By Robert H. Leonard

Grassroots, Community-based Theater: A View of the Field and Its Context

By Robert H. Leonard

From: the Community Arts Network website, a project of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Department of Theatre Arts and Art in the Public Interest

The national field of grassroots, community-based theater includes theater organizations and artists who center their artistic life in specific communities for the purpose of using theater to express the values, interests and concerns of those communities. By conservative estimate, there are some 200 or more such theater companies that might describe themselves as fitting somewhere in this mix. * These 200 represent approximately 15 percent of the total number of not-for-profit theater organizations in the country, as estimated by Theatre Communications Group (TCG). In addition to these grassroots theater organizations, there is an untold number of individual theater artists who create in the context of community-building and political activism, some who work alone, some in partnership with theater companies and some in partnership with community agencies or activist groups. (Comprehensive research into the facts and figures of this reality would be a boon to all. This article does not present such data-specific information.)

The multitude of theaters and theater artists in this field represent as many different approaches, philosophies and artistic visions as there are organizations and people. These are not replicated efforts, producing common plays or working in commonly shared styles. The artistic intentions of community-based theaters and the works they produce are immediately local, most often entirely unique. They are notably unlike the so-called regional theaters, those large institution-based organizations located in regional metropolitan centers producing seasons of plays selected on the basis of an acquired national critical acclaim or a broadly shared positive reputation. Rather, it is the communities in which grassroots, community-based companies and artists live that are the originating inspiration and source of the plays these companies produce. In many ways, the communities shape the style of theater the companies create as well as the stories they tell and social contexts they bring to the stage. This reality speaks of an extraordinary richness. This reality is consistent with those communities and cities that are investing in their own cultural assets to counter the apparent effort to make all our communities the same, with national market apparatus leveling local culture. This reality attests to a bountiful artistic and cultural diversity throughout our nation.

Fifty Years of Recent Growth

The range of this diversity is suggested in three of the most elder of these companies still performing. All three originally emerged out of the impulse to use theater techniques to explore and articulate partisan views on political issues of concern to people where these companies originated. In this sense, these companies work within communities of like-minded people. The Living Theater, founded in New York in 1947, has typically embraced an investigation of new and innovative theatrical forms and styles - while across the country the San Francisco Mime Troupe has explored the ancient arts of mime and buffoonery since 1959. Both, however, tap into the issue-based political community of their hometowns and stir those caldrons, finding new use for old forms and new applications for the avant garde. In 1965, Luis Valdez acted on the same initiative within the Chicano community, originating at the time of the United Farm Workers' organizing efforts with Cesar Chavez. Valdez' company, El Teatro Campesino, creates new work out of the needs, experiences and viewpoints of their strongly political community. The form and style of the work produced draws upon the Mexican and Mexican/American cultural and theatrical traditions, entirely different from either of the other two.

In Minneapolis, In the Heart of the Beast, a puppet and mask theater, creates an annual May Day parade and festival that attracts thousands from all over the city. The company draws on the crafts and traditions of puppetry and mask making, which are practiced in many cultures throughout the world, ancient and modern. Working in and creating from their community in south Minneapolis, In the Heart of the Beast also produces original shows throughout the year. This company asserts, for them,

“the best way to make change in the world is to seek beauty and work for justice in our own backyard. We tell the stories of the people who live in the heart of the beast, as courageous and resourceful as they really are.”

Across the river in St. Paul, Mixed Blood and Penumbra theater companies offer two other ways that theater artists are practicing in this field. Both are companies driven by local artists whose sights are set on excelling right there in their own home. The Mixed Blood Theatre Company describes itself as "a multi-racial theater company promoting cultural pluralism, individual equality and artistic excellence." Penumbra, on the other hand, is specifically designed to present theater from an African-American perspective, staging plays that address the African-American experience. Both companies tend to produce plays written independently by playwrights, sometimes specifically for the company, sometimes written expressly out of the immediate community, sometimes by nationally acclaimed playwrights writing about experiences of people of color in distant cities or regions of the world.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana, two different African-American companies have created two more distinctly different bodies of work. Carpetbag Theater in Knoxville creates its own new plays, using the writing skills of Artistic Director Linda Parris-Bailey in combination with many other writers from the immediate community. The whole of Carpetbag's plays portray the African-American experience in Knoxville, offering universal insights out of the local story. Their style relies primarily on a realistic dramaturgy and the music of the civil rights movement.

In contrast, Junebug Productions in New Orleans identifies its community as "African Americans in the Black Belt South of ordinary means who are working to improve the quality of life available to themselves and the similarly oppressed who work for justice in the world at large." Junebug describes itself as " the organizational successor to the Free Southern Theater, founded in 1963 as a cultural arm of the civil rights movement." Artistic Director John O'Neal has a life-long commitment to using theater to connect with people in many different towns and regions who form a nongeographic community of like-minded workers for social justice. Junebug's style is based on the storytelling traditions of the African griot and American counterparts in the African American experience.

Dissimilar from any of the above mentioned, the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), in Los Angeles, California, and Idiwanan An Chawe, in the Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, are two companies utterly unique. LAPD makes theater created by and for the homeless in the Skid Row district of one of the world's mega-cities. Led by Artistic Director John Malpede, who acknowledges his own artistic roots in performance art, LAPD develops its work through workshops and community meetings, using public and private dialogue about immediate life issues of the homeless, as well as a variety of improvisational theater techniques. It is a continuous collective exploration blending immediate experience with theatrical techniques that reinvents performance each time and produces an extended civic dialogue through its many productions.

Idiwanan An Chawe is a brand new invention coming out of the ancient traditions of the Zuni people. Artistic Director Edward Wemytewa has invented a written alphabet for the Zuni language, which heretofore has been solely a spoken tradition. His company uses dance, music and storytelling to protect and preserve the ways of the Zuni people, writing scripts in the new alphabet. Idiwanan An Chawe has recently produced a new play, coming out of a 17-year cultural exchange with Roadside Theater, Whitesburg, Kentucky. The two groups co-created and toured "Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain," a bilingual play with music and dance that explores the differences and common ground of Zuni and Appalachian cultures.

Many companies in this field are ensembles, that is, they are organized as artist collectives, planning and making decisions about organizational as well as creative endeavors through a variety of group processes. Some use consensus techniques, some democratic, some are led collaborations. Ensembles, however, are not the only way of organizing grassroots artistic assets. Some of the companies in the field are structured as producing units, with an executive staff that hires in artists for specific projects.

Community Performance Inc. is one more in the long line of unreplicable organizations that populate this field. In a way CPI is two people, Richard Owen Geer and Jules Corriere, a theater director and a playwright, who work with whole communities of people to make new theater by those communities, for those communities, out of the stories of those communities. In a way, CPI is a company of artists from all over America. CPI may be in residence for a matter of years. It may hire in a director for this or a writer for that. It may center itself around a group of people in a neighborhood. Its organizational and creative flexibility is one of its many extraordinary assets.

In addition to theater organizations that produce theater, the field includes presenting organizations that hire artists and companies for performance runs in their local facilities. These may be local arts councils, community centers, schools, or other agencies that select performances according to an agenda for social change and their own understanding of local interests and needs. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas, is one such presenting organization with a strong sense of grassroots, community-based art. Guadalupe describes itself as "dedicated to the preservation, development and promotion of the Mexican American arts, and to facilitating a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chicano/Latino and Indigenous cultures and their respective artistic expressions."

Sometime, these presenting organizations also produce their own work as well. Founded by Roberta Uno, the New WORLD Theater in Amherst, Massachusetts, specifically intends to present and produce "works by playwrights of color." It maintains a theater company that creates and produces new work for a diverse audience in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts. It also presents a season of performance residencies of companies selected for their relevance and capacity to connect with this same local audience. As a presenter, New WORLD has recently become a significant force in the emergence of the hip-hop theater movement. New WORLD sees itself purposely existing "at an intersection of art and politics, scholarship and activism, professional work and community life."

Since the mid-'70s, the field has coalesced into a number of networks and organizing/advocacy groups around the country. Alternate ROOTS (Regional Organization of Theaters - South), an artist-run service organization in the Southeast, continues to be a leader in this effort. ROOTS mission has expanded from a support system to an organizing effort, providing a forum for peer response, regional dialogue and training for community/artist partnerships for social and economic justice.

While ROOTS, a regional coalition, has operated on principles of consensus and group decision making (its membership is its board of directors), a much looser confederation of theater and performance artists and organizations has formed at the national level under the name of the RAT Group. Rallying to the call for "Big Cheap Theater" set forth by playwright and political activist Eric Ehn in a 1993 article in Theatre magazine entitled "UP FRONT: A Proposal and an Alarum," the RAT is intentionally without definition other than its commitment to mutual assistance. Theaters and artists attracted to the RAT are typically exploratory artists working within local resources. Its name is not an acronym. RAT gatherings (surprisingly called conferences) occur from time to time, attracting theater practitioners from all over the country to perform and talk with each other. Many artists and theaters within the RAT group are deeply committed to grassroots, community-based theater working towards progressive social change.

Similarly, the distinctive category of ensemble theater has formed a national coalition under the name of the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET). Incorporated in 2003, the NET effort stems from the early 1990s, finding its impetus in performance exchanges and the idea that a coalition of theater organizations can accomplish specific goals unreachable by individual companies. NET envisions a coalition that is inclusive of the entire range of diversity within ensembles nationwide. It proposes simply "to assist NET members' artistic experiments." Ensemble theater, almost by definition, places its artists within the community, since the all members of an ensemble work where they live - unlike the itinerant life styles imposed by conventional production companies of "jobbed-in" artists. Add to this the many NET ensembles whose purposes focus on grassroots arts activism and NET can be seen as another umbrella within the field.

The National Performance Network (NPN) was originally formed in 1985 under the leadership of David R. White at the New York Dance Theater Workshop to support national touring by U.S. artists and performance companies. NPN is a nationwide network of some 55 performance presenters (called NPN Partners) that use the NPN centralized funding mechanism to host touring artists for one-to-two-week performance residencies. In addition to residency support and a Creation Fund to help with the commissioning of new work, NPN has a Community Fund "to enable NPN partners to expand their role as community citizens." This fund supports community-engagement activities related to the arts residency, such as education programs, collaborations with diverse organizations, and projects that respond to specific local issues. This funding program recognizes and supports the power of the performing arts to build community and promote civic dialogue about public concerns. NPN is now based in New Orleans under the leadership of MK Wegmann.

Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theorist and practitioner of theater specifically designed to activate public dialogue, is one of the field's signal artistic leaders. His techniques are studied and used by many. Some companies are formed to practice forms of theater exclusively modeled on his theories. Students and practitioners of Boal's work have formed a network organization called PTO (Pedagogy & Theater of the Oppressed), named after Boal's seminal book, "Theatre of the Oppressed," and that of Boal's own mentor, Paulo Freire, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." PTO sponsors periodic conferences and provides a network of information exchange among its members that promote the grassroots advancement of public dialogue through theater.

Individual artists in the field come in every description: performers, directors, writers, arts organizers, you name it. They include the bicyclist who organizes a Critical Mass coincidence in the streets of your town. They include writers like Jo Carson from Johnson City, Tennessee, and Adora Dupree of Nashville, Tennessee. Jo Carson conceives of herself as a listener who writes down what she hears in performable poetry and in plays. She writes for theater companies. She writes for herself to perform. She always writes out of the community in which she lives and works. Adora Dupree is a storyteller, a griot, a preacher, who writes poetry and praise songs and stories of great spiritual faith. Both women write with a political agenda for positive social change. As Jo Carson says, "Sometimes the community artist is the dragon slayer, sometimes she is the dragon."

These examples have been offered to reinforce the description of the field's widely ranging diversity of focus, form and style. In the context of this diversity, this article would like to propose the idea that the field at present is actually a movement of considerable depth and longevity within the historical progress of American theater taken as a whole.

Connecting American Theater with American Communities

Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, when some of the field's current senior leadership were in the midst of starting up, the idea of alternative was a watchword, a matter of some considerable pride. To be an alternative to the establishment was what many felt a whole generation of Americans sought. Four decades later, with the current field now containing many companies and artists who have reached notable artistic maturity, it seems timely to acknowledge and acclaim how central this movement is in the historical development of American theater as a whole. It also seems strategically important to refute the idea that community-based, grassroots theater is in any way a marginal effort. Rather it is the very essence of the artistic impulse for theater in the first place.

By its very nature, theater is a local event. Theater takes place with a specific group of people at a specific place and time. The moment of performance exists only with and for the group present at that time and place. The actual value of a theater performance depends on this immediate connection between the audience and the performance on stage.

The successful theater performance blends the imaginations of those attending with those producing to create a union of images. This union of images can transport to tears or laughter, can shed welcome light on otherwise impenetrable mysteries, and can make delightfully mysterious the ordinary realities of our everyday lives.

It is possible to get the impression that it is the theater artists who bring the imagery to the audience but, in fact, this is only half true. Whatever the performer brings to the stage, whatever the effects produced by the designers and artisans, the theater depends on the imagination, the life experience, the belief systems and the understanding of the world that the audience brings to the performance. The theater event actually happens in an imaginary space between the performance and the audience.

In an interview in CAN's Performing Communities project, Dianilo Cora and Jorge Merced, ensemble members of Teatro Pregones, recall a telling moment about the artistic relationship between performance and audience. Pregones was touring their show "Baile Cangrejero" to neighborhoods in the South Bronx, performing outside on a street.

JM: That was incredible because that was a moment when the public claimed ownership of the cultural event. When the music starts, the whole Afro-Caribbean music and poetry thing starts. Something happened in them and they said, "This is ours, and this is a fiesta." And the uproar was unbelievable, and they felt free to shout out to Dianilo. …

D: The truth is that it was an incredible experience. I think the most interesting thing about the experience was the crowd's transition, because when we finished the kids were in love. It was all of sudden a challenge. Like when you're challenging the conga, and you hit me and I hit you back and the dynamic is strong, passionate and violent. Until finally… because the piece is so extraordinary that it takes you through all those feelings that are part of the Black experience. There was a Black girl with such beautiful eyes that I wanted to take her home. I wrote a poem and everything, because it had been extraordinary. I felt like getting inside the crowd, talking to people. It was tremendous.

It is this magical moment, the communal and private transformation of the spirit that is the event of theater. When people gathered in a room or a grand hall or a street experience joy together, a new perception together, a common sadness together, in that moment a bond is created – a sense of common humanity. This is the essential ingredient for the theater to exist and to grow and to flourish. Pregones chooses to find this magic in the streets of the Bronx with people deeply committed to improving social and economic justice.

As suggested in the quote at the top of this article, the distinction of the grassroots, community-based theaters is to use this power of theater with an eye and ear for political change, for social justice, for public cares and concerns. Although it usually goes unspoken, theater that does not use the form with such an eye and ear, uses it to maintain the way things are, the status quo. Grassroots theater consciously steps away from the status quo, analyzing, responding to and telling stories about power structures within our society and their effects within the immediate community. Roadside Theater, among many others, makes the assertion that our stories are our only power when we are deprived of the privilege of the dominant culture. Roadside artist Ron Short, describing the province of the dominant culture, says,

“When you live outside of those boundaries you don't have any of that political control, that economic control, even the control of your own image. Somebody else is controlling and telling you who you are. Then the only thing that you have is your own story. That's about the only thing that you have. It comes down to how do you use that in a public way. That's essential to me. Theater is the last public forum for common people.”

Is this a new idea, generated out of the 1960s and finding its first maturity in these companies and artists at the beginning of the 21st century? A read of the standard theater history texts suggests not. In fact, the American theater has been chasing this idea for close to 100 years. What is particularly interesting is that this history is rooted in American theater audiences as much as in its artists.

In 1910, according to Howard Taubman in his book "The Making of the American Theatre," there were somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 stock companies, groups of actors contracted by a manager, producing professional theater in cities and towns across the nation. Surprisingly, these local professionals disappeared within one generation. The movie industry is often blamed, but that viewpoint ignores another story. In a remarkable paradox, this same period of time from the beginning of the century through the '30s is also often described as a revolution in the theater. The core vision of that revolution, seen from the vantage point of almost a century later, is startling.

A hundred years ago, at the onset of the 20th century, the American audience was sick and tired of the theater fare offered by the commercial producers. New York producers and syndicates had a near monopoly on what toured from the big city out to the nation, and New York agents had a near monopoly on what those 2,000 stock companies produced locally. The bills of fare were mostly made of melodrama, vaudeville and occasional classics as interpreted by tours of the famous performers of the day or by those 2,000 stock companies. While the lure of charismatic personalities attracted Americans and created the star system, audiences at the turn of the last century wanted something else.

In Evanston, Illinois, as if expressing the collective desires of those years, a certain Mrs. Harrison B. Riley organized an informal play-reading club. The club devoted itself to reading plays that the New York syndicates were not producing and agents were not listing. The club members were reading the new plays of the European avant garde — such names as George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen from overseas and then, soon enough, the likes of native-born American Eugene O'Neill. These are the playwrights we now think of as the stalwart guardians of realism. At the time, these were the plays that presented ordinary people caught in the struggle of being human, dreaming of better lives and wondering how society had gotten into such a fix.

Originally known as "Riley's Circle," the small group of Evanston women were able to build a nationwide organization called the Drama League of America. It was formed in the spring of 1910, when Mrs. Riley gathered a conference of 165 similar play-reading clubs from communities all across the country. By 1916, the Drama League membership had grown to 16,000 individuals. These people represented a growing audience hungry for a theater that resonated with their own lives, the realities of their own homes and communities.

Meanwhile, the artists were straining to get past the conventional forms of the 19th century, every bit as much as their audiences. While the stock companies did disappear and touring productions did decline precipitously from 1910 to 1930, the Little Theater movement responded to all the hopes of Mrs. Riley's expanding circle. The movement exploded in cities, towns and villages nationwide.

Drawing especially on the model of The Abbey Players from Ireland as well as other European companies, the Little Theater movement espoused the idea of a collective of artists making theater directly connected with its audiences. The Abbey was an exemplary Little Theater, combining an ensemble's ability to develop a unique style with a deep commitment to new plays that were relevant to and expressive of the issues and concerns of their audience and community. The Abbey revealed the power of theater to activate and organize public thought and popular political power in the context of the Irish determination to regain their country from British political and cultural dominance.

The early Little Theaters in this country openly linked the production of theater with pressing social concerns of the day. This was certainly true of Jane Addams' Hull House Theater (1900) in Chicago's Hull House Settlement. The same sort of vision drove Maurice Brown's Chicago Little Theater (1912). In the years to follow, the Little Theater movement transformed into what many now call "community theater," which often produces commercially successful plays with local amateur artists and no thought of political or social value. Yet the early visionaries of the movement imagined a theater experience of resounding social value happening in every community throughout the country.

A people's theater! This is what Eugene O'Neill and Paul Green and Sidney Kingsley were writing. This is what all those theater artists were chasing when they started making plays on a Provincetown fishing wharf in 1916. This is what drove Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, Stella Adler and 28 others to form The Group Theater in 1931.

However, The Group was neither an anomaly, nor unique. Preceding, alongside and following its accomplishments in New York, numbers of other theaters all over the country, pursued the dream of a decentralized theater, rooted in local story presented to local audiences, and those pursuits were astonishingly varied. By no means has it been exclusively the product of New York and East Coast artists. It is a story of the growth of the Hispanic/Latino Theater in the Southwest, the passions of visionary artist/scholars like Alexander Drummond at Cornell and Robert Gard in Wisconsin, the African-American theater in Baltimore and Chicago, Native traditions and Hallie Flanagan's nationwide Federal Theatre Project. These are all coherent forces within the same vision that drove The Group, the Little Theater movement and visionary theater educators of the early twentieth century.

Nicolas Kanellos, in his essay in "From the Ground Up – Grassroots Theater in Historical and Contemporary Perspective," edited by Dudley Cocke, Harry Newman and Janet Salmons-Rue, observes defining characteristics about the development of Mexican theater in the U.S.

“…once there is in the Southwest a Mexican culture within an Anglo political/economic context, the Mexican theater from that point on takes on a context and a social role that it never had in Mexico. (The same can be said of the Puerto Rican, Cuban and Spanish theater in New York or the Spanish and Cuban-American theater in Florida with regard to Havana, San Juan or Madrid.) It now becomes a place to preserve language and culture within an alien environment. It becomes a place for community organizing, a place where the contestatory role of Hispanic culture is borne as an alternative to the official culture, news and information of the larger society.

…It's the things that go on around the plays that provide the new social and political context in the United States.

Gerardo Lopez de Castillo [a director in the late 19th Century who worked in Northern Mexico after the Mexican-American War], for instance, became the President of the Junta Patriotica Mexicana, the Mexican Patriotic Society, and was a political organizer in the community. Many theater people became organizers in the community and the theater space itself was quite often used for that purpose. This tradition becomes collateral to the actual play; it's the whole experience, what the people do when they are in the hall and relating.”

All these different kinds of theatrical experiments in all these different communities are an important and often overlooked context for the emergence of regional theaters that occurred in the last half of the 20th century. The start of the regional movement is often identified with the Alley Theatre in Houston in 1947, under the visionary leadership of Nina Vance. While the Little Theater movement succumbed to the commercial glamour of Broadway plays, professional theater artists such as Kanellos describes continued to create work out of the traditions and cultures of distinct communities throughout the country. The regional theater movement grew out of the parallel and persistent hope that a new American theater could spring from local people,

The idea of the regional theater was to develop highly trained, professional theater artists at home and let them find, create, and produce new theater right there where they lived. Centering on the development of training local professionals rather than relying on the talented but untrained abilities of amateurs is perhaps the greatest distinction between the early regional theater and the Little Theater movements .

Another interesting book, "Regional Theatre, the Revolutionary Stage" by Joseph Wesley Zeigler, written when the regional theater explosion was in its first major phase, offers valuable insights. Zeigler centers the movement on the long-term impulse away from the commercial theater framework of Broadway, an impulse he describes as an "ideological war."

In the closing chapters of his book, Zeigler builds a case for the challenges he saw the regional theater movement facing in 1973 — a new and more sophisticated set of goals. These, he said, would set in motion a new intention "toward community." He asked, "Are the theatre leaders ready to listen to their audiences and to learn from them?"

30 years ago, Joseph Zeigler openly challenged the regional theaters to seek independence from their own institutionalization, their cookie-cutter approach to play selection and production style. "Ultimately," he said, "the challenge of regionalism is the challenge to make each theatre of its region rather than of America."

History shows that this challenge has been in front of the theater artist in America for at least 100 years. It must be realized that it takes this kind of time to actualize the hopes and dreams of even the most visionary cultural leaders. It takes rigorous experimentation for cultural practices to become part of community life, and it takes constant practice over time — time measured in generations.

Today, grassroots, community-based theater artists, answering directly to Zeigler's 30-year-old challenge, make theater that is expressly created from the realities, idiosyncrasies, character and needs of their immediate communities. The depth of experimentation goes far beyond the pursuit of excellence as measured against a vague national standard. The purpose of making theater at all is on the table. And grassroots, community-based theaters are able to look to their immediate community to find that purpose, that need for theater.

In the collective whole of this kind of theater working in the U.S. today, there is rising a body of theatrical expressions of astonishing diversity of form, content and style, as well as the expression of regional, political, gender, class, ethnic and racial experience and orientation. In this body of work lives a new generation of American drama that is finding its maturity. The vision extends past the framework of the theater as an art form. The impetus embraces the source and point of the art – the community itself.

Robert H. Leonard is associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts at Virginia Tech where he teaches directing and improvisation. He was founding artistic director of the Road Company, a nationally recognized theater ensemble (1972-1998) based in Johnson City, Tennessee, which created and produced two dozen original plays reflecting the history and issues of the Upper Tennessee Valley and Central Appalachia. He is a co-director of the Community Arts Network.

* This estimate is drawn from lists gathered by the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), the national coalition of ensemble theaters, the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization of not-for-profit theaters and the RAT Group, a loose network of experimental and exploratory theaters around the country.

Original CAN/API publication: December 2003

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Robert H. Leonard. “Grassroots, Community-based Theater.” October 23, 2015.

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