By Dudley Cocke
Theater, Vol. 31:3
The magazine of the Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre
Roadside Theater, where I have worked for the past twenty-five years, is located in the Appalachian coalfields. Appalachia is a rich land, but its people are not, for its natural resources are controlled by absentee national and transnational corporations, such as Royal Dutch Shell. Roadside began as a theater of, by, and for Appalachians. Discovering that its local and regional dramas had broad appeal, the theater began touring and has now worked in forty-three states. Our extensive audience is the opposite of the typical audience for professional theater, measured by income: 73 percent of Roadside's audience earns less than $50,000 annually and 30 percent of those earn $20,000 or less a year. In a region and among a population that are not faring so well in our present gilded age, we must ask, For what kind of theater do these folks make time?
The short answer is theater where they can see something of their own fears, joys, and struggles. There is an intuitive understanding among these viewers that becoming conscious of one's individual and collective story, including pride in one's cultural heritage, is integral to creating a better lot in life. Roadside functions less like an institution and more like an experimental ensemble: we create our repertoire of original plays from our native theatrical traditions-archetypal stories passed down orally from generation to generation, oral histories, ballads, and church services-transmuted by our own contemporary experience. Sometimes our productions experiment with blurring the lines between amateur, folk, and professional singers, actors, and storytellers. In all productions, the audience is part of the show, for our style employs no fourth wall.
Each experiment we make, whether at home or on the road, is based on partnerships. Sometimes the partnerships are confined to our own ensemble, sometimes we form partnerships with other ensembles, and often we find them with an array of community folks. For example, Roadside and the New Orleans-based Junebug Productions (heir to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Free Southern Theater) decided to create a musical about historical and present-day relationships between black and white working-class southerners. After some struggle between the two ensembles, we created a play that satisfied us. This turned out to be the easy part; the hard part was finding presenters who wanted to address the issues of race and class in their community.
Black and white working-class families do not typically go out together for an evening at the theater. To help overcome this, we would ask the leaders of a community willing to put on our play to put together a choir drawn from different quarters-local black and white churches, for example, and a youth or women's chorus. We would then ask this ecumenical choir to learn the play's music over the course of several months of rehearsals with the promise of full participation in the coming attraction. A week or so before the performances, the cast, musical director, designer, and director would arrive for final musical rehearsals, at which they would incorporate the new community choir into the production. The professional cast comprises only six, but the audience saw a much grander production of, say, twenty-six performers, and twenty of those cast members were their kin and neighbors. The talent of the community singers also enhanced the artistic quality of the production; in our experience, every community is brimming with talent.
When we can afford to, we will follow the popular performances with months of story and music circles, to help the community hear its own voice. If enough community members are interested they can turn these inclusive stories into a play about themselves.
The stories we tell ourselves and others, those we can understand and imagine, define what we believe to be possible in our individual and collective lives. It is through such shared stories and the connection they cause across racial, economic, and class lines that Roadside has experienced authentic social change.