Founding

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 in film, for economically poor youth. From its inception, young Appalachians saw Appalshop as the means to defy the national stereotypes of their mountain home by telling the region’s story in the voices of the people living there.

Roadside’s playmaking and community cultural development practice grew out of the culture of, and experiences in, its home community. In 1975 television was a prime contributor to the loss of local storytelling traditions. Recognizing this, the young founders started figuring out a way to authentically tell, as a group, the stories they had grown up hearing from their families – centuries-old archetypal tales that, at the time, were more intact in Appalachian communities than they were in the British Isles where they originated.

Mission

Roadside Theater’s mission is to enlist the power of theater, music, media, education, and other arts:

  • To document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of Appalachia;
  • To tell stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell, challenging stereotypes with Appalachian voices and visions;
  • To support communities’ efforts to achieve justice and equity and solve their own problems in their own ways;
  • To celebrate cultural diversity as a positive social value; and
  • To participate in regional, national, and global dialogue toward these ends.

The Work – Grounded in Central Appalachia

Hunting grounds to the Cherokee and Shawnee, in 1767-1775 Central Appalachia attracted frontiersmen who disliked the growth of towns and the disappearance of the unsettled countryside in the East. By the 1890’s the coal and timber barons from the northeastern U.S. had arrived, and the region eventually became a rich land with poor people. From one perspective, the region has been a mineral colony at first of national and then global energy corporations. Despite their economic challenges, Appalachian people have kept their rich cultural traditions alive. The region’s music, storytelling, oral history, and the drama of its indigenous church services are known worldwide.

Given its region’s economic challenges, Roadside Theater situates itself historically within equal opportunity movements, like the labor and civil rights movements of the last century, and more specifically within the tradition of U.S. democratic arts and humanities movements which developed theories and practices to preserve and perpetuate the culture – the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and material traditions and features – of exploited communities. Roadside Theater:

  • Creates and presents an indigenous body of plays richly reflective of the lives of Appalachian people;
  • Collaborates with other professional ensemble theaters to create intercultural plays that explore issues of race, place, and class;
  • Strives for artistic excellence and a vital relationship with its mostly economically poor, working class, and middle class audiences;
  • Serves as a resource to communities regionally and nationally that desire to explore and stage their local life.

Audiences

In its home region, Roadside’s audience is almost all working and middle class and economically poor people – in other words, the region’s general population. This Appalachian audience doesn’t attend a Roadside play as spectator, but, rather, to bear witness to its own cultural identity. Roadside’s national audiences are a broad cross-section of the American public, including a significant number of habitual theatergoers as well as many attending professional theater for the first time. Based on six years of tracking by the AMS Planning and Research Corporation in Connecticut, 70% of Roadside's national audience live in rural communities and 33% are people of color. 43% of the company's national audience earn between $25,000 and $50,000 annually; 30% earn less than $24,000 a year. Touring Roadside Theater has toured to 43 states; been in residence at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Theater for the New City, and Dance Theatre Workshop in New York City; performed at Lincoln Center; and represented the United States at international theater festivals in London, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia.

Touring 

Roadside Theater has toured to 43 states, performing and conducting community cultural development residencies; been in residence at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Theater for the New City, and Dance Theatre Workshop in New York City; performed at Lincoln Center; and represented the United States at international theater festivals in London, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia.

Contact Information: Roadside Theater, P.O. Box 771, Norton, VA 24273   276.679.3116 phone & fax   [email protected]