On a Monday night, Main Street in Lyons, Nebraska, is closed — for a movie, according to signs on the barricades. A crowd has gathered on the brick pavement. Suddenly, what appears to be an empty storefront begins to move. People watch with anticipation as the facade leans forward, lowering toward the street.
After the façade comes down, a stand of bleacher seats slides forward from the empty building, creating outdoor seating for 80 people. Lyons’ Storefront Theater has become a reality. The crowd claps and cheers.
“Theaters were a big thing, even in the 60s. That was the place to be on Saturday night,” says Bill Hedges, a longtime Lyons resident and amateur filmmaker.
Stores would stay open late and people would come into town to shop, hang out, and catch a movie, he says. As a teenager, he worked as a projectionist in Lyons’ movie theater. Decades after it closed, he purchased the building to restore it and convert into his own filmmaking studio.
“(Theaters are) just a great place to gather, but with the advent of VCRs, people started watching movies in their homes. That's probably what led to the decline of small town single-screen theaters,” Hedges says.
Reconceptualizing Main Street
The importance of Lyons’ downtown, and its movie theater, came through in community discussions last year led by international conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta.
He set up living room furniture on the street and invited locals of all ages and backgrounds to sit down and talk about their town.
“People spoke about the downtown and they said downtown used to be a space for social life, used to be for commerce, and now, we look at it and it's kind of gone fallow,” Mazzotta says.
He asked people what the town had that it wasn’t using. They named a few things, Mazzotta says, and noted “that building right there is only a façade.”
Someone else said there’d been an attempt to create an outdoor movie theater in the past. All this informed Mazzotta’s eventual project idea: transforming the building shell and façade into a pop-up outdoor theater right on Main Street, in the heart of downtown.
“If people don't have public spaces that they all mingle in, then the conversation is very limited,” Mazzotta says. “However, people get to sit together and look at their town through new eyes, and maybe with a little creativity in the background, I think then the conversation about where the town is going changes.”
Capital-A art in rural Nebraska
Lyons’ Storefront Theater is one of four community-driven public art projects in northeastern Nebraska led by the Center for Rural Affairs. Adele Phillips created the project, secured a $200,000 grant, and invited Mazzotta into the process.
Mazzotta has designed art projects around the world, but Phillips says they had no preconceived ideas of what this art would look like.
“The Byway of Art project is a framework for allowing each of these communities to generate a very unique artwork which highlights their inherent special characteristics,” Phillips says.
Phillips says too often “The Arts” are seen as highbrow, elite, or limited to urban areas — and arts funding can be similarly limited. She chose the towns of Lyons, Decatur, Oakland and Macy because they’re close to each other and each offered a chance to showcase local talent and knowledge.
Still, Phillips admits she wasn’t sure the idea would fly.
“I didn't know what kind of reaction I would get but part of me thought maybe people would be a little anti-arts project. And they weren't,” Phillips says.
Wyatt Fraas of the Center for Rural Affairs says there has been a tremendous amount of community support and participation in these projects through donations of time, money and materials. He says this could work in other rural communities too.
“Neighboring communities in particular have been hearing about this and looking at what's going on and saying, 'Oh! That sounds fun, that sounds exciting. What could we do like that?'” Fraas says.
For the inaugural screening at the Lyons Storefront Theater, people sat on the bleachers and a tractor pulled a large screen in place.
Filmmaker Hedges had created a movie about the history of downtown Lyons, starring several local residents.
As the screen cast blue light across the audience, Mazzotta offered an outsider’s view of how this experience will affect the community.
“This to me is almost like a call to arms, it's saying.... for the people that have been here for a while, where are we going next?”
Lyons locals may have been thinking the same thing.
This story is part of Artland, a regional public radio collaboration reporting on stories of creativity building community in unexpected places.