In a previous era, Roanoke was not just a railroad town, but a railroad town that built the most advanced class of steam locomotives ever, the Norfolk & Western’s mighty J-class series that we remember today through its lone survivor known simply as “the 611.” Roanoke then was to steam locomotives what Detroit was to cars — a place that was on the cutting-edge of the technology of its day.
Today, Roanoke pins its economic hopes not on what’s coming out of the East End shops but what it hopes will be coming out of a former industrial brownfields along the Roanoke River — the Virginia Tech Carilion Academic Health Center.
Former city manager Chris Morrill coined the phrase “from train city to brain city” to describe Roanoke’s transformation. The challenge now is to turn that slogan into an economic reality. Twelve years ago, the medical school and its related research institute didn’t exist at all. Now they employ more people than all but three private sector employers in the entire Roanoke and New River valleys — only Carilion Clinic, Volvo and perhaps Wells Fargo have more employees. The research institute is already a catalyst for spinning off start-up businesses. Three of six start-ups accepted for the inaugural cohort at RAMP, the Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program, were medical in nature. In the second cohort, five of seven were health-related. It’s not that hard to look at what’s happening there and see the beginnings of a potential Research Triangle — partly because it’s already happening. By contrast, when North Carolina Gov. Luther Hodges started the actual Research Triangle Park in 1959, he saw only pine trees and potential.
Roanoke has tried to leverage that, touting what sometimes has been called “an innovation corridor” and other times an “innovation district.” Either way, the idea has been to promote the notion that Roanoke —from downtown to the river — is the place for entrepreneurs to be. That innovation corridor, district, whatever you want to call it, is, in turn, supposed to be part of a larger innovation ecosystem. In January, nearly 200 business and government leaders from the Roanoke and New River valley gathered for what was billed as the region’s first entrepreneurial summit. They heard from a famous business consultant — Thomas Osha — who put Roanoke’s efforts into context. “Innovation districts have become a global phenomenon,” he said. Lots of places are doing what Roanoke is trying to do – use a confluence of universities and health care centers as the industrial parks of the new economy. The good news: We’re on the right track. The maybe not-so-good news: Lots of places are trying to do the same thing. We’re not that special.
Osha also talked about a decidedly non-scientific field of endeavor: The arts. We’ll paraphrase because he used a lot of jargon, but basically what he was saying is that the innovation cities that do best are, well, cool. And the arts help make them cool. He held up Austin, Texas, as a key example. “Austin depends as much on the arts scene as the coders on 6th Street hanging out above the bars,” he said.
Now, Roanoke is not going to become Austin — a city that now rivals Nashville as a music city. But Roanoke could become, well, Roanoke — because it already is Roanoke. By that we mean this: While everyone was looking at Virginia Tech and the medical complex to turn Roanoke into an innovation capital, another university was already doing so. That university is Hollins University. In particular, we refer to its theatre program, especially its master’s programs in playwriting.
Over the past decade, Hollins has quietly established itself as a national theatre powerhouse — well, quietly to the general public but not so quietly in the stage world. Last year, students and faculty at the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins won 12 awards from a prestigious annual festival at the Kennedy Center — akin to, say, Virginia Tech winning a major bowl game 12 times over. (If you’d like to think of Hollins’ Ernest Zulia and Todd Ristau as the Frank Beamer and Bud Foster of theatre, feel free.) More to our point here today, Hollins’ graduate program under Ristau has become nationally recognized for the new plays that its writers are creating — new plays that now number in the hundreds and have gone to be produced in New York and Los Angeles and lots of other places in between.
City leaders who have felt the terms “innovation corridor” or “innovation district” are too geographically restrictive have instead pushed #RoanokeInnovates. That should apply to what Hollins is doing as well, because Hollins has made Roanoke a national center for innovation in theatre. That should count for something. True, a new play won’t spin off jobs the way a medical start-up might, but it does provide two other things: First, Hollins’ theatre program is a great talking point about how “RoanokeInnovates” is a real thing and not just a slogan, even if this is a completely different field. Second, the Hollins playwrights fit into the quality-of-life vibe that we instinctively know is important, anyway. Think of it in terms of, say, the Salem Red Sox. Even if you never go to a game, it’s important that they’re there.
Hollins isn’t the only live theatre going on in Roanoke, of course, but the new plays coming out of the school are what separate Roanoke from any other city with a lively arts scene. To go back to Osha’s Austin reference: Other cities have the equivalent of cover bands performing the same old shows over and over; Roanoke has actually become an “ignition point” for new works. Which is cooler?
This weekend, the Hollins graduate program shows off its latest work with the annual Festival of New Works on Mill Mountain Theatre’s Waldron Stage (the black box on Church Avenue, not the main stage where “The Little Mermaid Jr.” will open July 31). Starting Friday at 7 p.m. and continuing all day Saturday and Sunday, there will be script-in-hand staged readings of eight new plays — followed by “talkbacks” on each one.
To continue our tech start-up analogy, this is akin to eight entrepreneurs showing off their new inventions. Or, as city leaders would have it, this is but another example of #RoanokeInnovates.
Austin would have to invent something like this. Roanoke — thanks to Hollins — already has.