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Rural Theater in a Democracy

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.

Two actors on stage .
Two actors on stage in a production of Roadside Theater. Photo courtesy of Dudley Cocke.

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.

An audience watching a production.
The audience watching a production of
Roadside Theater. Photo courtesy of Dudley

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. 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.”

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.

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 Shotaway, which called for a United States 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.”)

From 1900 to 1940, the indefatigable Virginia Fábregas—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.

From 1935 to 1939, the Federal Theatre Project started to lay out a commons where artists, unbounded by geography, could mix. In the Federal Theatre Project’s first two years, it sponsored more than forty-two thousand performances, reaching an audience of more than twenty million Americans in city and hamlet—65 percent of whom were seeing a live play for the first time. On one day alone, 27 October 1936, twenty-two productions of Sinclair Lewis’s 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.

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 cultures in the United States 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 (NEA) states its purpose as: “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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Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring voices from the United States' rural arts communities.

Rural Theatre


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Dudley, Thank you, just thank you.This historical perspective of the field has tragically been lost. It's important that we know that it isn't just the theater where the disparity of resources has been and continues to be an issue, but it is also very much true for dance as well. One of these days we'll finally address this issue for real. In the meantime there should be no question that the stories of rural artists and communities is equally central to any discussion about resources.

Yepper. As we say here in rural Pennsylvania.
As my theatre in my small town enters its 35th season, I'm feeling a touch weary and also a touch exhilarated. I was wearied by the recent reports of just where most of the federal and private foundation dollars that go to the arts actually go. Oh, my theatre's doing OK, given the country we live in, and I really can't complain, but I do wish the purse-holders paid more attention to what rural artists have been accomplishing out here in the hinterlands. Not just my theatre, but truly, there are lots and lots of us all over, in the hills and the hollows and the deserts and the plains. Of course, what really counts is that the folks in our community support us. And they do. And that's got me a touch exhilarated.

Thanks for the Drummond quote. It's a beaut. And I do consider myself much beholden to Hallie Flanagan.

I am so happy to have read this article and proud too as I was a member of The Roadside Theatre many years ago now..1974. We were just starting up then as I recall and the Appalshop was our core. All the best to you! Sincerely, Marcia McIntosh

Thank you for this informative and inspirational article. As a dedicated arts advocate I am committed to raising awareness of how The Arts rejuvenuate. The Arts Restore. The Arts are our supernatural gift. Perceived as an amentiy The Arts continue to be slashed from federal, state, and community budgets. To offset this spiraling trend, I've created a talk show/blog First Online With Fran to bring sustainable national attention to the vital inclusion of The Arts in people's lives by inviting guests from all walks of life -- ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things to make The Arts the fabric of our existence. I would love to share this article on the comment page www.firstonlinewithfran.com Please consider contributing your voice to The First 100 Stories Campaign at http://firstonlinewithfran....

Thank you thank you thank you! I cannot tell you how
grateful I am for this piece today. Not only is it well-researched,
solidly-reasoned and compelling; it also speaks so clearly to the American
Theater that I experience working in rural Idaho. Oh, that de Tocqueville – so smart and absolutely correct. A
theater that caters to the tastes, opinions and pockets of the elite will in
time fall, and be left abandoned. This is true no matter how much money we
throw at it. We tend to think funding will solve all problems – but not
this one. In fact money, when used to prop up those that serve only “the
boxes” or to convince those in “the pit” that they are too low or common to
appreciate the true value art, only makes it worse (you can’t insult people and
then expect them to pay you). Besides, even if we could, our own history clearly
demonstrated that the richest moments in American Theater grew from movements
that moved us in a direction of deeper, more inclusive, and mutually respectful
democratization – both in terms of artists and audiences. And I think it’s significant to note that de Tocqueville predicts the public will eventually
abandon an American Theater that does not speak to them rather than overthrow
it. That, I think, is in our hands.

Dudley - thank you for the Robert Gard quote. It reminded me of how privileged we in Wisconsin have been to have had the vision or Robert Gard become a reality in our rural communities. Here creative opportunities are truly open to everyone and are shared by everyone in small rural communities all around our state. Gard was one of the central figures responsible for initiating those efforts.

I am so happy to be reminded this morning of this history, Dudley-- which always inspires and renews. Your work, the work of Hallie Flanagan, the Drummond vision, and the impact of the culture wars form the context of my coming into the field in general. I was a high school senior in 1976 when I did my first non-school play at the Little Theater of Jamestown, NY. Z Collective produced two stage versions and a radio play of our adaptation of It Can't Happen Here and Flanagan's ARENA was the source code for the Collective itself. I especially appreciate your call for a democratic arts and the reminder that the urban/rural context is not the one that divides the field.

"National in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in attitude." That's a vision! That's the theater I aspire to. Thank you for reminding me.

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