By Dudley Cocke

Fall 2008: An essay explaining how Roadside has been able to consistently attract an audience fully reflective of the nations economic, racial, and geographic diversity.

Alexander Hamilton, political rival of Virginia planter and slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, proposed that the President and Senate be elected for life. Hamilton wrote: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and wellborn, the other the mass of people. The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.”

The Founding Fathers rejected Hamilton’s elite proposition in favor of Jefferson’s declaration of equality. Thus began our nation’s journey – still not completed – to align the Deed with the Creed.

Several months before the 2000 presidential election, a Florida reporter interviewed citizens about why the vote was important. She approached two retirees relaxing by the pool, “Why is the upcoming presidential election important to you?” Without hesitation, the first responded, “The Supreme Court.” The second added, “the economy.” Then, almost in unison, they said, “The culture.” The reporter blinked and wondered, “What do you fellas mean?” The first retiree looked squarely at her and answered, “Who controls the culture . . .” The second jumped in and finished the sentence, “ . . . controls the story the nation tells itself.”

The past quarter century has been unkind to the democratic impulse in the arts. A 2002 poll by the Urban Institute found that 96 percent of respondents said they were “greatly inspired and moved by art.” However, only 27 percent said that artists contribute “a lot” to the good of society. National surveys (including those by the League of American Theatres and Producers and the 1991-1996 Wallace Foundation-sponsored AMS survey) consistently report that audiences are 80-plus percent white and originating from the top 15 percent of the population, as measured by income and education levels. The widening income gap between rich and poor is threatening to create a permanent underclass. In a 27-year-long trend to apply market values to our social life since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, we have embedded our spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and political life in the economy. And economic globalization has been the steroid of this trend. The exact opposite should be the case. 

I will argue that culture – and its concentrated expression, art – has an important role to play in realizing our nation’s democratic aspirations. But in the not-for-profit performing arts – and many other arts fields as well – progress toward leveling the playing field has stalled, leaving our many U.S. cultures without an equal chance to express themselves, to develop and cross-pollinate. The good news is that knowledge and new opportunities do exist to remove obstacles blocking arts’ progress toward inclusion.

Art in a Democracy: Four Historical Vignettes
Ever since our forebears began putting on dramas, the U.S. theater has been a social forum where race and class, cultural power, and separatism versus integration have been debated.

In 1996-‘97, it was the late playwright August Wilson going at it with Harvard theater director and critic, Robert Brustein. In 1821, it was the African Grove Theater, in Manhattan, where a growing community of free African Americans was mounting productions of Shakespeare, as well as original plays like The Drama of King Shotoway, which called for a slave rebellion. The African Grove’s audience was racially mixed, although the theater’s management found it necessary to segregate whites, as some did not know “how to behave themselves at entertainments designed for ladies and gentlemen of color.”

It’s January 16, 1936, Des Moines, Iowa. At the Shrine Temple Auditorium the curtain rises on the encore performance of the opera,The Bohemian Girl. Regina Steele, 12 years old, steps from the wings and in a clear voice, which carries to the last person in the audience of 4,000, brings the story of the opera to the second act. The cast of 150 is from 50 of Iowa’s 100 counties. They are farm girls and boys, farm men and women. Regina is wearing her blue 4-H 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 in opera!”

In 1991, I invited Robert Gard, founder of the venerable populist Wisconsin Idea Theater, to a meeting of 100 grassroots theater practitioners at Cornell University. It was to be his last public address. He described a vision he had when he was 27 years old: “I felt the conviction then that I have maintained since – that the knowledge and love of place is a large part of the joy in people’s lives. There must be plays that grow from all the countrysides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of toiling hands and free minds, born of music and love and reason. There must be many great voices singing out the lore and legend of America from a thousand hilltops, and there must be students to listen and to learn, and writers encouraged to use the materials.”

After politically motivated investigations by the Congressional Dies and Woodrum committees, at midnight on June 30, 1939, only four years after its inception, the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project – the apotheosis of the theater’s democratic impulse – was closed by Congress. The Project’s director, Hallie Flanagan, put its aims succinctly: “National in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in attitude.” In its first two years it had presented 42,000 performances to more than 20 million people of all races, creeds and classes.  According to meticulous audience surveys, 65 percent of those attending were seeing a live play for the first time. 

Finding Answers: A Contemporary Case Study
Roadside Theater, which I direct, is a working class ensemble based in the central Appalachian coalfields, where 98 percent of the population is white. The theater has performed in thousands of communities in 43 U.S. states and around Europe. The demographic profile of Roadside’s audience is the inverse of the national norm: 73 percent have annual incomes under $50,000, according to a Wallace AMS survey, and 30 percent earn $20,000 or less. Seventy percent live in rural communities. One third are people of color. How did this happen?

In 1990, as Roadside was preparing its strategy to diversify the audience for the professional American theater, many experts advised us we would fail. We found ourselves wrestling with tough questions. What is a public space? What is an affordable ticket? What are acceptable protocols (e.g., must a show start promptly? should children be admitted?) What community organizations should be our partners?

We determined the key was finding presenters and local leaders who would join us in wrestling with such questions. Over six years, using a process of trial and error, Roadside developed a cultural development model that guaranteed audiences that looked like the whole community. In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam describes our approach as “mustering diverse local folks to celebrate their traditions and restore community confidence through dramatization of local stories and music.” The model’s methodology rests on five pillars:

  • Active participation;
  • Partnerships and collaborations with an inclusive range of community organizations;
  • Local leadership;
  • Engagement over the course of several years;
  • Flexibility to alternate between the roles of leader and follower.

Roadside’s method can be represented as a circle that rests on these pillars, but the different points on the circle don’t necessarily occur as discreet events. Here’s how it works.

The first point of the circle is when we come into a community and perform from our repertoire of original plays. People see and evaluate what we do. We explain our history and process in workshops after the performances.

In the second phase of our residency, we prompt the creation of community music and story circles, so the participants can begin to hear their own voices. We pick a theme – maybe a local historic incident – and community members start listening to each other’s stories and songs. They often hear new information about a common experience. The songs and stories, which are often recorded, become the ingredients for community celebrations at the end of the second phase. These often involve potluck suppers; people play music, sing, tell their stories. Through such big, structured celebrations, the community voice proclaims itself.

In the third phase, the community’s own stories and songs become a natural resource for creating drama. Nascent and experienced local playwrights, producers, directors, actors, and designers use this material to make plays. We fill in the gaps in inexperience. The fourth point comes after the drama is up and running. We suggest ways for the community to honor its artists and leaders, and we help establish a theater in the community. We then introduce our new colleagues to the national network of artists and communities that are engaged in similar explorations.

Roadside’s model is labor intensive. It requires that each Roadside artist become a producer (Paulo Freire’s writing oriented us to this new role). Early on in each multi-year residency, the assigned Roadside producer sits down with community leaders to articulate common aspirations. The farming and ranching community of Choteau, MT completed the circle and established a theater company. Here is the agreement that guided our partnership:

  • The plays will be given their voice by the community: The artists will be part of the culture from which the work is drawn. Their histories and feedback will inform the work. The audience will not be consumers of, but rather, participants in the performance.
  • The plays will witness a commitment to place: They will be grounded in the local and specific, which, when rendered faithfully ad creatively, can affect people anywhere.
  • The traditional and indigenous are integral to rural life: They help us maintain continuity with the past, respond to the present, and prepare for the future.
  • The project will strive to be inclusive in its producing practices: We will partner with community organizations. Performances will be in places where the community feels welcome. Tickets will be affordable.
  • The project will recognize that management structures and business practices are value-laden: We support broad participation, self-reliance, and collective responsibility.
  • The project will be consciously linked to struggles for cultural, social, economic, and political equity: Advocating equity often meets resistance, and such resistance, when articulated, is an opportunity for positive change.

This kind of residency work is never smooth sailing. Even so, we were rewarded by the AMS survey results. After all, we had demonstrated that there were no insurmountable barriers to attendance – a good thing for the box office, for democracy, and the art form. We expected that the arts field would be excited by our success, but there was no such reaction. Apparently, we had misunderstood something. Looking back, the warning signs were clear.

One warning sign confronted us in Alabama. We had arrived at the northern Alabama venue greeted by a crowd – “twice as many people as show-up for our performances,” exclaimed the presenter. The audience was a cross-section of the city. The working class people had a great time because they understood our Appalachian working-class play better than many who were from the more formally educated class. But they didn’t invite us back. After our third follow-up call, the presenter said, “We’ve not had such a big crowd before or since. But our board of directors just didn’t like the way y’all talked.” Alabamans didn’t like the way Appalachians talked! Apparently, for some folks, the arts are like a country club – a chance to be with their own kind.

Another example of what the Brooklyn poet Marianne Moore described as “people not liking what they don’t understand” occurred in Scottsdale, AZ. We were performing at the charming, upscale Kerr Cultural Center. The event, sponsored by Arizona State University, was supposed to bring together a diverse audience: wealthy white patrons, folks from the Chicano community, and Native Americans from the Pima Reservation. The culture clash occurred around the performance protocols. Some Chicanos and Native Americans showed up an hour early. They were made to wait outside in the cold for 30 minutes until the doors officially opened. Others arrived 10-15 minutes after the 8:00 pm curtain and were not admitted. The kids from the local Boys & Girls Club (our special guests, performing their own stories) were made to sit on bleachers “to control their behavior.” (It reminded me of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s experience in post-colonial Kenya. It was not censorship of my words, Thiongo had said, but censorship of the desired configuration of the performance space and of my audience’s other cultural norms.)

Despite such attitudes, Roadside has become adept at removing barriers. A long-standing Roadside collaborator is Junebug Productions, an African American theater in New Orleans. One of our co-creations, Junebug/Jack, is about the relationships between black and white working class southerners. As we toured the U.S., naturally we wanted black and white working-class people to attend the play. The problem is that black and white working-class people do not go out together (or separately, for that matter) to the professional theater. Our solution was to ask the sponsors of Junebug/Jack, which is a musical, to pull together singers from different parts of their community –from the white Methodist church to the black AME Zion church to the integrated public high school. Out of support for their church, family, and friends, as well as sheer curiosity, large numbers of people showed up for the performances, who would not otherwise have attended. The disparate parts of each community came together to sing. Only then began the journey of understanding each other. 

New Possibilities

Insisting on participation has been a key to Roadside’s success. There is alignment between this principle and the Wallace-sponsored RAND report, Gifts of the Muse, which found no conclusive evidence that the instrumental value of the arts (raising test scores, improving health, etc.) caused people to become stakeholders. Interestingly, the study concluded that the intrinsic value of the arts was not perceived to be the artwork itself. Rather, if people did not have deeply meaningful experiences while they engaged with the art, they were unlikely to become active supporters. Direct, hands-on participation in the creative process is the most powerful and moving aspect of artistic experiences. If embraced, this realization would cause a paradigm shift in the arts field. Cultural programmers (also known as arts presenters) would become organizers of cultural participation, giving up on the fixation that catharsis resides solely in the ticketed performance event.

The question, then, becomes how to open-up the creative process to the entire community?

Here is one example. The impetus for a recent Roadside initiative was the construction of super-maximum security prisons in our own backyard, and the rights abuses occurring in them. By morphing our methodology with new media, we were able to shine a light on the impacts of the prison system, especially on poor urban communities, from which a disproportionate number of prisoners are drawn, and on poor rural communities, like Roadside’s, where a disproportionate number of the prisons are sited. 

In prison slang, “to shoot a kite” is to send a message. Our Thousand Kites web platform brings together theater, music, radio, video, and the Internet to test and disseminate a new experimental theater creation, presentation, and community-engagement model in which the live process is mirrored virtually. To succeed, the model has to respond to the needs of its stakeholders. Steady creation of new content in multiple formats has to be matched with the ability to reach established and new audiences.

The play, Thousand Kites, is written from the stories of prisoners, victims, corrections officers, and their families. An online play production kit accompanies the play (both the play and the production tool boxes are available at no cost). We conduct on-line consultancies to connect the play’s community-based producers with Kites staff and with others who have previously produced the play. We produce audio and video documentaries of the productions highlighting the audience’s engagement with them. Dissemination strategies include:

  • Live play productions with radio broadcasts and podcasts (featured on Kites 24-hour web radio);
  • Radio productions, co-produced and distributed by the National Radio Project to more than 300 stations;
  • Social networking sites and data exchanges with stakeholder organizations;
  • Viral communication.

The greater audience Kites can reach, the more it is called upon to deliver messaging for other artists and organizations. Such service trading within the arts and community-organizing fields holds great promise. It can serve as a new model for reinvigorating and diversifying the arts, social justice, and education fields by attracting young artists to its ranks; inspiring the development of new types of theater companies; growing the presence of community cultural development in higher education and community organizing; and inspiring new models for cross-disciplinary funding. In short, the combination of arts and media can help to meaningfully connect communities to the arts. 

Strategic Directions

The community itself is the answer to the problem of the class gap. Outside expertise can help. 

Here are some approaches that, in our experience, are demonstrated to work:

  • The principles of community cultural development as articulated above;
  • Diverse and equitable community partnerships which free the partners from the prejudices of their silos;
  • Learning together through manageable cycles of action and assessment;
  • Storytelling;
  • Remembering that those with the problem are the basis for the solution.

These are some things that, we have concluded, do not work:

  • Community outreach (what is required, instead, is community in-reach);
  • Allowing the community to select which development principles to include in a project;
  • Trying to make one community’s cultural development project fit all communities;
  • Allowing large power imbalances among community partners (too much power can be a deterrent to learning);
  • Inhibiting the community from taking the lead.

Finally, some directions for philanthropy to consider:

  • Supporting collaborations between professional, amateur, and folk artists;
  • Stimulating critical discourse about practice and ethics in the community cultural development field;
  • Supporting new leadership (e.g. mentorships that pair veteran and young leaders);  
  • Using media to bring participation to public attention (televising the National Heritage Awards in the Folk Arts may be more compelling to the public than the Tony Awards);
  • Encouraging strategic partnerships across foundation program silos in order to take what is working to scale (e.g., poverty is an issue for economics and culture);
  • Publicly stating the impacts for which the foundation is willing to take responsibility and periodically reporting the results of attempts to achieve the stated impacts (one learns as much from failure as from success);
  • An “ignorance audit” to determine if there are aspects of the foundation culture that reward staff and grantees for appearing to know more than they actually do know;
  • Determining what in the field is working and why (this will require keeping a close ear to the ground which, in turn, may mean hiring more foundation staff).


A joke from the Depression: Two black men are standing in a government breadline; one turns to the other, “How you making it?” The other looks up the line, “White folks still in the lead.”

For a sustainable future, society needs creativity and innovation from a healthy arts ecosystem. For 27 years, we have failed to advance the fundamental principle of cultural equity, or, as my mentor Alan Lomax insisted, “to tap for our common good the inherent genius of every cultural community.” There are, however, indications that now might be a moment of opportunity:

  • Unprecedented numbers of young people are seeking opportunities for civic engagement, often motivated by a search for meaning – religious, spiritual, or humanist.
  • Colleges and universities offering steady supply of new community cultural development courses, programs, and engagement opportunities. (Syracuse University Chancellor, Nancy Cantor, was recently honored by the Carnegie Corporation for her efforts on behalf of public scholarship. She is co-founder of Imagining America, a coalition of 80 colleges and universities devoted to creating knowledge in the arts, humanities, and design to help communities and campuses transform into centers for civic engagement).
  • A lot of the action is happening at the intersections of disciplines, of fields, and of cultural boundaries. Unlikely suspects, such as environmental activists and politicians, are finding themselves drawn to collaborations with artists.
  • A critical mass of analytic writing has accrued, bringing attention to community cultural development theories and practices that have been gathering force over the last 50 years.
  • As ever, the folk arts remain vibrant and flying under the radar. Their audience already looks like the whole community.
  • New concerns about how the U.S. is negatively perceived by many in the world is awakening government leaders to the need for re-starting international arts exchange programs which demonstrate our nation's commitment to pluralism and cultural diversity abroad as well as at home.

As any Darwinian will tell us, when challenged by change, the fatal response is denial. At a time when the arts should be innovating broadly (not just in a narrow, avant-garde sense), we have become too uptight, too hesitant, too risks-averse. We must encourage citizen participation and bridge the inequalities that divide us. More than the law, politics, or the economy, democratic participatory arts connect us to our fellow human beings in the most powerful ways. 

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