By Donna Porterfield

Roadside Managing Director Donna Porterfield traces the company’s origin, evolving touring and community cultural development strategies, and efforts to define an effective national presenting model.

Appalachia's Roadside Theater: Celebration of a Community's Culture

From: The Citizen Artist: An Anthology, High Performance Magazine 1978-1998

In 1975, Roadside Theater began at Appalshop, the multimedia organization located in the heart of the coal-mining country of the central Appalachian Mountains. For 25 years, Appalshop has been making documentary film and television, theater, radio and audio recordings on the premise that mountain communities can assume a larger measure of control over their own lives if they can gain control over the definition of their culture, and the tools of cultural transmission. Appalshop works with communities to document and revitalize the arts and traditions that have held them together in the past, to create solutions to the problems that face them today, and to use the performing arts and media as means to affect positive social change.

In 1975, Roadside members, all natives of the coalfields of the central Appalachian region, called on their heritage of storytelling, music and the drama of their indigenous church services to develop a theatrical form and content that made sense to their families and neighbors. The company toured its original productions to enthusiastic audiences in the hollers and coalmining communities around its home—performing in churches, community centers, schools and often in a small revival tent. But in order to finance a growing company, the theater found it necessary to earn income from touring outside the region. It also wanted to offer its own image of mountain people as an alternative to the "hillbilly" stereotype. Roadside found that when it spoke specifically from its own cultural heritage, it also spoke to many people in many places. In the past 16 years, the company has performed its numerous original plays an average of 200 times a year, and toured to 43 states and Europe.

By the early 1980s, Roadside Theater was earning 50 to 60% of its budget from national touring. Most presenters of Roadside's work were colleges and universities or local arts agencies, operating within a national presenting model. This model assumed that culture was something that had to be brought to a community by a presenter. It did not value the community's existing cultural life, nor recognize its diversity. This national, homogenized presenting model naturally excluded the local folk arts and artists, who were often a part of the working-class and economically poor segment of their communities. With the exclusion of this art came exclusion, whether intentional or unintentional, of this audience from the presenter's events. This posed a problem for Roadside, whose artists come from a working-class and economically poor background, and whose artistry springs from the traditional culture of its home. While the company's shows were appreciated by all audiences, when working-class and economically poor people (in any community) were present, the work came fully alive, providing a deeper experience for all audience members.

So Roadside Theater set about developing publicity materials and a producing plan that helped the presenter get out an audience that represented a broad cross section of the community. It worked. Roadside's national performances began playing to enthusiastic, full houses. Most arts presenters were pleased with this new audience, but confused about where these people came from and how to include them in their next season's performance menu. A minority of presenters, thinking this audience lacking in culture, were sure that they should not be a part of their program at all.

This presented another problem for Roadside. How could the company work with presenters to develop a presenting model that included diverse segments of the community in the decision making about programming? And, at the same time, how could the company continue an extensive national tour and still deepen its relationship with its own culture at home, upon which its artistic creativity depended?

The theater began talking to Western and Southern Arts Associates (WASAA), the booking agency with whom Roadside co-produces its national tours. The idea was to work in partnership with arts presenters, community groups and funders to produce one- and two-week community cultural residencies that celebrated and perpetuated the host community's culture, and used that understanding and celebration as a means to address local concerns. It was decided that the best place to develop and test this model was in Roadside's home where it could work, over a year's time, in a community and culture with which the company was intimately familiar. Funding partners for this new work would be the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts Education Program, the Alternate ROOTS touring subsidy program and the American Festival Project. While the work was proceeding, WASAA would follow it closely and begin looking for national presenters interested in this new model.

In 1990, as part of its pilot program, Roadside conducted a year-long residency in the small Appalachian coalmining community of Haysi, Virginia. The county in which Haysi is located has 45% unemployment because it is a one-industry county that has experienced layoffs due to mechanization in the mines.

The residency joined the theater with the Appalachian Agency for Senior Citizens, the Haysi High School drama class, Mountain People and Places (an energetic community history club with 150 members) and the local Baptist church. Each partner brought a particular concern to the project. As families have had to leave the mountains to search for jobs, the Agency for Senior Citizens saw that the county's older people were left behind—becoming isolated and no longer seen as a community resource and source of pride. The Haysi High School drama teacher was concerned that her students, faced with bleak economic futures and minds full of images from television, looked upon their cultural heritage as a disadvantage. This attitude was causing a rejection of their family and themselves. The history club wanted to support its local culture by working with the students and promoting the residency in any way it could. The Baptist church wanted to encourage an ecumenical spirit among the area's various denominations. All wanted to rally against the onset of community despair.

The residency began with performances from Roadside's repertory, and progressed as the company conducted acting, directing, writing and community cultural development workshops with the students; told stories and played music regularly with the seniors; and organized intergenerational conversations about local history and culture. Gradually these activities began to light up the imagination of the community and, by year's end, had sparked numerous informal story and music swaps between the partners; the writing of a delightful, wry play by the high-school drama students (the first original play in the school's history); and the production of four community festivals celebrating local history and life. One of the festivals, in conjunction with an American Festival Project, included an exchange with Chicano artists from the barrio of San Antonio who were also struggling with similar issues of identity and a similar array of community problems.

The initial festival, a story and music swap that included all the partners, was produced by Roadside. The high-school students, excited by the possibilities such an event offered, decided to produce a second festival themselves. The students contacted the older storytellers and musicians from whom they had learned during the year, secured the Kiwanis Club for an evening, and asked Mountain People and Places to help them get out a crowd. At the festival, the students introduced the storytellers and musicians with anecdotes about the things that had happened that year—about their community, about themselves. The show ended with a performance of the play that the students wrote, and the crowd of over 200 took home a newfound confidence in their young people.

The third festival featured folk artists from the senior citizens centers and was produced by the Agency on Aging, Roadside Theater, and Mountain People and Places. The Kiwanis Club, designed to hold 250 people, was packed with more than 400 folks. Many other people were listening outside the open windows and doors. The evening began and ended with gospel singing by the Reverend Hie Mullins and three generations of his family. The Rev. Mullins began singing at age eight with his father who taught at Shape Note singing schools around the central Appalachian mountain area. Also performing was Clay Taylor—who learned to play the banjo from his father—his son, Aubra, on fiddle, and his son-in-law, Clayton Belcher, on guitar. They played old-time, string-band dance music in much the same way it was played when Clay was a young man, working in the coal mines and playing for dances and parties in southwest Virginia. Inspired by Clay's music, an 80-year-old woman jumped up and began flatfooting, encouraging others to join in her dance. When the music died down, storyteller Edith Wright told many of her historical remembrances of life in Dickenson County, as well as her ghost stories and haint tales, before passing the stage to Betty Deal who sang several mountain ballads, including "Pretty Polly." Then the older folks asked the high school class to tell their story, "How Haysi Got Its Name." The evening ended with all performers on stage singing a final song with the audience. The audience's response to the evening was enthusiastic and emotional. Many people stayed afterward to swap stories and gathered in small groups singing songs.

The Baptist minister was so affected by the final festival that he wanted to bring this spirit, and what he called its "cultural content," to his church. He collaborated with Roadside to create an evening service that emphasized Appalachian gospel music, even though this was not the music sung by his congregation. Gospel groups from several indigenous churches joined Roadside that night, ending with an Appalachian version of "Amazing Grace" that left the audience—representing all the residency partners as well as a broad cross section of the community—united in the strength of their place and people.

Roadside Theater's residency did not eliminate the economic problems in Dickenson County, but it did help change individuals' lives and the way the county regards itself. For Roadside, the residency confirmed the theater's belief in turning to local community cultural resources as a way to build pride and self-reliance, and to engage community problems. The year-long period of the project allowed the entire county to be affected. The specifics of the theater's new residency methodology were further honed, and a new Roadside play, Borderline—which examines the history of the region—was born of the undertaking. Perhaps most importantly for Roadside, the company now has local partners working to help it figure out the next steps in this community-based approach. Haysi volunteers act as resources for other communities in which Roadside is working, and regularly consult about progress in their county.

Since 1990, Roadside has continued to deepen its work at home, and has taken its model on the road nationally. WASAA has worked in partnership with Roadside and national arts presenters to conduct one- and two-week community cultural residencies that involve—as equal partners in the planning, execution and evaluation—various community groups including senior citizen centers, colleges, community centers, churches, literacy programs, libraries, historical societies, environmental groups, tribal councils, schools, ethnic social clubs and arts councils.

This approach raises its own set of questions. What do communities need in order to continue this work on their own on a long term basis? How can people doing community cultural development work across the country strengthen one another? Will the process hold up in all kinds of situations? Will new community and new Roadside plays continue to develop from the work? Will cross-cultural artistic collaborations spring from the national effort? How will this work be funded?

All the answers, of course, are not presently known. But what is clear is that the effort to change our national presenting model to include the celebration and validation of the host community's culture will not come about by the work of one theater company. It will require the collaboration of culturally diverse community groups, students, arts presenters, teachers, funders, artists and producers. It will require bringing diverse segments of a community into the decision-making and planning process with equal voice.

Cite This

Donna Porterfield. “Appalachia's Roadside Theater.” February 8, 2017.

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