Bethany Lacktorin and Creative Placemaking

The Rural Regenerator Fellowship brings together individual artists, makers, and culture bearers, grassroots organizers, community development workers, public sector workers and other rural change-makers who are committed to advancing the role of art, culture and creativity in rural development and community building. In 2022, we asked a collective of local writers to sit down with current Rural Regenerator cohort members to share more about their work.

Site specific and place-based work guides Bethany Lacktorin’s creative practice as a performance artist. Though these days she sees the work she facilitates as Director of the Little Theatre Auditorium in New London, MN as her major creative offering. She started her creative life as a violinist, after getting carpal tunnel she shifted toward music tech at McNally Smith College of Music (formerly Musicians Technical College), which eventually opened up new doors of bringing sound to the stage. She reflects on this winding path toward performance art as a series of steps resulting in joyful transition. She jokes she struggles with stage right/left directions as someone not specifically trained in theater, however after friends convinced her to play violin on stage, she became hooked on the possibilities of what can be done through the magic of performance. 

When she is not making her own shows, she uses the same skills that she employs to create original works that have been reassigned for “making a place where things can happen.” Lacktorin’s intrepid spirit of making places for art to happen shapes her thinking about the value of arts in rural places as a recent returnee to the area. The deep sense of history infused in her work reflects her generous spirit and critical eye, making her an artist of many talents; invested in deeper relationships between people and environment.

New London is home to a thriving artistic community. “Birds of a feather sort of find each other,” Lacktorin shares, “and I’ve been lucky to become friends with the artist community. There’s a lot of people who make things, and lots of artists who also came home to stay.” In this sense Lacktorin is in good company. She feels supported by the community in her efforts to make art. In fact, this thriving environment was one of the reasons Lacktorin wanted to return to her rural roots. She credits the late former mayor Bill Gossman, who was a potter, as a driving force behind the city’s focus on the arts. This rural southwestern town of just under 1200 people is home to many musicians and artists.

Lacktorin counts herself as part of the “1.2% not white people” in the area’s population demographics. Growing up as an adopted Korean by folks who lived near Sunburg, about a half-hour from New London, she joined a family legacy as fourth generation caretaker of a home that operated a general store gas station on Highway 104. Following in her mom’s footsteps, Lacktorin now owns the property, though the gas station is no longer in operation. Even after living in Minneapolis, and then Prague, Lacktorin has always known that she’d come home.

Upon her return to the area, Lacktorin ran sound boards for events at the Goat Ridge Brewing Company, managed the bar and then eventually shifted over to become the Director of the Little Theatre in New London. As with other creative fields, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the ways the theater operated. Lacktorin’s ingenuity brought experiences for audiences of one to the theater, keeping their doors open and the spirit of the place alive through these uncertain times. Working with a collaborator from Prague – Cristina Maldonado – Lacktorin produced a performance for one audience member at a time. Maldonado and Lacktorin offered A Gift for the community based on a show originally called Interruptor devised by Maldonado, which they both created in the 2010s in Prague. The performance was appealing to Bethany as it was a way to experience performance without depending on language, given that Lacktorin was living in Prague and didn’t speak Czech.

During the recent Minnesota-based production of A Gift, which traveled throughout Minnesota and into Wisconsin over the last two years, Lacktorin likened it to a tarot card reading, where the audience member comes into the space and interacts with the performer one on one. In the context of COVID this became part virtual offering in that Maldonado was performing from the Czech Republic and broadcast into the theater via Zoom while Lacktorin produced the local opportunity to engage with the performance. Lacktorin describes it also as an opportunity to create an appointment for self-care, observing that the piece often created a sense of calm, and/or feeling of rejuvenation after experiencing the show.

A Gift isn’t dependent on language, you come into the theater and sit at a table dressed with a white piece of paper surrounded by household objects like nuts, bolts, screws, paper clips, glitter. Somewhere else that the audience member can see via video, is another table with the exact same things. As the audience begins to interact on their table the performer also engages the objects. Lacktorin shares that you can begin to see the other person manipulating objects and out of this magic participant and performer end up creating a language using the objects. 

Bringing this event to the theater through COVID, helped the community make it through this stage of the pandemic, and allowed the Little Theatre Auditorium to keep their doors open. Heading into the production, Lacktorin wasn’t sure what people were going to get from the experience. However, she was heartened to have facilitated this show given the positive results. The audience members experienced an emotional connection with a stranger they never met, and really enjoyed the performance at a critical time when connecting to people through art was so necessary.

Lacktorin believes in the power of shifting mindsets toward providing art through the theater as a service. This is one of the reasons she finds grouping works under this umbrella of “Art by Appointment” exciting. Another program that falls under this umbrella is The Museum of Portable Sound, facilitated by Dr. John Kannenberg of London, England, a sound engineer who maintains a library of sounds he’s recorded or has been gifted from throughout time and from all over the world. These sounds are curated and make up a virtual library that folks are able to explore in a guided Zoom experience. Lacktorin is looking for a third experience like these to add to the experiential audience of one offerings. She notes that while The Museum of Portable Sound is an ongoing project, she now needs a separate space to host it now that things are happening again in the theater.

And things are happening!Under Lacktorin’s leadership, alongside what she credits as a supportive board and a supportive community, Little Theatre Auditorium is excited to offer a fully funded Residency Program with funding from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council. The month-long residency hosted their first Artist in Residence last year.  The artist was selected by a panel made up of New London artists and art advocates with one criteria being that the artist needed to be able to adapt shows for small audiences or audiences of one as a public health and safety measure. 

As for what Lacktorin plans to do with her time with the fellowship she notes that creative place-making, “is hard work, it’s undefined, some things have rigid structures, others not at all. So much corresponds with developing different relationships” and because of this really complex work, navigating it in small communities can becomes really isolating. The Fellowship has been a relief and a joy for Lacktorin to connect with others who are doing similar work. She shares, “there’s an emotional safety net – in a sense – in seeing others do this work, you’re no longer alone. It’s quite a gift to have a sense of fellowship.”