Roadside Theater was founded in the coalfields of central Appalachia in 1975 as part of Appalshop, which had begun six years earlier as a War on Poverty/Office of Economic Opportunity job training program in film for economically poor youth. From its inception, these young Appalachians saw Appalshop as the means to tell the region’s story in the voices of the people living there. As part of this enthusiasm for celebrating local life, Roadside was welcomed into the Appalshop fold.
Since the arrival of King Coal in the 1890s, central Appalachia has been a rich land with poor people, because, in the words of singer-songwriter John Prine, "Mister Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away." From one perspective, the region has been a mineral colony at first of national and then global energy corporations.
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and today as many as 40% of residents in some coalfield counties live below the poverty line. Despite more than a century of persistent economic poverty, Appalachian people have kept their rich cultural traditions alive. The region’s music, storytelling, oral history, and the drama of its indigenous church services are known worldwide, and Appalshop has developed into the region’s leading producer of documentary films, music recordings, radio documentaries, and plays.
Unsurprisingly, given its region’s economic poverty, Appalshop and Roadside Theater situate themselves historically within equal opportunity movements, like the labor and civil rights movements of the last century, and more specifically within the tradition of U.S. democratic arts and humanities movements which developed theories and practices to preserve and perpetuate the culture -- the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and material traditions and features -- of exploited communities.
Three of Roadside’s signature creative partnerships are with Puerto Rican and Dominican artists of Pregones Theater in the Bronx; with African American artists of Junebug Productions in New Orleans; and with traditional Native American artists of Idiwanan An Chawe in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. Each of these partnerships has been producing new plays for more than 20 years. Roadside is known for its creation of a large body of original plays, both Appalachian and inter-cultural, and for its cultural development work at home in central Appalachia and in hundreds of communities across 43 states.
Roadside’s community cultural development (CCD) work has been shaped by Roadside’s artistic residencies in communities struggling with issues of unequal opportunity, racism, incarceration, violence against women, and suicide. Its CCD activity has been spurred by professional theater’s de facto dismissal of the cares and joys of all but an elite audience – the 15% of the people for the past thirty years who have consistently constituted 80% of the nonprofit theater’s audience.
In its home region, Roadside’s audience is almost all working and middle class and economically poor people – in other words, the region’s general population. This Appalachian audience doesn’t attend a Roadside play as spectator, but, rather, to bear witness to its own cultural identity. In the creation of many Roadside productions, community members contribute stories and music – and as the plays are developing, the public is invited to staged readings to share their insights.
The community ownership of Roadside’s work often surprises peers in the theater profession. One weekend, the arts program director of a national foundation came to Roadside’s home theater in Whitesburg, Kentucky to evaluate the ensemble’s work. As usual, the 150-seat theater was packed with more than 175 people.
At the play’s intermission, the foundation director was livid: “The woman to my right and the man to my left are both singing along to your original songs and sometimes completing a character’s line. You’ve set me up, and this is decidedly not in your self-interest.” “Oh dear,” I said, “Please pick any seat you want for the second act.”
When the play ended, the foundation program director came straight to me and apologized, saying the same thing had happened in her new seat and that she was moved beyond words by what she had experienced. The Appalachian culture’s tradition of participation is a big reason that it has been able to resist the forces of homogenization and commercialization that seek to bottle and sell it. For a people without a fair share of economic independence, cultural independence is that much more important.
From its inception, young Appalachians saw Appalshop as the means for telling the region’s story in the voices of the people living there, in a manner unmediated by national stereotypes. As part of this impulse to celebrate local life, in 1975 some of the musicians and storytellers hanging around Appalshop’s Main Street offices started rehearsing traditional Jack and Mutsmeg (the female version of Jack) tales and performing them in schools and local community centers.
These centuries-old archetypal tales were more intact in Appalachian communities than they were in the British Isles, where they originated. In wild, informal performances, the actors spontaneously traded characters, batting the story’s lines back and forth, and generally “cutting a big shine.”
Upon ending a tale like Jack and the Heifer Hide with the rousing unison, “And the last time I went down to see Jack, he was a-doin' well,” the performers would break into song accompanied by fiddle, banjo, and sometimes the twang of a jaw harp, I wish I was a hole in the ground/I wish I was a hole in the ground/If I was a hole in the ground/I’d be a mountain upside down/I wish I was a hole in the ground. The impromptu group took the name Roadside Theater, with the performance occurring wherever the storytellers hung their coats.
Appalachian people of all ages loved what Roadside was doing – there just wasn’t enough local money to support it. The fee for Roadside’s school shows averaged about 75 dollars, and four dollars was the standard adult admission to an evening performance of Red Fox/Second Hangin’, the theater’s second major production after Mountain Tales and Music.
Since Roadside was popular among the people and had become part of Appalshop, a nonprofit, its leadership decided to apply for some taxpayer support. For two years running, the Kentucky Arts Council rejected Roadside’s application. Their attitude was no professional theater could possibly exist in such a backward part of the state. It was then that Roadside decided the shortest route to Frankfurt (the Kentucky state capitol) was through New York City.
As it turned out, the routing was correct. Roadside’s play, Red Fox/Second Hangin’, was a hit, first downtown at the Theater for the New City, and then uptown at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The tone of the reviews explain the difference between the two locations: downtown in the West Village the play was hailed by the Village Voice as “a series of hard male pranks . . . akin to Wisconsin Death Trip,” while uptown the New York Times proclaimed it “as stirring to the audience for its historical detective work as for the vanishing art of frontier yarn spinning.”
After their own Louisville Courier Journal reported the play was ”a part of this country’s past the entire nation can treasure,” Frankfort flew Kentucky Arts Council staff north to see what in the world was going on -- and in their next granting cycle the Council joined the National Endowment for the Arts in supporting Roadside’s work.
From its inception, Roadside understood that the stories it told and the way that it told them was different from mainstream theater. In New York City, Roadside was identified with avant-garde ensembles like Mabou Mines and the Wooster Group. At home in the mountains if anyone took the trouble to categorize Roadside, it was as folk theater. In fact, Roadside was probably the only professional theater to receive support from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Folk Arts Program. For folklorists, the decisive factor was that Roadside artists had learned their craft not in the academy but from the Appalachian communities that had raised them.
After the New York City experience, what had been a marginal enterprise became a nonprofit business eventually capable of supporting as many as nine full-time ensemble members and half as many part-timers. Roadside had developed a unique theatrical aesthetic and fresh content based on what its company members grew up with: storytelling, ballad singing, oral histories, and church. It had demonstrated that the local and specific, when rendered faithfully and imaginatively in the voices of the culture’s young people, could affect people anywhere.
In sum, Roadside had brought to the stage some of the inherit genius of its Appalachian community. Now, the ensemble company set about completing a cycle of plays that would span the time from the first European incursion (Mountain Tales and Music) to the present. Once the series was completed, it would be the first body of indigenous Appalachian drama and present a radically different version of the region’s history than that published under the auspices of the coal companies.
Performance fees from national touring became a significant part of Roadside’s economy, typically producing more than half of the theater’s annual income. These fees helped underwrite the extensive performance work Roadside continued to do in its home region of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western North Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and upper east Tennessee, and by 1989, Roadside had crisscrossed the country, performing in 34 states.
The Fork in the Road
After 14 years of successfully touring its plays nationally, Roadside made a decision in 1989 which startled many of its theater colleagues: When on tour outside its region, Roadside would only perform in communities that contractually committed to bringing an inclusive cross-section of its community to the performances and workshops.
This decision was risky economically because there was no way that its Appalachian audience of modest economic means could begin to make up the income difference. The decision would also put at risk Roadside’s relationship with its Austin, Texas - based booking and producing partner, Theresa and Michael Holden of Holden Arts and Associates (HAA), who now would have a major caveat to negotiate in every contract. Because the Holdens were trained as artists themselves and shared Roadside’s values, they immediately agreed to it.
Roadside decided its audiences nationally would have to be as inclusive as those at home because it was from the lives of such diverse people – especially poor and working class people – that the stories and emotions in the plays were created and given their life on the stage. On national tour performing for elite audiences (the only audience existing for touring professional theater), Roadside was experiencing problems affecting both the plays’ form and content. To begin understanding the seriousness of the problem, one has to imagine what a working class audience might mean to a working class actor, playwright, and director.
In the Appalachian storytelling, musical, and church traditions, performers speak directly to the audience without the barriers of elaborate sets or a “fourth wall.” No curtain is pulled. The arrangement of Roadside’s performance spaces is intended to dissolve the physical and psychological distance between the performers and the audience, enabling call and response.
For example, orchestra pits are seen as barriers to participation, as is the need for excessive, if any, electronic amplification. Auditorium lights are never so dark that the audience can’t see itself. As with an oft-told family story, Roadside actors know by heart the entire script, not just their individual parts. So, as in jazz, if a performer is inspired to riff with the audience at a particular point, the other performers are ready to back her up -- and then land back into the script at just the right time in the right key.
As one might imagine such requirements pose challenges, but space and design issues are not what drove Roadside to risk its touring economy: elite audiences were literally changing the meaning of the plays by responding to content they understood and liked, and remaining silent during the parts they did not understand or like. After a period of performing for such homogenous audiences, the actors found themselves cutting short or even deleting text that wasn’t registering.
Roadside’s aesthetic, with its primary concern for audience members finding their own story in the play, encourages this editing, and if enough people in the audience have preconceived ideas about poor and working class people, the play can veer dangerously close to becoming a parody of its intentions. After one such performance, an actor remarked that despite the full exertion of her will power she could feel herself becoming Ellie May Clampett, the stereotypical hillbilly of “Beverly Hillbillies” fame.
Roadside's new insistence that communities presenting its plays commit to the concept of inclusion got off to a mixed start. Initially, the ensemble thought expanded audience recruitment efforts would do the trick. A promotional “tool” kit was developed and sent to each presenter. It included carefully designed press releases, flyers, posters, prerecorded radio spots in working class vernacular, a manual describing how best to use the material, and a three month calendar that lined out the timing of the publicity campaign.
On a regular schedule, a company member made friendly calls to each presenter to learn how the campaign was going and to help problem solve. The extra effort and expense paid off. Roadside was now touring to full houses of diverse audiences, and the actors (and consequently the plays) were back in their groove. However, unexpected issues were looming.
After months of working on promotion with the local presenter in a mid-sized Alabama town, a big crowd greeted Roadside. “This is twice as many people as show-up for our performances!” exclaimed the presenter. It was standing room only, and it was obvious the crowd was a cross-section of the city.
The actors were excited, and the working-class people attending had a great time. In fact, they understood the Appalachian play better than those in their city who were from the more formally educated class. The nimble reactions of the working class audience members helped lead the others through the drama. There was a prolonged standing ovation, some stormed the stage to take pictures of their families with the Roadside actors, and, most importantly, to share their own stories. Roadside left town thinking it surely would be invited back to continue such an inspired exchange.
Four months later, Roadside’s management called the presenter and said, “Haven’t heard from you. I guess you want us back next season. Good for the box office!” The presenter replied he couldn’t commit yet. Roadside called back nine months later and got the same answer. So, finally, on the third call, the company’s managing director said, “I can tell you’re not going to ask us to return. Why?”
And the presenter said, “The play was really good. We never 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? So the Roadside managing director said, “What do you mean?” The presenter said, “One board member said that if we keep having those people in our audience, they might want us to start programming country music, and we can’t have that!”
What had happened, of course, was that certain people just didn’t like sharing their evening with certain other people in the community who might even know more than they did about some parts of life. For such folks, the arts are akin to their country club, a chance to get away and be only with their own kind. Paradoxically, their tax-exempt status and public support was making their elite experience possible.
Hearing in 1990 from some of our audience members that racism was on the rise in their southern communities, Junebug Productions, the New Orleans African American theater that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement’s Free Southern Theater, and Roadside decided to create and tour a musical play about the historical relationship between black and white poor and working class people in the South. We agreed the play would span the time from the slave trade and the first landing of indentured servants until the end of the Vietnam War.
To build a foundation for the play, the two ensembles sat together in circles telling each other personal stories about their experience with race, place, and class. The circles helped us better hear each other and ourselves, and as we began to understand our differences, we were better able to see our history and current circumstances. After arriving at a script that we felt was real and testing it and revising it with our home audiences in Louisiana and Kentucky, we set about touring, our stock in trade.
We suggested potential sponsors of the new musical play, Junebug/Jack, ask themselves whether their community was ready to think about local race and class issues. If they felt ready or just wanted to take a chance, then we would bring the play. As we began traveling to communities across the South, the trick became how to get black and white working class and poor people to attend. In the main, such folks don't hang out together, much less go to professional theater. We knew if we didn’t get such folks in the house - no matter how popular the drama might be with others (and it was) – then we had failed.
After exhausting our array of aforementioned promotional strategies, including getting the word out to places like barbershops and bars where politics are discussed, we hit on an idea: Every community wishing to present Junebug/Jack would have to agree to form an ecumenical community choir to perform in the show.
Reflecting each community’s diversity, this new choir might include singers from the black churches, choir members from the white churches, singers from the women's chorus, maybe others from the high school glee club. Several months before we arrived, each newly formed community chorus received the show’s music and designated a chorus master to conduct evening rehearsals. A few days before the opening performance, as the director, I staged the chorus into the show.
A lot of things happened in the course of this process. For starters, the play’s presenter had to begin thinking about the whole community while pulling the chorus together. The singers didn’t volunteer to discuss race and class – they came together because they loved to sing, and this professional play looked like a good opportunity to shine.
In the course of rehearsing the music, they naturally hit on a sound that had never been heard in the community, simply because all those different talents had never been joined before – and certainly not to sing beautifully crafted, down to earth songs about the cruelty, heartache, and paradoxes of 400 years of race and class struggle. In this way, Junebug/Jack would swell from a professional cast of six to twenty or more. And I can assure you that the community’s participation only raised the artistic quality of the production – how much local talent goes unappreciated for lack of a meaningful book and finely crafted musical score!
When the show opened, a cross-section of the entire community was present. It didn’t hurt that all the churches had to come out in support of their people. Because the performances enabled everyone to feel confident about their own traditions, cultural chips fell off shoulders. All became eager to witness and to learn more about the other traditions: to experience how the black people sang, or how the white people sang, or what inflections young people brought to the song.
Performing Junebug/Jack in New Orleans in 1997 to launch a statewide tour, the ecumenical community choir was thirty-two strong. What a magnificent procession they made swaying down the church aisle in a converted bowling alley singing “This Little Light of Mine.” At the conclusion of the performance, the church’s powerful preacher asked the five hundred audience members to bow their heads as she led a prayer for our safe keeping. This was encouraging because earlier that week Klan leader David Duke had been stirring things up in the communities we were about to visit.
In the days after these community performances (and much like the two ensembles had done in creating the play), audience members were invited to join circles to tell personal stories about the dynamics of race and class in their community. With a newfound permission based on trust, they told each other stories that were typically complex, hard, and emotional – and untold before in “mixed” company.
In Junebug/Jack the biggest catharsis didn't occur during the play but in the community’s telling of their own stories. Roadside’s national challenge was shifting from attracting a diverse audience to making sure that diverse audiences had a say about their local arts programs and a voice in the cultural development of their community.
Roadside's Community Cultural Development methodology was emerging as a hallmark of its work.