Roadside is often asked about the origin of its popular story circle practice. Like other aspects and significant components of our work, Roadside’s use of story circles developed in a natural, unforced manner from our play creation process and audience engagement aspirations.
Roadside’s founding ensemble members grew up without television, immersed in a world of local stories and Appalachian oral histories. The oral tradition, often in ballad form, is the most prominent feature of our shared Scots-Irish heritage, and it has shaped the content and form of our plays.
If you have ever sat around with friends and kin singing, spinning tales, and recounting histories, you will quickly understand where we’re coming from: our play’s lines suddenly doubling and overlapping within a general motif of call and response that extends beyond the stage to include the audience.
Sitting in a circle telling each other stories and sharing songs is one of the strategies Roadside typically uses when creating a new play. It wasn’t long before we discovered that audience members likewise welcomed the opportunity to tell their own stories prompted by the emotions and ideas that they had just experienced in the performance.
The audience’s stories also helped us deepen our understanding of the drama we had created. In effect, such audience storytelling continues the play’s action into a new act, providing a way for the community to talk to itself about the play’s themes and for the performance itself to mature.
Here’s one specific example that spurred further development of our story circle methodology. Hearing in 1989 from southern colleagues that racism was on the rise in their communities, Junebug Productions, the African American theater company from New Orleans, and Roadside began creating a musical play about the historical relationship between black and white poor and working class people in the South.
Like Roadside, Junebug created its plays from oral tradition, so it was natural for the two companies’ artists to sit in circles listening to each other’s personal experiences of race and class. Such story circles helped us better understand our differences and more clearly see the present historical moment.
When touring the play to communities in the South and beyond, our goal was to bring together white and black poor and middle and working class people. Usually, the black and white audience members had not heard each other’s personal stories, although they lived in the same community. So our challenge was to create a way for these audience members to hear each other across the dividing lines of race and class. This challenge prompted us to further formalize our story circle methodology.
Because stories are so powerful, they can easily be used for purposes of domination and exploitation, and Roadside’s formal method has developed in order to prevent such misuse in favor of our collective development and well-being.