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Roadside Theater's Living Library

Some time back, I got an email from an old friend and early collaborator, Mat Schwarzman, suggesting I take a look at what Appalachia’s Roadside Theater was up to with their Living Library project. I had a chance to explore the thinking behind it, and its relationship to the current moment, with artistic director Dudley Cocke and former program director and dramaturg, Amy Brooks.—David Dower

performer in costume singing, accompanied by a band

Roadside Theater and Pregones perform Betsy! at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, Off-Broadway, New York City, 2015. Photo by Marisol Diaz.

David Dower: Tell me about this archive project.

Dudley Cocke: We’re thinking of it as a “living library” of forty-three years of work in the American theatre. When Roadside got started in 1975, we were pretty much making it up. No one involved had studied or trained in theatre, and there was no professional Appalachian theatre or body of plays. We wanted to see what we could make out of what we regarded as our regional theatrical heritage: great storytelling, a vibrant ballad tradition, dramatic church services, and a legacy of oral history—a people’s history.

We had no knowledge of other theatre artists before us who had the same idea, the same inspiration. We were ignorant. Then we began to discover the early-twentieth-century work of Cornell University’s Alexander Magnus Drummond and his fecund New York State Plays Project. From Cornell, we followed Drummond’s disciples: Robert Gard to Wisconsin, Alfred Arvold to North Dakota, Frederick Koch to North Carolina, and others who were part of what came to be known as the Little Theatre Movement.

It was a big deal nationally, the idea that every community should have the opportunity to dramatize its history and local life. There were similar movements in the African-American and Hispanic theatre, but despite common values and aspirations, racism prevented the three from joining forces. For me, this arc of theatre history reaches its zenith during the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Theatre Project (1935–39) when crossing lines of race and class increased dramatically. And then the FBI and several congressional committees shut down the program.

Why is this theatre history not being taught?

three performers in costume

David: I’d heard about Gard before, but not until I read Todd London’s book An Ideal Theater did I really see, Here’s somebody I should have actually known. It would have been useful to me to know that this man had done this work prior.

Amy Brooks: I’d first learned about Roadside Theater and Appalshop in An Ideal Theater.

David: Oh, that’s interesting. That recent! The WPA for me was an area of connection with your work, and I didn’t know anything about Drummond until I looked deeper into what Todd had opened up with Gard. I want to ask two foundational questions, then, based on where you started.

Firstly, you started from music, storytelling, other kinds of traditions in Appalachia. What was it about theatre that seemed like the right mechanism, as the form and the means of expression?

Dudley: We were conscious of the fact that, historically, theatre had walked out the front door of the church into the public square, and like most of the United States, we have a strong church tradition here in the mountains. So, to use an academic phrase, there was a significant performative history present. Many of our early performances were in churches—we had no home theatre—where we were warmly welcomed. We became drawn to secular communion.

David: Were you in churches yourselves at the time?

Dudley: I wouldn’t say we were church-based individuals in the way people normally think of that, but we all grew up in the church and valued its theatricality. In 1975, we had the wind of the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements at our back. Roadside’s core ensemble members were political activists first. I didn’t get involved with theatre until I was twenty-nine, when I began to fully appreciate the power of culture to foster positive social change.

The church-based Civil Rights Movement was a testament to this cultural power. Not until we sang, prayed, and preached did we walk into the streets to march. It was Reverend James Lawson, a member of SNCC, who articulated the quest of the movement: “A social order of justice permeated by love.”

Amy: Roadside’s nature as a theatre company is an orientation to heritage and history. So, for a sense of continuity, the question is: What gave that initial creative impulse to Roadside that might still be meaningful to people today? The obvious thing to me as a West Virginian, but also as a theatre worker—which means I work in one of the most elite fields in the arts—is that I’m here at ground zero of this corporate extractive culture that’s been around for over 150 years.

Roadside has always been really concerned with capital and capitalism and its effects on poor and working-class communities of every ethnicity, both rural and urban, and that’s a tremendous tool for having these bridge conversations.

We rank community participation above efficiency and profit, and care more about attachment to place than rootless mobility.

David: It’s also really impressive to me, being reminded of how much work you guys have done over the duration of time, that Roadside has been just relentless in its commitment to place. So much of the theatre industry orbits a kind of magnet—the commercial magnet that is New York. You guys have built your entire lives in the theatre without ever intersecting that “industry” energy in any way. That seems to have been the point for you. How have you managed to maintain your focus in that way? What’s driving it and what’s holding it?

Dudley: The word “industry” is interesting. As an Appalachian ensemble creating all original work, Roadside doesn’t rely on an industrial model—our values don’t comport. We rank community participation above efficiency and profit, and care more about attachment to place than rootless mobility.

The more plays we made about Appalachian life, the more we saw the opportunity to make new plays. And we intentionally set about putting our plays and the way we made them in conversation with other communities and their artists. We’ve regularly performed in New York and other big cities, but also in volunteer fire halls and in a traveling revival-style tent. We’ve toured across forty-five states and six European countries, and it is the response of our audiences that has kept us going. Sometimes after seeing a Roadside performance, a community will want to make their own play about their local history, worries, and joys. We developed a cultural development residency model to help them do just that.

In the early ’80s, we began co-creating and touring intercultural plays with other like-minded professional ensembles, such as Junebug Productions in New Orleans, Idiwanan An Chawe in Zuni Pueblo, and Pregones Theater in the Bronx. Many of these productions were bilingual and all of them involved live, original music. Given an equal opportunity to cultivate their roots, culturally specific theatres will eventually and naturally discover where those roots intertwine.

Our intercultural plays show this principle in action. We thought of them as examples of theatre in a democracy. Our co-creators shared our core value of cultural equity. Early on, Alan Lomax, who coined the phrase “cultural equity” in 1972, instructed me to pay attention to the inherent genius of every cultural community—to look for its unique intellectual, emotional, and spiritual gifts. His advice has served us well.

three performers in traditional Native American costume

Roadside Theater and Idiwanan Chawe (of Zuni, New Mexico) perform Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain at the Appalshop Theater in Whitesburg, Kentucky, 1996. Photo by Tim Cox.

David: Amy, you didn’t come to the theatre through activism, right? You came from theatre into this. Ultimately, you met here on the civic virtue plain, and the local awareness one. How do you get there from where you were?

Amy: That takes us back to the theme of an awareness of place. My place was West Virginia. Five generations back is how long my family’s been in West Virginia, and then Manhattan Jew on my mom’s side. So I always had a strong sense of plural identity. But I got out of Appalachia young with a BFA in acting from West Virginia University, and then I moved around a lot.

I was exactly the opposite of the original Roadside ensemble, who were so rooted and had a deep sense of place. I aspire to that mobility that Dudley describes. I have a completely different orientation, but I have cared a lot about that idea of civic virtue in every place that I’ve lived, and I’ve been interested in how people like me—who have had an itinerant life—can connect and form a new definition of community.

I come from working-class people on both sides, and I know that sometimes this liberal, Northeastern diversity model that we have is not the same as a model for cultural equity. There has to be an entry point for people in Appalachia to enter into that conversation about moving forward, about truth and reconciliation, about reparations even. As I began to read about Roadside Theater and about Appalshop, I realized that there was a cultural equity model where people who came from my background could begin to confront our heritage and our past, take some kind of accountability for moving forward.

I found a new orientation to organizing that comes out of centers of the Civil Rights Movement. We see it as an obligation to engage in public debate with racist ideas and not to locate working-class people as the center of the problem. That’s what’s made it possible for me as a liberal to come down here and not shy away from that work and these conversations, and to feel a sense of community.

David: We’re in this very identity-constrained culture, where there are concerns around appropriation and equity, which seem to have arisen very naturally from the system. All three of us are working in this system that we’re somehow struggling against, in different ways, but it really is the system we’re in.

How are you dealing with things like who gets to tell whose story, and how are you thinking about basic identity questions and authenticity questions? Particularly Amy, with your multiple identities, having made your way back into what is in some sense your home community. What’s happening with the work you guys are doing? Is it in any way challenged by, or changed by, the mood and the culture right now?

The American theatre has become its own gated community, unwilling to entertain the larger American story unless filtered through an elite lens.

Dudley: As last August’s white supremacist events were unfolding up the interstate in Charlottesville, Virginia, Roadside was in the eastern Kentucky coalfields with the Pregones ensemble in residence for the premiere of the concert version of our off-Broadway musical Betsy! The character Betsy is played by popular Bronx spoken-word artist Caridad de la Luz/La Bruja, and as the play opens Betsy is notified by two shape-shifting Spirits that she is half Irish—the last thing in the world she wants to hear. Her struggle to come to grips with the racism in her own bloodline is told with eighteen original compositions ranging from old-time mountain to contemporary Caribbean jazz. The August performances received standing ovations from our working-class audiences.

People dislike it when I say things like what I’m going to say, but, to me, Trump’s “triumph” underscores the American theatre’s abandonment of any serious effort to develop a theatre that reaches all people and places—in the words of Federal Theatre Project director, Hallie Flannigan: “A theatre national in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in American attitude.” Eighty-five of the poorest counties in the United States are rural. The nonprofit theatre today is overwhelmingly the product of the wealthiest and most educated 15 percent of the urban population. The American theatre has become its own gated community, unwilling to entertain the larger American story unless filtered through an elite lens. 

David: From your perspective, Amy, how are you looking at this current preoccupation with these issues of identity and appropriation?

Amy: I ask, “How do I, as the dramaturg for Roadside, carry forward our first-voice artistic program and cultural development sensibility?”

In these leaner times when long-term exchanges are less feasible, it’s harder to get places. It’s harder to spare staff out of the office, and it’s hard for our partners as well. So the new Crossroads Lab, a womxn-led producing, directing, writing, and performance lab, is our project to start addressing those questions here in Appalachia. I bring my own sensibility to this, my own awareness that deliberate space has to be carved out for voices heard less often. My identity as a feminist and a progressive means I have a definite orientation to the future and to imagination, and a love for the Avant-garde that I’m interested in putting in conversation with folk arts and voices.

What would an Appalachian Avant-garde look like? It absolutely wouldn’t look like Fluxus, or some other Avant-garde, because you always have to ask: “What are we pushing back against, and what are we building on?” We wanted to build on this idea of our future being rooted in people whose stories are not often told on stages in Appalachia, and people who are not often in positions of creative authority here, and that happens to be women and female-identifying people, LGBTQ people, people of color, incarcerated people, or people in the disability community.

three performers wearing sunglasses with outstretched hands

Roadside Theater and Junebug Productions (of New Orleans, Louisiana) perform Junebug/Jack at the Appalshop Theater in Whitesburg, Kentucky, 1999. Photo by Tim Cox.

David: How does that sound the same—or how is it different—to the early years for you guys in terms of how you were understanding what you were doing, and who could be involved and in what manner? The Appalshop seemed to be a kind of similar place like, “We have infrastructure, we have tools, what is it that you want to make? Let’s see how these things come together to make that for you.” Are these things related, or does it feel like this is a new dimension to the work?

Dudley: Roadside has always been concerned with continuity—of our historical and cultural heritage as well as our place on the continuum of theatre history, which we had to discover. When teaching theatre, I ask students to write down their theory of history, regardless of how half-baked they perceive it to be, and to revise it as we learn together. An aspect of my theory: the generation of civic virtue depends on local life endeavoring to become aware of itself in its full complexity. And it is civic virtue that is necessary to sustain a liberal democracy. I believe our public policy has increasingly become anti-community. Here in the mountains, it is maximum-security prisons full of people from places so distant that their loved ones can’t afford to visit them. We have made a play about the harm such prisons do to everyone within their range.
David: We’ve been organized—co-opted—into babbling from our separate identity spaces rather than finding the intersectionality of what the system is. It’s actually the strategy, to pit us against each other. Here in Boston, the whole busing crisis, that was really poor whites and poor blacks organized to go at each other so that the middle-class whites and upper-middle-class whites could keep their schools to themselves. This sense of narrowing our identity lens has us being weaponized against each other and against our own interests. It seems to be pervasive at the moment.

Dudley: There’s no question in my mind about the efficiency of divide and conquer, it has proven effective throughout history. But what better than staged dramatic conflict to engage this issue? I think explorations of identity benefit when joined to questions about history. I ask aspiring artists to take note: Who controls the culture, shapes the story a nation tells itself? This explains why there have always been culture wars based on contested narratives about our history. Today, the United States needs a more realistic story about itself; the old story is wearing thin and increasingly looking like a cover story. What an opportunity for democracy and the American theatre!

David: I love that you’re calling it history. I think that’s really a helpful frame. What people are calling identity, what we really mean is our history, and how do we understand it, how do we bring into the room our history, so that it’s part of the conversation about how we share a common future.

You mentioned a couple of times in this conversation the audience and I wanted to talk a little bit about that too. You guys have a very particular sense of audiences, and you both talked about the elitism of the field as it relates to audience. So, in some sense it seems to me that the audience, like in a church, is the community being served. Is too, I don’t know… Transactional is not the word I mean, but patronizing in a way, like, “Well, I’m here to serve you.” What is your philosophy of audience in the relationship between you and them?

We’re making these plays out of the experience of the whole community here in Appalachia, and without a fourth wall, with an expectation of actor-audience call and response.

Dudley: We’re making these plays out of the experience of the whole community here in Appalachia, and without a fourth wall, with an expectation of actor-audience call and response. Our plays are scripted and this supports improvisation when it naturally occurs because the performers all know the entire script, not just their part. When we began touring our plays across the country, unlike here, the audience that greeted us was a small, wealthy slice of the host community, and the plays started to change as the more elite audience responded to what they could understand from their own lives. And remember, the Roadside actors are trained to intentionally co-create the performance with the audience.

As our plays started becoming something else, we made a decision to perform only in communities that would contractually agree to work with us to bring something resembling their whole community into the auditorium. We had specific strategies that required every ensemble member to become a producer. It was very intense; fortunately we were young.

An independent research firm, commissioned by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund in 1992, tracked the audiences of a representative cohort of nonprofit theatres for five years, and their data showed Roadside’s national audience to be nearly the opposite of the norm—essentially the 15 percent of the wealthiest and best-educated members of any given community. Some arts presenters loved the newfound diversity Roadside was able to help them attract; others swore never again. And the nonprofit theatre community, which we thought would do cartwheels at the prospect of huge ticket sales, lost all interest when they noticed they would have to do things differently.

performer with eyes closed, while another performer looks on

Roadside Theater and Pregones Theater (of The Bronx, New York) perform Betsy! The Concert at the Appalshop Theater in Whitesburg, Kentucky, 2017. Photo by Dustin Heath Hall.

Amy: I’m interested in what we think the audience is prepared to see, or to accept. Historically in the theatre mainstream there has been an assumption that you can just put a bunch of white people, or white guys, on the stage and if the story is good enough, it should speak to everyone. That’s the white supremacist default in our community. What is a Pakistani Appalachian story that is for everyone? And if we feel like it’s not, if it’s too culturally specific, what is the underlying assumption there?

Our experience has been that audiences here absolutely recognize common themes in stories from other cultures. They can identify with them. They might not understand certain terms, or an accent, or something, but they are absolutely open to it, and ready to hear and those stories.

David: That goes to the importance of perspective-taking in general. Even if it’s not my story, I’m living in a world where this story exists, and I need to understand my relationship to it. I just wrote about this on the ArtsEmerson blog. It’s really on my mind, all of the incidents recently, of basically people calling the police on Black lives just because they’re Black lives, and how this notion of white fear is really just screaming out for more opportunities for us to understand other people.

The white theatre-going audience has been fed this steady, steady, steady diet of who matters in the culture, and who are the criminals in the culture, and who are the hustlers and the schemers and the ones who don’t know the rules. Often on social media, I see theatre professionals, very serious theatre professionals, getting so worked up about audience members and cell phones in the theatre. People saying things like, “I would hit that person in the face.” “I would smash that phone.” “I would…” and they’re just all over the audience.

What sort of theatre is it that can’t breathe with the life of the community that comes to see it? It’s horrifying.

Amy: That’s absolutely inseparable from white supremacy. Playwright Dominique Morisseau wrote about being accosted by a white woman who said that she was making too much noise.

David: Right, and in the program for her play Pipeline at the Lincoln Center, she put the rules for how to experience the play there for the audience. Including: “We make noise, you make noise.”

Amy: It’s very much part of the working-class tradition for every grassroots, community-based theatre. It’s a noisy, sweaty, baby-cry-filled, somewhat-chaotic event that I’ve come to feel is way more rewarding. For an evening of entertainment and community, yeah, I’d rather go to Cowan Community Center.

David: You are back at the question of history again, Amy—that this is part of a long tradition of how people engage with performance. So many of us have no knowledge of that history. And it’s kind of a conundrum, I guess, even in this conversation. Because in important ways we didn’t know what we were doing, we just made it up. And, as a result, part of what we made up was our history. You talk about articulating a theory of history. I like that idea. Because I can then know where I am on that timeline, and what I’m pushing against, and what I’m pulling forward with me to make sure it doesn’t get lost. But if I don’t ever articulate it, I’m just work for hire.

Dudley: I recall Saul Bellow once saying something to the effect that if he lost his belief in the idea of progress, he would immediately kill himself. And yet the Native American traditional artists with whom we work might agree that they don’t have a strong feeling about the American Dream of progress. After a lecture, William Faulkner was scolded by an audience member who couldn’t understand why Southerners insisted on dwelling on the dead past. Faulkner replied, “Madame, not only is history not dead, it isn’t even past.” There is so much more that the American theatre can do for us, and I believe that effort begins by knowing more fully what it has already done.


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