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 youth job training program in film. From its inception, young Appalachians saw Appalshop as a means to subvert the national stereotypes of their mountain home and celebrate their culture by telling the region’s story in the voices of the people living there.

Roadside Theater's journey of discovery began with several questions nagging the theater's founding members: 1) Could a small group of community-trained musicians, storytellers, and writers create a professional theater in a place -- the coalfields of central Appalachia -- with no history of the same? 2) Could the content and form of such a theater be fabricated from local sources found within an area of approximately 20 counties in parts of five adjoining states -- eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, western North Carolina, and upper eastern Tennessee? 3) And could the ensuing regional dramas appeal to people anywhere?

In 1975 television was contributing to the loss of Appalachian storytelling traditions, so the young founders started telling, in a new ensemble way, the stories they had grown up hearing from their families – tales that were more intact in Appalachian communities than they were in the British Isles where they originated. The group took the name Roadside Thater and began offering performances wherever the actors and musicians hung their coats.


Roadside Theater's mission is to enlist the power of theater to:

  • Document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of Appalachia;
  • Tell stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell;
  • Support communities’ efforts to achieve justice and equity and solve their own problems in their own ways;
  • Celebrate cultural diversity and cultural expression as a positive social value; and
  • Participate in local and national theater projects of high aesthetic value toward these ends.
Roadside Theater is a part of Appalshop, the nonprofit multi-disciplinary arts and education institution in the heart of Appalachia producing original films, video, theater, music and spoken word recordings, radio, photography, multi-media, and books. Its education and leadership training programs support communities’ efforts to solve their own problems in just and equitable ways. Each year, Appalshop productions and services reach several million people nationally and internationally. 

The Work – Grounded in Central Appalachia

Mountain hunting grounds to Native Americans, including the Cherokee and Shawnee, in 1767-1775 Central Appalachia attracted frontiersmen and frontierswomen. By the 1890’s the coal and timber barons from
the northeastern U.S. had arrived, and the region eventually became a rich land with poor people. From one perspective, the region has been a mineral colony at first of national and then global energy corporations. Despite their challenges, 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.

Roadside Theater situates itself 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. Roadside Theater:

  • Creates and presents an indigenous body of plays richly reflective of the lives of Appalachian people;
  • Collaborates with other professional ensemble theaters to create intercultural plays that explore issues of race, place, and class;
  • Strives for artistic excellence and a vital relationship with its mostly economically poor, working class, and middle class audiences;
  • Serves as a resource to communities regionally and nationally that desire to explore and stage their local life.

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. Roadside’s national audiences are a broad cross-section of the American public, including a significant number of habitual theatergoers as well as many attending professional theater for the first time. Based on six years of tracking by the AMS Planning and Research Corporation in Connecticut, 70% of Roadside's national audience live in rural communities and 33% are people of color. 43% of the company's national audience earn between $25,000 and $50,000 annually; 30% earn less than $24,000 a year. 


Roadside Theater has toured to 43 states, performing and conducting community cultural development residencies; been in residence at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Theater for the New City, Dance Theatre Workshop, and Pregones Theater in New York City; performed at Lincoln Center; and represented the United States at international theater festivals in London, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia.

Contact Information

Roadside Theater, 91 Madison Ave, Whitesburg, KY 41858  

606.633.0108 - phone 

[email protected]