Benz, who started the Facebook group Save the Little Theater, which has 534 members, was the first to address the board.
“I'm here today to represent that group of heartbroken community members and MAC alumni, shocked by this board's recent decision to eliminate the Mineral Area College theater department,” she said. “This year would have been the MAC Little Theatre Guild’s 50th birthday, and in those 50 years, it has produced 287 shows.”
She said she believes with her whole heart that losing the theater will be a detriment to the community.
“It is vital in providing a space for the others: the outcasts, the indoor kids,” Benz added. “It's a place of refuge for kids who battle bullies, for kids who live with special needs, and for kids who struggle with their mental health. Participating in theater brings kids out of their shells, raises their self-confidence, and encourages self-expression.”
It improves mental health for those involved, she said.
“So in this pandemic era of human history, where everyone's mental health is being put through the wringer, we really can't afford to lose such a valuable and healing resource,” she explained. “Here in small town, USA, where extracurricular activities for non-athletes are extremely limited, the theater is a beacon to all kinds of kids, allowing them to blossom and evolve together, forming valuable relationships along the way.”
Benz said she is aware of the severe financial challenges that forced the board to make some painful and difficult decisions. But she thinks it also important for them to acknowledge that the department was doomed to fail because of poor fundraising efforts, virtually no modern marketing, zero time reserved for student recruitment, and consistent yearly budget cuts.
“While shutting down this program seems like the only choice available right now, I believe there were steps that could have and should have been taken in an attempt to save this before it got to this point,” she said. “It has been mentioned to me a few times that the college relies on department heads to recruit new students and run social media accounts.
"This is virtually impossible when the department head is also the support staff and responsible for literally everything. It's utterly unimaginable for any entity to survive and thrive without proper nourishment and support.”
She added that she wanted to hold President Dr. Joe Gilgour to his promise to facilitate a path to continuing community theater through MAC.
“It is my intention today to challenge and encourage you to be exhaustive in your efforts,” Benz added. “I do believe that we have the community support to make this a successful endeavor.”
Cassondra Smothers was the other community member to voice her support for the theater. She echoed Benz’s thoughts about the benefit the theater can have on mental health.
Her daughter, Faith, is autistic and, under guidance from her doctor, has used her time in the theater group as therapy.
“If it hadn't been for this theater group, my daughter would not be able to do what she does every day,” Smothers explained. “She's a straight A student, (in) band, choir. She does everything as a normal student does. And it's because of this theater group.”
There are no other resources in the area for drama therapy, she said, so expanding on that with theater could be an option moving forward.
“It would bring in more money, as in grants and other things, to help these students as well as the theater as a whole,” she said. “That is my contribution.”
Although not at the board meeting, Mikayla Watkins is a former MAC student who started the petition to the save the theater department. To date, the petition has 2,235 signatures.
“I wasn't expecting that huge of a response,” she said. “I think that just goes to show how much this program does affect the community.”
Watkins became involved with the theater when she moved to the area in 2010, participating in several plays and in summer theater camp.
“I met a lot of really good friends while I was in it and had a lot of really good experiences,” she added. “I met my boyfriend while I was in it. And I just know the impact that it has, not only on my life, but just everyone that I was in the theater with. It just felt wrong to not have this in our community.”
After it garnered 1,000 signatures, Watkins sent the petition to Gilgour with a lengthy email that explained why she started it. She got an email response from him and a follow-up call, explaining the financial difficulties that led to the decisions.
“Dr. Gilgour told me that they hope this is temporary, that this isn't a permanent change, and that hopefully in the future they can reinstate the program,” she added.
In the meantime, Watkins is hoping the Mineral Area Council on the Arts (MACOA) is able to start a community theater group to use MAC’s theater.
MACOA Executive Director Scottye Adkins said they are looking into several options, but nothing is certain yet.
On Facebook last week, MACOA released a statement about how grieved they are about the decision to cut the theater and music departments. Many different community members have benefitted from the culture and education provided by the assets, they said.
“Our belief is that the arts contribute greatly to the desirability and economy of communities while creating a safe place of expression, beauty, and cross-generational community,” they continued. “To the end of keeping quality community arts endeavors in the Mineral Area, MACOA is exploring the feasibility of the continuation of community arts production.”
On Friday, MACOA released a MAC fine arts impact survey, for anyone who has participated in the fine arts, music, or theater departments. They said the survey applies to all who have participated as either a student, a community member, or both. The survey can be found on MACOA’s Facebook page.
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At the board meeting, Trustee Alan Wells thanked Benz and Smothers for their ideas and show of passion for the theater.
In other business, the board approved a tiered tuition model. MAC Chief Financial Officer Lori Crump said the base tuition rate will be for the arts and sciences side. The first tier will be for some of the CTE programs. The second tier will be for the ADN and PN programs.
“So when we evaluated this, we tried to keep it under what the Pell Grant amount will be for fall of ‘21, which is when this will go into effect, including books and standard fees that are charged to students each semester,” Crump added.
The board heard a funding update from Gilgour, who said that Gov. Mike Parson has decided to release some of the withholdings for this year. He said this is encouraging because their best-case scenario for a budget shortfall is $1.4 million.
“We were not able to get to that amount in our reduction,” he added, “so this helps fill that gap so that we hopefully will not have to continue that process anymore.”
In addition, the board
- was given an update on enrollment numbers. MAC is currently down 11% in both number of students and credit hours.
- heard an update from MAC Foundation Director Kevin Thurman, who said the Enhancement Grant Campaign has raised close to $50,000. He also said the Foundation’s golf tournament will be May 5 and the trivia night has been moved to the fall.
Nikki Overfelt-Chifalu is a reporter for the Daily Journal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.