We know that, in the aggregate, incomes and life expectancies in rural America are significantly lower; infant mortality rates and drug abuse significantly higher. Presently, there is insufficient attention to such disparities—per capita federal spending remains persistently lower in rural communities, and only 1 percent of private foundation giving in all categories reaches rural not-for-profit organizations. We also know these disparities persist in a grinding recession that has affected middle- and working-class and economically poor people regardless of geography.

I direct Roadside Theater, a part of Appalshop, in the rural central Appalachian coalfields. As one of the nation’s handful of rural professional theatres, Roadside has never wanted to be isolated as a special case, nor has it wanted its rural region to be separated from the fortunes and misfortunes of the rest of the country. Roadside’s stalwart collaborators over the past thirty years have been actors and musicians in the South Bronx, African American storytellers and musicians in New Orleans, and young and old tradition bearers in Pueblo Zuni, New Mexico. With Pregones Theater, Junebug Productions, and Idiwanan An Chawe, Roadside continues to make new plays, co-productions that are often bilingual and always intended for the entire community.

Rather than make a special case for rural theatre, I wish to make a plea for the democratic arts.

Roadside’s regional audience in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, northeastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia is low income, and working- and middle-class people from all walks of life and of all ages. The theatre also tours—so far to communities in forty-three states—reaching an audience whose demographics match those of our regional audience. Six years of national tracking in the 1990s by AMS, an independent research firm, found 73 percent of Roadside’s audience earned less than $50,000 a year and 30 percent of those earned $20,000 or less. This demographic is close to the inverse of the national norm for professional theatre, in which 80 percent of the audience comes from the wealthiest 15 percent of the population. [1]

Alexis de Tocqueville begins his 1835 magnum opus, Democracy in America, by declaring, “No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of the conditions.” In his chapter “Some Observations on the Theater among Democratic Peoples,” he states that “drama, more than any other form of literature, is bound by many close links to the actual state of society,” and he goes on to argue that “only in the theatre have the upper classes mingled with the middle and lower classes, and if they have not actually agreed to receive the latters’ advice, at least they have allowed it to be given. It has always been in the theatre that the learned and the educated have had the greatest difficulty in making their tastes prevail over that of the people and preventing themselves from being carried away by them. The pit often lays down the law for the boxes.” de Tocqueville concludes by stating, “An aristocratic theatre may survive for some time in a democracy, sustained by the traditional tastes of some, by vanity, by fashion, or by the genius of an actor. But soon it will fall of its own accord, not overthrown but abandoned.”

While today overwhelmingly attended by the wealthiest adults, theatre in the United States once had broad appeal. In the 1820s, New York City’s African Company was presenting Macbeth and Othello (both popular in Shakespeare’s time with rich and poor alike) as well as The Drama of King Shotoway, which called for a US slave rebellion. (As the African Company became increasingly popular with white New Yorkers, the Company’s producing director, Mr. Brown, found it necessary to restrict them to one section of the theatre because “some whites did not know how to behave themselves at entertainments designed for ladies and gentlemen of color.”) [2]

From 1900 to 1940, the indefatigable Virginia Fabregas—the First Lady of the Mexican Stage—performed for rural and urban Hispanic communities across the United States with a touring company of fifty, including a full orchestra. During the same period, the seeds of the Little Theatre Movement were being sown in upstate New York by Cornell University’s Alexander Drummond, who believed every community deserved a theatre to stage its local life. By the 1950s, the Little Theatre Movement had spread across the country, often through partnerships with state agriculture extension agencies. Here is Robert Gard, one of the national leaders in this movement, reflecting on his life’s work in 1992 at Cornell University, his alma mater, in what was to be his last public presentation:

As I stood thinking, the Great Butternut Valley that was all around me turned golden in the afternoon light. I looked at the hills, and suddenly my spirit was filled and lifted with a clear knowledge. I knew that there must be plays of the people filled with the spirit of places, and my aimless activities assumed meaning. 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. [3]

From 1935 to 1939, the Federal Theatre Project started to lay out a commons where artists, unbounded by geography, could mix. In the Federal Project’s first two years, it sponsored more than 42,000 performances, reaching an audience of more than 20 million Americans in city and hamlet—65 percent of whom were seeing a live play for the first time. On one day alone, October 27, 1936, twenty-two productions of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here opened simultaneously in seventeen states and in three languages. The Federal Theatre Project’s national director, Hallie Flanagan, boiled down the federal agency’s mission to “national in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in attitude.” In her 1940 memoir, Arena, Flanagan remains proud of the Federal Theatre Project’s public stand against reactionary political currents roiled by geographic, racial, class, and religious prejudice.

After the Second World War, the Black Arts movement, inspired by the civil rights movement, took the lead in the vision of theatre of, by, and for the American people by sparking similar arts movements among Chicanos, Appalachians, and Asians. And despite living with the legacy of genocide, Native Americans continue to inspire us all by perpetuating their sacred and secular performance traditions in which entire communities participate.

For these various movements, the central policy issue was how to level the playing field so that all US cultures would have an equal chance to express themselves, to develop, and, inevitably, to cross-pollinate. Despite this shared democratic agenda and a common adversary of monocultural elites, seldom did the different advocates of this policy of cultural equity join as one to press for their cultural rights; rather, each group typically fought alone, mimicking established patterns of social segregation.

Whenever diverse groups did start to pull together in solidarity, the powerful interceded. This was the case in 1939 when Congress (with the aid of the Justice Department and the FBI) closed the Federal Theatre Project; the Project had been too successful advancing theatre that crossed lines of race, place, and class. The 1965 enabling legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts states its purpose “to support the development and growth of the arts throughout the United States and to provide opportunities for wider appreciation of the arts and the encouragement of excellence.” For an analysis of the NEA’s fate in the culture wars launched in the 1980s by right-wing power brokers, see The Unreported Arts Recession of 1997.

It is an axiom of power that who controls the culture controls the story a nation tells itself. So it is especially important that the arts contribute to a national rededication to creating a level playing field across all sectors of society. Will the rural voice be heard in the coming story the nation tells itself about itself? And will that voice rise up with the voices of others presently segregated and muted? That is the promise of art in a twenty-first century democracy that seeks a more perfect union.

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[1] A 2002 national 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 professional theatre audiences are 80 percent white and originating from the top 15 percent of the population, as measured by income and education levels.

[2] Branch, William, Black Thunder, an Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama (New York: Mentor Books, 1992).

[3] For the full text of Gard’s speech and historical detail related to popular theatre, see Roadside Theater’s publication From the Ground Up: Grassroots Theater in Historical and Contemporary Perspective.