A new nonprofit organization is bringing music and theater productions to Beckley, and its founders aim to strengthen a culture that is capable of sustaining artists and fueling local economic growth in southern West Virginia.
WV Collective, founded 18 months ago as a not-for-profit arts organization by Jason Lockart, Jamie Smith and local attorney Adam Taylor, has already brought two productions to the stage of The Raleigh Playhouse and Theatre on Neville Street — the classic "Little Shop of Horrors" in November and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which explored transgenderism against the backdrop of a fictional East German rock band, in March.
Now, show by show, WV Collective founders are aiming to give Beckley artists a place to perform — for pay.
Lockart, who grew up in a New Jersey bedroom community of New York City, and Smith, a Raleigh County native and former coal miner, are both well-traveled professional musicians. They formed Kid in the Background, a multi-media production company on Prince Street, with the hopes of making a living as artists and business owners in downtown Beckley.
Kid in the Background has proven to be a successful venture for Lockart and Smith. Now, they want Beckley to be a city that nurtures local performance artists and gives musicians and actors a reason to stay in town instead of heading out of state to make a living.
"I want Beckley to be an arts town," Lockart said. "I'd like to see other types of businesses grow up around music and the arts.
"Local businesses grow up around artistic communities. It's proven."
Lockart explained that a loose network of local businesses already offers venues for artists to perform, and several production groups are doing "great" shows, but not every musician or theater production is a good fit for existing venues and producers.
With WV Collective, Lockart wants to broaden the acceptable limits of local artistic expression and to offer opportunities for artists whose work has not yet found a niche in the regional arts culture or on stages of local bars.
"I played all over the country and traveled the world with the best musicians, and some of the best musicians I've ever met are here, hanging out in Beckley," he explained. "The local community doesn't know how lucky they are.
"I don't think anybody's quite figured out a way to showcase that talent, yet."
Lockart said that he and Smith were looking for ways to expand the arts in Beckley about two years ago. They had produced "Frack," an original musical at The Raleigh Playhouse. They had also brought musical groups to perform in Beckley at fundraisers.
They weren't concerned with making money, Lockart said, but losing money was a worry with every venture.
Lockart said he and Taylor, an attorney with a background in theater arts, began discussing a void in the local arts culture that made it difficult for a business to operate in the black on a production.
"I said, 'This is sort of what a nonprofit does, isn't it? There's no need to make a profit or pay off a bunch of people a bunch of money,'" Lockart recalled. "So with (Taylor's) help, we decided to form a collective so we could go forward kind of putting together a harebrained idea we had of bringing some different kinds of theater to the area."
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After forming WV Collective, the three partners set out to bring a mainstream show to the area, starting with "Little Shop of Horrors."
Getting legal performance rights to the well-known production was costly, but Lockart — who had no acting experience at that time — had always wanted to perform in the quirky musical.
"Just the rights to that script cost more than 50 percent of everything," Lockart said. "That's what's prohibitive for a lot of theater companies to do things that are a little more mainstream. It's that upfront cost.
"We never had the ability to do that before he had the collective," he said.
"Little Shop" drew widespread praise and was recognized by Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold and Beckley Common Council as an inspiration for downtown Beckley. In a November Council meeting, Rappold hinted at some form of partnering between the city and WV Collective to increase patronage of downtown businesses and growth of the local art scene, which some elected city officials are promoting.
The production cleared several hundred dollars in profit and offered both amateur talent and professional actors an opportunity to perform in a well-known show.
Smith, a native West Virginian, believes that one role of the collective is to keep residents in the state. He wants artists to be able to make a living in the area.
"We have a low dropout rate for high school kids," he said. "It seems like we're cranking out a lot of intelligent people. They're just leaving.
"Art creates that sense of community that might convince people that they might want to stay here and help make this a better place.
"We need good, intelligent people to hang around," Smith added. "We have friends that leave. It happens to us daily."
Forming WV Collective helps to promote the arts in a substantial way and to offer a larger community for artists, he explained.
"People come together, and they create companies that create music, that create theater companies," he said. "We just have to do it, if we want to have it.
"Hopefully, we're showing that to other people as well."
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WV Collective is supporting the arts through fundraising efforts.
Lockart said the group just finished West Virginia Pubfest at Weathered Ground Brewery, raising $5,000 for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
"And then (we) still had a little bit of money left over for the collective and paid everybody that was involved in putting the festival together," he said, adding that 26 bands had donated their time.
The group has planned The Great Beckley Beer Festival, a fundraising craft beer festival, in downtown Beckley for Sept. 21, 2019.
WV Collective's next production is playwright Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," which opens the first weekend of August. The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama centers on aging salesman Willy Loman's disillusionment with his life.
Like "Little Shop of Horrors," "Salesman" will give both professional actors and emerging talent an opportunity to perform in a professionally produced, mainstream show.
Taylor chose the show, Lockart reported.
"This is definitely different," Lockart said. "After 'Little Shop of Horrors,' we did 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' which was totally off-the-wall in a different direction.
"We decided, after those two, that we wanted to do something that was a little more grounded in traditional theater, because we want to give everybody something they can enjoy."
He said that offering a variety is important to WV Collective.
"That was the No. 1 comment we were surprised to receive from people of all walks of life and all ages and all levels of economic prosperity, that this was something they missed about living in Beckley," he explained, "that they missed about other places, that there are people who like every kind of theater.
"The theater companies around here are doing awesome stuff that is just different than what we're doing."
On Monday, at-large Councilman Tim Berry credited WV Collective for being a leading force in developing the arts in downtown, which Berry has strongly advocated on his personal Facebook page and to Council.
"The WV Collective has brought a new element to our area of entertainment," Berry said. "Dinner theater and live theater have been missing from our ability to promote tourism and give our folks locally the opportunity for some humor, music and drama.
"I hope we can continue to support their efforts, along with other companies that want to bring entertainment, such as dinner theater, to Beckley."
Lockart said that, so far, WV Collective has proven at least one point to all of Beckley.
"I think we proved that you can do stuff," he said. "We just proved that if you're willing to wake up and do it, you can do all kinds of stuff.
"We want other people to do that, too. We're not special. We're just three guys, and so if we can do it, literally, anybody could."