1989: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This essay is the introduction to "Help Yourself: A Cultural Workbook," written by Dudley Cocke and Ruby Lerner, edited by Josephine Lindsley and published in 1989 by Alternate ROOTS "as a tool to promote dialogue about the development of a practical cultural policy for the future of the performing arts in the Southeast." This essay’s lasting value is its articulation of the crucial role of the "home-grown" artist in a vital, characteristically Southeastern culture, a "local life aware of itself." –Eds.
"Where are the South’s best investments?" asks the Report of the 1986 Commission on the Future of the South. The Commission was established by the Southern Growth Policies’ Board, a public interstate agency governed and supported by the state and local governments of the southeastern United States and Puerto Rico. Its board includes state governors, senators and representatives, as well as outstanding citizens from 13 southeastern states. The conclusion of the Commission was that"the best way to buy shares of the future with guaranteed profit is to invest in the interdependent lives of Southerners themselves."Two of the Commission’s ten interdependent objectives for 1992 are particularly helpful to a discussion of culture in the region. The first is implementing new economic development strategies aimed at home-grown businesses and industry, and the second objective is enhancing the South’s natural and cultural resources.
The report, "Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go," describes the South’s current economic situation: for 25 years industry has come rolling down to the Sunbelt. But lately, the report asserts, (business) recruitment has been compared to the great buffalo hunts of the last century. The stampede is over; the herds are no longer plentiful, and 1986 would be a bad year to go into the buffalo hide business. At one time. our buffalo hunters sold the South as a low wage, low tax haven to northern plants that hurried to relocate. Now these industries are either modernizing or moving abroad in search of even lower taxes and lower wages.
On the positive side, the report points out that when the buffalo disappeared out west, the day of the cattlemen began. It suggests a similar approach for expanding the southern economy at this time. In order to develop home-grown businesses in the Southeast, it suggests that long term development strategies will need to be put into place, eschewing what appear to be quick fixes, that entrepreneurs need to be encouraged, and that a variety of partnerships within the region between businesses and colleges and universities need to be strengthened.
This broad assessment of the current economic situation in the region and the suggestion of a partial solution in the cultivation of home-grown businesses has striking parallels to the region’s current cultural situation:the cultivation of home-grown performing artists and arts organizations can provide a new source of cultural energy and vitality as we face the next 20 years. A partial explanation of the region’s artistic history and current status will reveal these parallels.
As industries flocked to the Southeast, states and municipalities became increasingly concerned about the quality of life here. It was perceived that in order to attract high level executive and management personnel, the cultural amenities to which those executives were accustomed in their former locales also needed to be present here. Cultural organizations were formed with the help of citizens who felt that a museum, a theatre, or a symphony in their community would make the community more attractive to business interests. Many of the South’s large performing arts centers and museums were built or expanded significantly during the last 25 years with corporate and local and state support. The task of most of these organizations was, and still is, to ensure that the Southeast has access to what is usually called "our universal cultural heritage," which, though connoting a broad perspective, has in practice meant art in the Western European tradition. To that end, the artistic focus of most of these organizations is on work drawn from the same vein and usually proven successful elsewhere, primarily in New York and London, whose inhabitants are seen as cultural arbiters.
We can take pride in the fact that this network of arts organizations is now solidly in place, garnering significant support from local corporations, foundations, and individuals. However, a negative consequence of building these organizations has been the devaluation of our local and regional heritages.
The devaluing of the local and regional means that traditional southeastern cultural expressions — the varied musics of the region, storytelling, the tradition of excellence in crafts — have often been ignored by these new institutions and the funding structures, in spite of their consistent high quality and persistent popular appeal. It is not surprising that within this Western European context people of color are mostly excluded, nor that there is limited support for arts organizations whose commitment is to creating original work within a southern idiom.
A further consequence of this devaluing process is that it obscures a rich history of previous southeastern cultural achievements, a history that is important in properly evaluating the current situation.
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Beginning in the 1920s and through the 1960s, there were several cultural and social movements which grew in this region, and which were of national significance: The Carolina Playmakers, whose work extended from the ’20s well into the ’40s; the Fugitive Agrarians, writing in the ’30s; Black Mountain College, founded in the ’30s and continuing into the ’50s; and the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s.
Vanderbilt University was home to a group of influential southern writers known as the Fugitive Agrarians. While problematic on a number of fronts, their writing nonetheless called attention to the still timely issue of "the erosion of the quality of individual life by the forces of industrialization and the uncritical worship of material progress as an end in itself." During its more than 20 years, Black Mountain College in North Carolina provided a base for a wealth of artistic experimentation which has influenced contemporary literature, visual arts, and performance. The cultural components of the. southern-born Civil Rights Movement — its music and the Free Southern Theater — had a profound effect on subsequent generations of southern artists, black and white, in its vivid demonstration that culture is integral and not peripheral to the process of social change.
But it is perhaps the Carolina Playmakers which provides the most instructive example. In January of 1919, Professor Frederick Koch gave a lecture entitled "Playmakers of the People" on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. He declared that the primary purpose of the newly formed Carolina Playmakers would be the production of original plays dealing with North Carolina life and people. He argued: "When every community has its own native group of plays and producers, we shall have a national American theatre that will give a richly varied, authentic expression of American life. We shall be aware — which we are only dimly at present — of the actual pulse of the people." Koch’s theatre continued with great vitality in the 1940s, guided by the belief that the local and specific, interpreted faithfully, can serve as a window to the universal—and that, in fact, this is the hallmark of all great art.
Koch’s drama movement produced novelist Thomas Wolfe and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paul Green, as well as dance critic Walter Terry, bandleader Kay Kyser, novelist Betty Smith, former Wall Street Journal editor Vermont Royster, and others. On the 25th anniversary of the Playmakers in 1943, a noted theatre historian stated that "the best way to estimate the significance of the movement known as the Playmakers Theatre is to try to imagine what American playwrighting would have been for the last 25 years without them."
Today this dynamic movement which lasted 25 years is, at best, a distant memory, rarely discussed, and described in a standard theatre text as only "influential." It has been replaced by college and university drama departments which appear more interested in producing actors who can read soap opera copy and meet the requirements for auditions in New York City. Remaining in the Southeast in order to create work that might be useful to the life of the region is not presented as an option to today’s student.
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While our point of view encourages the local and regional, we are not promoting a regionalism that is either quaint or parochial, but one that is expansive in the way that Koch defined it in the early part of the century, and in the way that Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry describes it in his contemporary essay, "The Regional Motive":
The regionalism that I adhere to could be defined simply as local life aware of itself. It would tend to substitute for myths and stereotypes of a region a particular knowledge of the place one lives in and intends to continue to live in.
Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed. I look upon the sort of regionalism that I am talking about not just as a recurrent literary phenomenon, but as a necessity of civilization and survival.
Berry goes on to say that it is important to be able to "bring to bear on the life of one’s place all that it is possible to know." This view advocates exchange and dialogue among communities within and outside the region, as well as exchange with other cultures. Art from outside the community is not, however, presented in the spirit of "how art really should be done." Instead, one learns about other cultures and communities in order to better understand one’s own community and culture.
What are the forces that oppose this encompassing localism? Philosopher Sheldon Wolin contends that the major structures of power in this society, whether business, education, finance, the military, government, or communications, require, as a condition of the effective use of power, the destruction or neutralization of persons or places. Persons and places are more likely to survive if they repress their local peculiarities, surrender old rhythms of life and the accompanying skills, and fashion themselves anew to accommodate the abstract requirements of assembly lines, data processing and systems of impersonal communications.
While art from elsewhere may be purchased, culture is something that we will have to create for ourselves. This responsibility is no different than our responsibility for the way our region’s land and natural resources are used, or for our future economic prospects. Just as an infusion of monetary support, creating long term development strategies, building relationships with academia, and encouraging entrepreneurs are seen as necessary for creating a viable home-grown economy, similarly, an infusion of the same kinds of support will help home-grown artists and organizations become a powerful source of catalytic energy to their communities, large and small, throughout the region.
Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Roadside Theater, was a founding member of ROOTS, and Ruby Lerner (in 2003, director of Creative Capital), is a past executive director of ROOTS.
Original CAN/API publication: October 2003