Crossing cultural boundaries is not like attending a big cocktail party. It is more like being brought into a family circle. It is an intimate experience that requires patience and respect. It takes time. Festival co-founder, Dudley Cocke
The American Festival Project (AFP) developed from race, place, and class conversations between John O’Neal, then director of Junebug Productions, and Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater. In 1980, the two theater companies began visiting each other’s community – one predominantly black and the other white.
In 1983, Bob Martin invited Roadside and Junebug Productions to the Peoples Theater Festival in San Francisco. Appearing with them were two important California grassroots theaters, A Traveling Jewish Theatre and El Teatro Campesino. It proved a potent mix of aesthetics and politics, and the companies decided to look for opportunities to continue working together. Their performances at other festivals became the model for the American Festival Project.
Managed from Roadside’s home at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, AFP hired, in 1988, a director, Caron Atlas, who helped the Festival grow into a national alliance of performing arts companies working on community-defined social change initiatives.
In addition to Junebug Productions, Roadside Theater, and A Traveling Jewish Theater, core AFP coalition members included Artist & Community Connection, Carpetbag Theater, El Teatro de la Esperanza, Francisco Gonzalez y su Conjunto, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Pregones Theater, Robbie McCauley & Company, Seattle Group Theater, and Urban Bush Women.
When the Festival was invited into a community, its artists collaborated with local artists, activists, educators, and arts presenters to confront locally identified issues such as race, poverty, and intolerance. Acknowledging the deeply rooted nature of such issues, AFP didn’t pretend to offer a quick fix, but functioned as a catalyst and support structure for long term community transformation.
Festivals were built around performing arts residencies that included workshops, performances, forums and discussions, visual arts exhibits, and film and video screenings. The format changed each time as the home community defined and shaped the project to reflect its character and needs. Projects ranged from week-long festivals on university campuses to exchanges between community-based centers, to multi-year projects that included a series of residencies.
Successful completion of project activities was just one aspect of the impact of the American Festival Project; equally important was the expanding group of community partners nationally that became involved, the ongoing relationships developed between these partners, the new opportunities partners discovered for collaboration, and the increased willingness to take risk.
The American Festival Project emphatically illustrated the inherent value of cultural identity, cultural diversity, and cultural exchange, and was dedicated to facilitating artistic collaborations among its artists and with the communities in which it worked. AFP used a careful process that encouraged communities to untangle the complex webs that oppressed and divided them, to imagine change, and to promote creative expression as a means of fighting injustice in all forms.