Roadside Theater was founded in the coalfields of central Appalachia in 1975 as part of Appalshop, which had begun six years earlier as a War on Poverty/Office of Economic Opportunity job training program for poor youth. From its inception, young Appalachians saw Appalshop as a means to tell the region's story in the voices of the people living there.
By 1975, radio and television were eroding the telling of traditional stories that had once been commonplace on front porches, at family gatherings, and around the coal stove at the local general store. Although they were not formally schooled in theater, Roadside’s founders created a way to reinvigorate this tradition for the next generation by making a new kind of theater.
The company didn't have a formal theater space until 1985 so performances were held in churches, community centers, schools, and, in warm months, in a portable canvas revival tent pitched up the hollows. People of all ages loved what Roadside was doing, because it was for, about, and by them.
By the late 1970s, company members began looking for the theater tradition in which Roadside fit, as they felt little affinity with theater produced on Broadway and in the regional theaters of the day. With some digging, they found a rich history in the U.S. of attempts to create a theater which is open to and reflective of the concerns of ordinary people – what Roadside now calls grassroots theater.
Through co-founding organizations such as Alternate ROOTS and the American Festival Project, Roadside made common cause with other theater artists and companies creating and touring grassroots theater. From 1990 – 1993 Roadside Theater, in collaboration with Junebug Productions, the American Festival Project, and Cornell University’s Theater Department, conducted a residency at the University that included a symposium, “Grassroots Theater in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives."
Legendary 20th Century grassroots practitioner Edward Kamarck (1919-1992) enthusiastically helped plan the symposium, but did not live to participate. His friend and mentor, Robert Gard (1910-1992), made his last presentation at the gathering. A book about the symposium, “From the Ground Up, Grassroots Theater in Historical and Contemporary Perspective,” was published by Cornell University in 1993.