Interview with Dudley Cocke

This interview is adapted from the version that appears in Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art. This book includes the final report from research firm WolfBrown on their two-year study "Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre," as well as twenty-four interviews with artistic leaders and patrons, and essays by Diane Ragsdale, Arlene Goldbard, Clayton Lord and Rebecca Novick—plus a foreword by Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Foundation.

Image of Dudley Cocke
Image provided by The Heinz Awards

Clayton: Why don’t you start by telling me a little about Roadside?

Dudley: Roadside Theater is the professional theater wing of a larger organization called Appalshop, a part of Appalachian Workshop. Appalshop began in 1969 as a War on Poverty program to provide a head start for Appalachian youth in film training. The federal Office of Economic Opportunity set up a dozen such programs around the country with the rationale that the training would enable young people to escape their impoverished communities. We continue to train young people to become community leaders and citizen-artists.

Roadside makes theater that is, in the stock phrase, "of, by, and for" Appalachian people, with the idea that by telling our particular story with skill and care, that story can appeal to people anywhere. And that turned out to be the case. Our work begins here, but it travels around the United States and occasionally overseas.

From the beginning, our relationship with our audience and our local culture has shaped the form and content of our plays and how we produce and perform them. For example, our work has no fourth wall. We speak directly to the audience, and the audience is invited to speak back. And that isn’t just some imposed, formal convention; it’s part of the culture here.

Clayton: In your play creation process, what does “audience input” look like to you?

Dudley: The two main heritages here are Scotch-Irish and Cherokee, and both are narrative-based cultures—so we’re a narrative-based theater. After showing a work in progress, we like to hear more stories from the audience about the story the play is trying to tell. We have a particular storytelling methodology—it’s a formal story circle method—that we use. It provides a form, and forum, for audience members to tell their personal stories about the themes in the performance in which they have just participated as audience members. Parts of some of their stories eventually may be incorporated into the play. This process is repeated as the play develops, with the goal of deepening and bringing more nuances to the story we are telling.

We do the same thing when we take a finished play to a new community. After the play we go into story circles with the audience to hear their personal stories called up by the performance. When one of our plays is successful, it takes you into different places, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually; and with that experience, the stories that then come out in the audience circle are very, very rich. At such moments they (the audience) realize their own potential as artists and as shapers of narratives. And that idea of animating and empowering the community voice is why Roadside and Appalshop got started in the first place.

Clayton: With such connection to the community, how do you make decisions about programming? 

Dudley: We’ve approached the making of our plays in many different ways. We don’t have a formula. In fact, we think of ourselves as an experimental theater. For example, we made a series of plays, in the early days, which retold Appalachian history from the people’s point of view. Starting in the 1890s, at the end of the Appalachian frontier period, the official history of this region started being written by absentee corporations. So you have this official written history and a parallel people's history—a classic counter narrative. And so we did a series of plays over a dozen years that retold the history from this people’s oral history. For those plays, we worked a lot with community stories. We collected oral histories and pored through recordings and transcripts from the local WPA Oral History Project.

 

When one of our plays is successful, it takes you into different places, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually; and with that experience, the stories that then come out in the audience circle are very, very rich. At such moments they (the audience) realize their own potential as artists and as shapers of narratives. And that idea of animating and empowering the community voice is why Roadside and Appalshop got started in the first place.

 

One of those early plays is Red Fox/Second Hangin’. It's about the coming of the industrialists to the mountains and the two hangings that result from their new coalfield law and order. We set out to test which of the two radically different versions of this important story was more accurate: the written history or the people’s oral history.

We collected a lot of oral histories. We got up into the old courthouse, found the actual courthouse records of the two trials that led to the two hangings, got into the newspaper morgues in the different states, crafted a play, and started performing it around here.

In the warmer months, we would pitch a revival tent up the hollers hereabouts in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and southwest Virginia. People are used to revival tents, and we would paper the holler with fliers, knock on doors. In the afternoon, we'd do a free kids' show of traditional Appalachian tales and music, and then the big show that night. People would stream in to hear about the coming of king coal, a story in which they still had a stake.

I can remember on many occasions that we’d be somewhere in the middle of this play, and an audience member would just interrupt the performance and say, "Well, you're missing a piece of information here." Then he or she would rattle off the information, or someone would interrupt and say, "Well, I heard a different story and it goes like this …."

That's the kind of ownership of the play local people felt, and we encouraged it. It turned out in this instance that the people’s version was more historically accurate than the version written by the industrialists.

Clayton: Your model relies on the storytelling as not only the formal part of the presentation, but also as the way that audiences interact with the experience afterwards.

Dudley: We want the performance to be meaningful to the people who are in the audience—the majority of whom are not accustomed to attending professional theater. They take the risk of attending because they think they're going to get something meaningful out of it.

We’ve been asked, at different times, what's given you the fortitude to continue as an ensemble for thirty-odd years? And my answer has always been that we’ve endured because we place the audience at the center of our work. That's been the secret ingredient. When we travel around the country, we often run into audience members who have Appalachian roots, but there’s been so much stigma around working class and poor “hillbilly” culture that they may feel ashamed of their background. They arrive at the play incognito, then when they see something of beauty and truth on the stage that reflects them, the pride that swells up is huge. To see your own story on the stage for the first time is a shocking—and can be a life-changing—experience.

As we've gone around the country, we've encountered many people who've had that experience while being part of one of our plays. It's emotional, and now they want to reveal themselves by sharing their own stories then just stand beside the actors in this circle of new-found intimacy.

 

Dudley Cocke is director of Roadside Theater and has toured its original plays to forty-three states and performed in cities from London to Los Angeles. He has recently directed Zuni Meets Appalachia for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City and Washington, DC, and he is currently developing Betsy, a musical theater collaboration with Nashville jazz musicians. Dudley has taught theater at Cornell University and the College of William and Mary, and often speaks and writes as an advocate for democratic cultural values.

Clayton Lord is the director of communications and audience development at Theatre Bay Area, the country’s largest regional arts services organization. At Theatre Bay Area, he oversees communications, marketing, audience development, research and advertising. Clay sits on the oversight committee for Project Audience, the advisory committee for ATHENA, the planning committees for the NAMP and APASO conferences, and advises on the Bay Area Cultural Asset Map. He writes for Theatre Bay Area magazine and theatrebayarea.org, has contributed to Stage Directions, InDance, ArtsJournal.com, ARTSblog and ArtsMarketing.org, and has presented at the TCG, NAMP, and APASO conferences, among others. He holds a BA from Georgetown University in English and Psychology.

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A series examining the impact that theatre has on the building and sustaining of local communities.

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