By Dudley Cocke
Kentucky Arts Council Statewide Arts Conference
October 20, 2000
When I first saw the conference booklet’s glyphic margin mantra, "Change, change, change," what came riffing across my frontal lobe — I expect that I’m not alone — was Aretha’s, "Chain, chain, chain." It was inevitable that I ask, "Are we chained to change?"
The rapid change we are experiencing, what we might dub "the speeding up of America," offers new and old reasons for us to slow down and become more reflective. I believe that we must grasp these opportunities to think in order to break the chains that allow change to break over us.
My proposal to you: Put learning at the center of your professional life and create learning organizations. If you are intentional about learning, personally and organizationally, I believe that instead of floundering you’ll catch some rides. Putting learning at the center of your organization is your best strategy to wed global, national, and local change to your mission.
By learning, I mean an ongoing investigation and inquiry about what you and your organization value, what you and your organization stand for -- and why. By intentional learning, I mean consciously putting this inquiry at the core of your work so that it is omnipresent, influencing what you do. Application: For example, I recommend that your organization formally re-evaluate its mission no later than every five years. A question you want to take time to answer: What have we learned?
To live in an ongoing dialog about what we value — an ongoing dialog, to use the classical formulation, about what is truth and what is beauty — is the quest of art. With this question at our center — and at the center of our organizations — we can cut through much of change’s disorienting clamor, its "sound and fury signifying nothing."
Now I want to talk some about what I and Roadside Theater have learned and what we have come to value over the course of 25 years traveling across the country, seeking to work in an ever deeper, more meaningful way in community.
It took us at Roadside some five years from our inception to understand the theatrical tradition of which our work is a part. I suggest that you, too, should be conscious of the tradition in which your organization works. What are the historical issues in your tradition? What is the contemporary condition of your tradition? It’s worth noting that many artists, managers, funders, and presenters have little idea where their work fits in the history of their profession. Let me talk about Roadside’s tradition as a way to illustrate what I’m suggesting to you.
It’s January 16, 1936 in Des Moines, Iowa. At the Shrine Temple Auditorium the curtain is about to rise on the encore performance of the opera, The Bohemian Girl. Regina Steele, 11 years old, dressed in a blue uniform, steps from the wings and in a clear voice which carries to the last person in the audience of 4,000 reads the lines of the prologue which presents the principal characters and brings the story of the opera to the second act. The cast of 150 represents 50 of Iowa’s 100 counties. And they are all farm girls and boys, farm men and women. Eleven year-old Regina Steele is wearing her blue 4H uniform.
"Who can measure the rewards of such an event?" wrote Marjorie Patten at the time. "Perhaps the greatest value lies in the rich experience of each person who took part in it, the growth through good training, the joy of having had a part in producing a lovely thing and the freeing of some craving for expression." As one cast member put it, "We have no new linoleum on the kitchen floor, but we have sung opera!"
Another moment in Roadside’s tradition: It is midnight on June 30, 1939, only four years after its inception, the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project was closed by an act of Congress. In its first two years, it had presented 42,000 performances to an audience of more than 20 million people. According to the Theatre Project’s meticulous audience surveys, 65% of those attending were seeing a live play for the first time. Federal Theatre Project national director, Hallie Flanagan (played infectiously by Cherry Jones in the current Hollywood/Tim Robbins movie, "The Cradle Will Rock."), put the federal program’s aims succinctly: "National in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in attitude."
For some in power, the Federal Theatre Project was too successful, especially in creating a vast national theater audience that came together across lines of race, class, religion, and geography. The Congressional Dies and Woodrum committees investigated and red-baited.
On that last night of the Federal Theatre Project, Yasha Frank at the Ritz Theatre in New York wrote a new ending for Pinocchio. In this last performance, Pinocchio did not become a living boy, the reward for having overcome his greed and selfishness, but instead turned back into a puppet. As the stagehands tore down the play’s set in full view of the audience, Pinocchio was placed in a pine box with the epitaph: "Born December 23, 1938; killed by Act of Congress, June 30, 1939." Then a funeral procession bearing Pinocchio proceeded out of the Ritz Theatre onto the New York City streets.
Congressmen Dies and Woodrum would be succeeded in the years after the Second World War by a senator from Wisconsin named McCarthy and in our own time by a senator from North Carolina.
Let’s now change continents, to Africa, fast forward to 1986 -- Africa still struggling to emerge from more than a century of colonial domination. This, too, is part of Roadside’s heritage. The angry voice is Kenyan playwright, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. His subject is the suppression of an entire continent’s culture by its colonizers, a process he dubs "the cultural bomb." I read his words as both testimony and warning:
"The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities, and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life. It even plants serious doubts about the moral rightness of struggle. Possibilities of triumph or victory are seen as remote, ridiculous dreams. The intended results are despair, despondency, a collective death-wish."
Several years ago, a New York dance company asked me to advise their students training to be professional dancers. My advice: Each of you should develop a theory of history, no matter how half-baked it may seem at first. If you keep studying on it, your theory will learn to dance.
I recommend that each of us develop a theory of history. It will help us understand what we value. It will make us more conscious of the particular tradition of which our work is a part. Again, what I’m recommending is not meant solely for artists, but includes equally all of us in the not-for-profit arts: managers, presenters, and funders.
Let me give you a funder’s example. For the sake of argument, that is to see what we can learn from some oversimplification, I ask you to consider this hypothesis: That in the last century there were three major conceptions of the role of the artist, and each had a corresponding funding model. Indeed, the artist’s role and the funding model have a relationship much like the chicken and the egg.
In the first conception, the artist, and even more importantly his or her artform, is a means of enlightenment, bringing beauty to the masses. Here the funder is patron, and the impulse is charity.
In a second conception, the attention switches from the artform and the audience to the artist. It is the individual genius of the artist that penetrates and organizes reality. The audience is the few or the many — it doesn’t much matter. Here the funder catches an elevator each day to an office overlooking the world. The theory being that from this heightened vantage point genius can be discerned and anointed.
A third conception is the artist as tradition-bearer and community-builder. This conception asks: How does a community (a people) sustain a quest for truth and beauty? Here the funder is neither patron nor high priest, but co-learner in the inquiry, financial partner in the effort.
A story will perhaps illustrate some of these distinctions. Thirty-some years ago now, a very famous folksinger from California came to east Kentucky 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 audience’s rapt attention; I’m told that you could hear a pin drop. 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 emphatically. The local band kindly 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."
The third artist -- funder conception restores the role of the community artist and folk artist. It views genius, in its rare appearances, as part and parcel of a grand cultural ecology in which every part is important to the whole. And the audience is as much a part of this ecology as the artist. Here is a Roadside actor speaking of how she conceives of her work.
"For me as an actor the success is when audience members start telling you their stories after the performance — not what a great actor or singer or musician you are, but things that show they have really taken it to a deep place. For me that’s the measure of good work — how much people take it to heart and build on it in their own words, in their own relationships."
The purpose of Roadside’s residencies are to help a community listen to itself, learn about itself, and express itself publicly. In the fullest instances, our particular residency methodology creates new U.S. plays and establishes new local theaters, which help communities sustain their quest. Our model is partnerships and collaborations, and our methodology may look like a circle, but the different points on the circle don’t necessarily happen discreetly. That is, Roadside alternates between leading and following, teaching and learning.
Here’s how it works. The first point on the circle: We come into a community and perform so people can see what we do. We show them where we’re coming from and tell them some about how we got to where we are.
At the second point, we start 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. They sit and start telling and listening to stories. Now this becomes fascinating because we often hear many facets of a common experience. If something has racial overtones, for example, suddenly we might be getting very different points of view from people in the same community who haven’t really heard each other before. We start getting a complex sense of a particular place — every individual in the circle does. What participants hear from their neighbors is consistently surprising, so it’s exciting.
We also start music circles. The music and stories become the basic ingredients of a community celebration that ends the second phase. We often have these celebrations around a potluck supper. People get up and play music and tell the stories that they’ve by now fashioned somewhat. Through this big structured celebration, the community voice starts to hear itself in public, to become aware of itself. And it is composed of many voices, because we insist on inclusion.
In the third phase of our residency process, the community stories and songs become the natural resource for creating dramas. Nascent or community playwrights use this body of material to craft plays. This is not altogether different from what happened as part of the WPA’s Federal Theatre project. A lot of oral history found its way onto the stage. For example, without the WPA we would not have ninety-five percent of the slave narratives extant. Drawing on those narratives, playwrights continue to make important contributions to U.S. drama.
The fourth point on the circle comes after the drama is up. We identify and make visible the local leaders and help them find an infrastructure that can establish their theater in the community so they can continue to explore and develop their community’s story. And we introduce them to the national network of artists and communities engaged in similar explorations.
Of course the variety of ways to help a community express itself are limited only by one’s imagination. Here’s a variation that we use when touring a musical that Roadside co-created with an African-American ensemble, Junebug Productions from New Orleans. The play, Junebug/Jack, is about the historical and present day relationship between black and white working-class southerners, so naturally we want black and white working class people in the audience. But, as you know, working-class folk are not in the habit of attending professional theater. What we often do months before our arrival is contact a handful of black and white churches in the host community. We ask them to form an "ecumenical super choir" committed to mastering our production’s music before we arrive in their hometown. When our cast arrives, we spend some evenings staging the choir into the play. Our cast is six, but what the audience sees is a much grander production of, say, twenty-six. Of course local people pile in to see their kin and friends perform. The artistry in such productions is consistently of a high standard; because every community in the 43 states that we have visited has plenty of wonderful, unrehearsed talent. Often we follow such performances with interracial community story circles in which the themes of the performance prompt audience members to tell their own stories, to learn from each other.
Two quick thoughts about two topics on your conference agenda: the internet and public arts funding. First, the internet: We are by instinct social animals. The internet’s virtual reality cannot, will not, satisfy this part of our nature. The internet is an exciting tool, and there will continue to be a central role for live performance — nothing can equal it. As computers place vast amounts of information at our fingertips, the arts’ search for meaning will be undiminished. We must be patient with the internet.
Second, public arts funding: It’s my belief that a variety of forces and trends have eroded the momentum to create a level playing field where our nation’s many cultures can support, learn, and compete with one another. Most harmful to this blunted aspiration of fairness is the inability of the National Endowment for the Arts, bludgeoned by the Right, to any longer provide leadership on the issue of cultural diversity and inclusion. Like the federal Justice Department during the 1960’s struggle for racial equality, the National Endowment for the Arts was often a reluctant advocate for cultural equity. But it was the best we had. And within the Endowment, as within the Justice Department, there were some genuine heroes who made a difference. Who now will carry this standard for inclusion and fairness?
It will be tempting for each of us to let the waves of change just break over us rather than set a course of life-long exploration and learning. Of course there will be encouragement to do both: Those deciding to ride out change, hoping to maintain a status quo, will band together and seek allies, funders will give them money, etc. And those under sail will be signaling each other and scanning the horizon for fellow travelers.
For 25 years Roadside and its parent organization, Appalshop, have been under sail. For central Appalachia, the status quo of poverty is not a viable option. The seas have rarely been as we would wish; at times we could find little wind from any quarter. Still, I recommend for all of us the journey. For if the truth were known, it would include the fact that really there is only one boat, and we’re all in it.
My hope is that each of you will come to believe more in your own creativity and the creativity of your neighbors, for it is this consciousness that propels learning and in the end sustains us.
© Dudley Cocke, 2000