Jacqueline Dandeneau: In rural towns, “You have to learn to build bridges”

Jacqueline Dandeneau has spent her life in rural communities, from Canada to California, and she’s found that living rurally forces you to “deal with your stuff.” 

“When I live rurally, I have to confront people,” she said. “You have to learn to build bridges and overcome different points of view. You cannot hold a grudge very often or for very long, because soon you will run out of places that you can go.”

On many levels, Dandeneau said, the interconnected nature of living rurally encourages bridge building and some level of understanding, yet it can also encourage the totalitarian overtaking of diverse lifestyles and points of view.

“But generally, I feel there is more willingness to find some empathetic ground we can all stand on,” she said. 

Dandeneau practices this notion in Northern California’s Humboldt County, where she is the executive director of Arcata Playhouse, a community theater. While the county has about 135,000 people, it is a particular type of rural experience, she said. The few highways that lead into the county are prone to mudslides and fog. 

There are times you are totally locked,” she said.  

Yet that rural isolation is part of what brought Dandeneau to the region. She came to work for Dell’Arte International, a theater school that brings actors, performers, and creators from cities to rural California so they can focus with distraction. Dell’Arte is one of a handful of rural professional ensembles in the United States and is known for its non-urban point of view. 

Now at the Arcata Playhouse, Dandeneau is involved in creating original performances about living in a rural community, as so many of the struggles within rural counties are not often reflected in media, or theater, she said. The organization also places local artists in schools, providing some low cost arts programming, which, for struggling small, low income, rural schools, is often the first thing that gets cut. 

Dandeneau is interested in the intersection of the arts with other industries, such as health care and manufacturing. She attended the Rural Women’s Summit in October to be among women active in various sectors and learn how they connect to the arts. At the summit, she was inspired by a panel of faith leaders who spoke about social justice, and returned home to California determined to add the topic to a women’s festival held in early March.  

“It was a great conversation,” she said. “The passion of the faith leaders was really important, and the feminine side of the faith leaders –  that we can include love in our social justice. To me that was very important, yes there can be love, which breeds some kind of empathy, which could breed a more equitable living for everyone.”

After the festival, COVID-19 struck. She closed the Playhouse and focused on keeping her small staff paid. She struggled to know what she could be doing to help. In meeting with a group of other local leaders – the city manager, the director of the food bank, the leader of a homeless organization, she landed upon a metaphor of a relay race.

“Once we get back together, the arts are really going to be essential programming. In the great relay race, I’m waiting for the baton to arrive. Other people are running the baton right now. There are people on the front lines who are working in scary situations and tirelessly, from grocery store employees to health care, and our role as an arts organization is when our doors open again, to be able to have had the time to lay fallow within ourselves as artists so we can come back out and really provide to the community comedy and music and an ability to voice what they are doing. We’re setting everything in place, so that when the baton arrives we are ready to run.”

Hear Jacqueline  talk about how her experience as an artist has helped her learn to live within difficulty and disappointment. 

Q&A with Jacqueline Dandeneau

Describe your connection to rural America.

A: I have always lived rurally. I grew up on a farm in Rural Alberta, Canada and then moved to an Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands, before moving to Blue Lake, CA  which is set in the Redwoods, six  hours north of San Francisco and eight hours south of Portland. I run an arts center, Arcata Playhouse,  that serves three counties, more or less, with a few tourists and music lovers thrown in for good luck. We often have musicians declare how they love playing at the Arcata Playhouse because the audiences are so good. The people who live here seem to have an overabundance of love for live performance, which works out well for us. It is said we have the most artists per capita of anywhere in the U.S…but I have seen that distinction claimed in  other places as well. Either way, there is a plethora of artists of all different media here, and we love to celebrate them. 

Q: Tell us about a moment when you felt discouraged and how you overcame it.

I feel like my life as an artist, and arts administrator is rife with disappointment. On many levels I feel like that is what I signed up for when I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1987.

As an artist I feel it is my job to live in the disappointment…not in a depressing Vincent Van Gogh artist in a Garrett way,- but to illuminate the struggles, the disappointments, to ponder the unfair and unjust , to look at history and the future, and to present it all back to the world through the artists’ lens. So, I guess I often feel discouraged, but instead of overcoming it, I encourage myself to be within it…to see what the root of it is.

Generally speaking though, I find it is always helpful to not take things personally, which is very difficult, and to be impeccable with my words ( which is also very difficult). I started reading the Four Agreements, but I can’t seem to ever remember the other two. Guess those lessons will come later!

Q: Is there a habit or practice you subscribe to that keeps you motivated?

I would  like to say it is yoga,( which I do occasionally)  or fasting ( which I do very very infrequently), but in fact the things that keep me most motivated are people- seeing what other organizations are doing, how other sectors thrive, or how they overcome their challenges, where their successes are. 

Curiosity. That is what keeps me going. Of course being an extrovert helps too! I am fascinated by people. 

Q: What are you reading/listening to?

Poetry…lots of poetry right now to connect me to the Greater, to nature, to poetic abstract thought. I have been listening to a whole lot of Poetry Unbound and reading online stories of adaptability, love and community. To me, those are the things that continue to matter most. 


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