By Dudley Cocke

By Dudley Cocke

Text from The Drama Review, Fall 2004, Social Theatre, Vol. 48, Issue 3

It would be a mistake for the reader to think that grassroots, community based art is anything but part of the arts mainstream. If this seems otherwise, that is because many of us have come to accept as normal a view of the mainstream that is blurred by an isolated vantage point.

This isolated point of view can be marked by the U.S. withdrawal in 1984 from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This action sent a clear signal to the international arts community that we would no longer consider cultural exchange useful to our understanding of others in the world. Concurrent to quitting UNESCO, our domestic arts policy was refocused to support a relatively few select Western European traditions to the exclusion of the many other excellent artistic traditions that comprise the vibrant American cultural mosaic.

Beginning with the Reagan administration through the Clinton presidency, federal leadership tolerated relentless attacks on the leading agencies supporting cultural pluralism in the not-for-profit sector beginning with their own National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. (With some irony, we now recall that those attacks were led by our own homegrown religious fundamentalists.) One effect of the attacks has been to elevate the U.S. commercial arts at the expense of the not-for-profit arts.

The distinction between the two sectors is significant because, devoid of its not-for-profit competition, the impact of U.S. commercial culture in this moment of globalization has become overwhelming. Imagine how the U.S. looks to hundreds of millions of people around the world whose only sources of information about us are commercial or propaganda television, Hollywood movies, and pop music. Equally troubling, at home this commercial preference has corrupted our own not-for-profit sectors core values.

For example, the standard production model in the not-for-profit theatre is now the assembly line: the various parts (mostly people in the case of the performing arts) are brought from various locales to a central location (the theatre) where they are assembled in a three- or four-week period into a final product. The plays director interprets the production blueprint; the resident artistic director provides quality control. The product is then sold to arts consumers until market demand flags, at which time the production disassembles itself in a process akin to implosion. No wonder the not-for-profit theatre refers to itself in aggregate as the theatre industry, and no wonder that the commercial and not-for-profit resident theatre audiences are essentially the same when measured by income: overwhelmingly the wealthiest 15 percent of the people (according to the League of American Theatres and Producers). As a rule, both the commercial and the not-for-profit arts sectors have come to value efficiency over participation, mobility over attachment to place, and short-term gain over sustainability.

The nation's diversity is its renewable source of energy, lighting the beacon of freedom that the rest of the world strains to see. It is now clearly in our national interest for the Bush administration to end cultural isolationism and replace it with a policy that financially secures the role of the not-for-profit arts in international exchange and links that exchange to a domestic arts policy that values our own national diversity. In this way, we can create the framework for the arts at home and abroad to develop common goals. These goals should include broadening public participation, telling the stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell, creating understanding among and between different peoples, and supporting the efforts of communities (and nations) to solve their problems in just ways.

With these goals in mind, I would like to share with you some stories from my 26 years of making theatre with community. The stories fall under four themes:

1. The artists location in tradition; 

2. Pursuing intercultural artistic collaborations;
3. Building diverse audiences; and
4. Helping communities discover and publicly present their stories.

Locating Oneself in a Tradition

Thirty-odd years ago, a famous folksinger from California came to the coalfields of central Appalachia to perform in a high school auditorium. A big crowd was on hand as a local string band opened the concert. The local band, rising to the occasion, had the audiences rapt attention. The famous folksinger followed with some success. Backstage, she made a point to congratulate the local band on their performance, noting that she, too, often sang from the same Appalachian song book. She went on to say how keenly the audience had been listening to their music and wondered what their secret was. "What is that little something extra you seem to have?" she asked repeatedly, each time more emphatically. The local band looked at the floor as she pressed for an answer. Finally the fiddle player spoke up, "Well ma’am, the only difference that I could tell was that you were playing out front of them ol' songs, and we were right behind ‘em."

Ralph Ellison deftly spins the fiddler's point: There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a context in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity, and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it. (Ellison [1964] 1995:234)

Artists from all cultures have asked themselves these timeless questions: What artistic tradition am I working within? What is the history and current condition of this tradition? Where do I fit? Who are my fellow practitioners?

Intercultural Collaborations 

To achieve any depth of meaning, intercultural artistic collaborations require a patience that the present impatient not-for-profit arts can rarely afford. Time is such a big factor because there is so much to negotiate, unique cultural histories and aesthetics, for starters.

Since 1984, Roadside Theater has been collaborating with traditional Native American artists in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. Because people in both Zuni and Appalachia believe their traditions to be at risk, the challenge has been to create contemporary bilingual plays that cross cultural divides, while simultaneously strengthening each culture's heritage. The story of this collaboration is told and probed in a bilingual book, Journeys Home: Revealing a Zuni-Appalachia Collaboration (Cocke et al. 2002).

Here is an excerpt from the book's foreword written by Dr. Gregory Cajete, a member of New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo:In many ways, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, one of the oldest continually occupied settlements in North America, is as different from the settlements in Appalachia’s eastern Kentucky as can be imagined. But there are easily overlooked similarities as well. Both places are rural, off the beaten track; they are places that most Americans pass through on their way to someplace else; they are places where people still tell stories directly to one another. The stories of Journeys Home are remembered in the heart. They emphasize the importance of maintaining a way of language [...,] a loving way of speaking about life and experiences. Feeling the rhythm of the storytellers language is to feel the rhythm of their Peoples' spirit and of the remembered earth of their communities.(in Cocke et al. 2002:6)

And here’s an excerpt from the artists' dialogue that is also part of Journeys Home:

EDWARD WEMYTEWA: We learned a lot from working with Roadside, and they learned from us. We found a lot of things we share. And the Zuni community found out how much they are interested in other cultures. You can't predict a product, but when its finished, it's special because, through the process, you’ve grown, you’ve pushed yourself and learned.

RON SHORT: Responses from our home audiences have been better than responses elsewhere. Most people not connected to Zuni or Appalachia are faced with two unknown cultures. And people who are used to other kinds of theater often don’t know what to make of what’s happening with performers coming on dancing in an extraordinary way and more than one storyline and language. Nothing about it fits the stereotype.

DUDLEY COCKE: Its true. The performers are not taking Appalachian and Zuni roles, they are Appalachian and Zuni people. They embody their culture, and this gives the performance a ritualistic cast. This can disorient audiences.

RON SHORT: Some audiences decide the play is an intellectual test. Others try to see it as pure song and dance. Either way, they simply don’t have enough context to understand it as a gift, which is how our Zuni and Appalachian audiences see it. If theater is a place where we enact who we are, the question becomes: How much do you simplify yourself and your culture in order to entertain people? How much can you give up and still hold onto yourself ?

Building Diverse Audiences

If the not-for-profit arts value being relevant to society at large, then it follows that this audience must reflect society. Generally, the not-for-profit arts is presently comfortable with an elite audience. As I have previously mentioned, with most (80 percent) of its audience drawn from the top 15 percent of the income scale, the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theatre production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise. (Even in Shakespeare’s era, 150 years before the birth of democracy, everyone from the queen to the joiner was in the house and each could see something of their story on the stage.) The quality of our art is the most compelling reason for us to care about audience access and each venue's track record of inclusion.

In Roadside Theater's case, from 1991 to 1996, we conducted an intense national effort to demonstrate that low-income and working-class people of various ages, geographies, and ethnicities would gladly attend professional theatre. As we were preparing our strategy, we were advised by sociologists, policymakers, colleagues, and others that for various reasons we would fail. Some went so far as to argue that the arts are inherently elitist and have no business seeking diverse audiences.

At the outset we found ourselves wrestling with questions that had no satisfactory answers. What is a public space? What is an affordable ticket price? How do different groups communicate differently? What are acceptable event protocols e.g., should young children be welcome? What community organizations should be invited to become partners and co-sponsors? The key, we determined, was finding presenters and local leaders who were willing to tackle these basic questions.

Our goal of building a diverse national audience caused more work for everyone (swimming upstream is always harder than going with the flow of the status quo), but in the end we were successful. According to six years of tracking by independent AMS Research of Connecticut, 73 percent of Roadside Theater's national audience earns less than $50,000 annually and 30 percent of those earn $20,000 or less a year. Seventy percent are rural people, and 33 percent are not white. We were excited by these results and fully expected our not-for-profit colleagues to join the celebration. After all, we had conclusively demonstrated that there were no insurmountable barriers to broad attendance. It was now plain that any arts organization could attract a true cross-section of its community -- a good thing for the box office, for democracy, and for art.

Alas, our news was greeted, as they say, by a deafening silence. Apparently we had misunderstood something important. As we reflected on our effort, the warning signs became apparent. One such sign showed itself in a city in northern Alabama. We were at a point in our six-year effort when we had hit our stride. After months of preparation, we arrived at the Alabama venue to be greeted by a big crowd for a performance of Pretty Polly. "This is twice as many people as show-up for our performances!" exclaimed the presenter. 

Standing room only! And the audience was a cross-section of the whole city. We were excited, and the working-class people attending had a great time, because they understood our Appalachian working-class play better than many who were from the more formally educated class. The nimble reactions of the working class helped lead the other audience members through the drama. We thought, "What a success! We'll be back here sooner than later."

Four months later we called the presenter and said, "Haven’t heard from you. I guess you want us back." He replied, "I can't commit right now." Nine months later, we called back again, said, "Surely you’re just crying for us to come back." He repeated, "Can't commit right now." So, finally, on the third call we said, "You know, let's drop the charade. You’re not going to ask us to return. Why?" And the presenter said, "The play was really good. We’ve not had such a big crowd before or since. But our board of directors just didn’t like the way ya’ll talked." Alabamans didn’t like the way Appalachians talked!

What had happened, of course, was that certain people just didn’t like sharing their evening with certain other people in the community who might even know more than them about some parts of life. For such folks, the arts are akin to their country club, a chance to get away and be only with their own kind. Alabama was not the first or the last place we would have this experience.


Helping individuals and communities discover and publicly present their stories has been part of Roadside's efforts for two decades. We have evolved a residency methodology that rests on four broad principles we call our pillars:

1. Partnerships and collaborations with an inclusive range of community organizations; 

2. Local leadership;
3. Engagement over the course of at least several years; and
4. Our flexibility to alternate between the role of teacher and student.

Roadside's method can be represented as a circle that rests on these pillars, but the different points of activity on the circle don’t necessarily occur as discreet events.

Here’s how it works. The first point on the circle is when we come into a community and perform from our repertoire of original plays. People see and evaluate what we do. In interactive workshops following the performances, we explain our history and our artistic process. 

At the second point of a residency, we prompt community music and story circles so the participants can begin to hear and appreciate their own voices. We pick a theme for the circles, maybe some compelling incident in their local history or current event, and community members start telling and listening to each others stories and songs. This becomes compelling, like fresh news, because participants often hear new information about a common experience. From the circles, a complex sense of a particular place begins to emerge. The songs and stories, which are often recorded, become the basic ingredients of community celebrations that end the second phase. We often have these celebrations around potluck suppers. People get up and play music, sing, and tell the stories that they’ve by now somewhat crafted. Through big, structured celebrations, the community voice proclaims itself in public. All such celebrations are composed of many voices, because we insist on always keeping the door open for new people to participate.

In the third phase of Roadside's residency process, the community stories and songs become the natural resource for creating drama. Nascent and experienced community playwrights, producers, directors, actors, and designers use this body of material to make plays. We help as necessary, filling the gaps of inexperience.

The fourth point on the circle comes after the drama is up and running. We suggest ways for the community to recognize and to honor its local artists and leaders, and we help broker an infrastructure to establish their theatre in the community. We introduce our new colleagues to the national network of artists and communities engaged in similar explorations. Now, the community has the vehicle to continue exploring its story through the creation of new American plays, and the field of artists and communities has a new peer organization.

None of this residency business is smooth sailing. There are problems to be solved daily, and obstacles such as the differences between vocational (volunteer) and professional (paid) ways of operating that are not easily overcome. (For a case study of some of these challenges, see the case studies on the website of the National Endowment for the Arts .) But, as the Community Arts Network testifies, there is a growing appetite among citizens to do more than watch. This is cause for optimism, because the vitality of the arts in a democracy, like the vitality of democracy itself, rests on the participation of not just a few, but many.

Cocke, Dudley, et al.
2002 Journeys Home: Revealing a Zuni-Appalachia Collaboration. Edited by Dudley Cocke, Donna Porterfield, and Edward Wemytewa. Zuni, New Mexico:
Zuni Ashiwi Publications; distributed by University of New Mexico Press.

Ellison, Ralph
1995 [1964] Shadow and Act. New York: Knopf Publishing Group.

Art in a Democracy Selected Websites
Community Arts Network

Websters World of Cultural Democracy

Art in the Public Interest

Dudley Cocke is the Director of Roadside Theater, the Appalachian theater company that is a part of the Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky. He is a 2002 recipient of the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities.

Cite This

Dudley Cocke. “Art in a Democracy.” October 22, 2015.

Interested in copying, distributing, and/or adapting this work? Please view our license information.