Roadside Theater

Roadside Theater

By Sharon Hatfield

Vol. 6, No. 3, 1984, pp. 14-18

The small room at the Brumley Gap Coon Hunter’s Club in Poor Valley, Virginia was so cold that the slide projector had to warm up before the show could begin. But the coal stove and the rapidly growing crowd soon filled the room with warmth. By the time the first lines of Red Fox/Second Hangin’ were spoken, the chill had long been forgotten.

Framed against the projected photographs of nineteenth-century Appalachia, the actors began spinning a tale of hardship and violence in the early coalfields. They told of Bad Henry Adams, a man who shot and killed his neighbor without rising from the supper table. (The quarrel, they said, was over a dog.)

“There was an old man sitting right up front, and he looked bored as hell,” recalls actor Don Baker. “I was determined to get some kind of response out of him, so I said, ‘You’re Bad Henry Adams, pretend you’re eating.’ I looked real menacing at him and pointed my fingers like a gun. When I did that, he just put his hand in his pocket and whipped out a knife. I jumped back and said, ‘Okay, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.’ After the show I found out he was stone cold deaf.”

Roadside is a folk theater that draws on the heritage of the Cumberland Mountains in southern Appalachia. It takes its art to people who may never have been inside a theater. On that particular night at the Coon Hunter’s Club, Roadside’s benefit performance helped pay lawyers who were representing Brumley Gap citizens in their fight to block a proposed pump-storage electric project in their community. The citizens eventually prevailed and were able to prevent their bottomland farms from being flooded to make way for the project.

“Grassroots art means trying to have people not only be moved aesthetically by the quality of the art presented, but to encourage people to get up and work from their own resources,” says Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater. “Art should encourage people to do something with their lives and communities. That transformation is an important factor in art.”

This sense of possibility that Roadside imparts to its audiences has carried the small theater company far from its home base in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia to Off-Broadway, Lincoln Center, the

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Midwest, California and rural Nevada, and to a host of settings in the South. They have often found urban populations as receptive to their improvisational storytelling as people who have grown up in the rural, oral tradition.

A region abundant in folkways and myth as well as in coal and timber, Appalachia carries an image of backwardness and ignorance due to what outsiders have written and said about it. In an area where over half the land in many counties is still owned by corporations based elsewhere (some as far away as London), exploitation of natural resources and native people has been an all too common occurrence since the late 1800s. Roadside’s original full-length piece, Red Fox/Second Hangin’, for example, tells the story of the collision of ways of life that led to a legal lynching in Wise, Virginia, during the country’s first coal boom in the 1890s.

When Roadside founder Don Baker returned to his native Wise County from a job as arts counselor in Washington, DC, in 1971, he did not encounter the pristine environment often sentimentalized in novels about Appalachia. Cars, electricity, radio and TV had been present for decades, but a more recent technology–strip mining–was on the verge of an unprecedented and unencumbered heydey. Another coal boom was underway with it would come another alteration of both the social and actual landscape.

Roadside Theater’s director, Cocke, believes that despoilation of the land goes hand in hand with the uprooting of indigenous cultures in southern Appalachia. “It’s a whole process of impersonalization.” Perhaps it was this sense of loss that led Don Baker and his fellow actors to seek out the richness of the past through the oral tradition instead of more contemporary, conventional forms. “We tried to figure out what kind of theater made sense here,” Baker explains. “We had neither the time nor the inclination for costumes, or elaborate staging but we all had storytelling in common.”

The framework for Roadside Theater’s existence was already ID place when Baker returned to the coalfields. Appalshop (The Appalachian Film Workshop) was a collective set up in Whitesburg, Kentucky, by the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1969 to train mountain people for media careers. Paradoxically, there were almost no media jobs available in the region. After OEO funds dried up in 1972, Appalshop secured grants from private foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, Appalshop’s media center in Whitesburg is home to a record company and recording studio, film and video artists, photographers, the theater company, a central administrative corps and a soon-to-be-completed community radio station.

Roadside was formed in 1974 from the Appalachia Actors’ Workshop, which had performed traditional plays like Peter Pan and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Instead of using established scripts, Roadside chose to draw its resources directly from the collective memories of the community. The young theater company acknowledged that conventional theater seldom reaches the hollows, farm communities and mining camps that make up so much of central Appalachia; and when it does, it makes little impression. Roadside chose to build upon the strong theatrical heritage of the mountains–the church services, music and storytelling.

What emerged was a style of storytelling that did not depend on props, costumes or staging effects. The human voice, magnified by two or three storytellers speaking simultaneously, could reach an audience of five-hundred with the same power as when it entertained a few neighbors on a summer evening. “We began by telling traditional tales that we had all grown up hearing,” explains Baker. “We told these tales together, batting lines back and forth, saying some phrases in unison, feeding off each other’s rhythms.”

Roadside’s first show was a collection of stories called Mountain Tales. The stories combines familiar Appalachian settings and music with archetypes found in folk literature throughout the world: Mutsmeg and her two wicked sisters (similar to Snow White and her wicked stepkin); Wicked John and the Devil (a humorous Faustian tale) and the Jack or quest tales — all contain symbols identifiable to many people.

“We were in Zuni three days,” recalls actor and writer Ron Short about a recent Roadside visit to the Zuni pueblo in New Mexico. “There, our stories became real. Many of them deal with hunting, tending sheep, spirits, giants. The Indian kids understood every bit of that. We told the story of the swamp snake, and after the show they calmly showed us a picture of theirs. On the other hand, kids in Arlington, Virginia, for example, would say, ‘That’s impossible, that snake died millions of years ago.”

“Kids in places like Arlington have been deprived of the chance to believe in myth,” agrees Cocke. “That’s why they turn to figures like ET. People like myth and need it. Our mountain tales, like those of the Native Americans, are mythological.”

Roadside’s second project was to script an original fulllength production in the mobile, popular form they had developed with Mountain Tales. The result, Red Fox/Second Hangin’, is a departure from the whimsy of

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Mountain Tales to what might be called revisionist history at its best. Don Baker had long heard tales of M.B. “Doc” Taylor, a preacher and former US marshal! who was the second of seven men hanged in Wise County before 1900. Red Fox, as Taylor was called, was revered by many mountain people but was convicted of murdering an entire family. Baker decided that this was a paradox worth exploring.

In researching the Red Fox story, Baker enlisted the help of Dudley Cocke, a friend from his study days at Washington and Lee University. “We began by reading history books,” says Baker. “It wasn’t until we began interviewing older people who had known Doc Taylor or whose families passed along stories about him, that our research began to differ markedly from the written version. We sensed that in these interviews we were getting closer to the truth.”

Baker and Cocke collected old newspaper clippings, as well as letters and diaries of the period. They spoke with one elderly man who actually witnessed the hanging. The breakthrough came in the attic of the Wise County Courthouse when they found the original transcript of the Red Fox trial. The transcript suggested that the preacher had been framed by powerful men in the burgeoning coal industry.

Using a conversational tone, actors Gary Slemp, Frankie Taylor and Don Baker merge sixty different characters into a gripping detective story. A series of slides made from original photos of Doc Taylor’s life and times gives the story a firm setting, and a ten-minute file segment re-enacts a crucial event.

Like Red Fox/Second Hangin’, the musical Brother Jack also draws from folk memory and old documents. While the title story and several of the songs were written by actor Ron Short, other tales were adapted by Baker from material collected within fifty miles of Roadside’s home by the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s. In Brother Jack, storytellers Angelyn DeBord, Tom Bledsoe and Short spin yarns alone and in unison, trade-off lines and sing to banjo and fiddle accompaniment. The mood changes from that of “acting a fool” in a wrestling story to one of quiet drama in the tales of murder and coal mining disasters. A sense of the despair and fatalism that sometimes pervades mountain life is offset by the protagonist Jack (the archetypal Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk), who is always “wishing for something better.”

“The whole concept behind Brother Jack is how we in the mountains got here,” says Baker. “We talk about death, about men and women, about the Civil War–and we’ve tried to deal with them in a lot of different ways.” The play also explores the perpetual question of human purpose. “We use religion, prayer, mystical stuff, even jokes to try to understand it, so we have a good time. But right in the middle of the good times, something taps us on the shoulder and says, ‘Hey, you can’t forget’.”

Roadside’s fourth major production, South of the Mountain, premiered in October 1982 at the Regional Organization of Theatres South (ROOTS) festival in Atlanta and enjoyed a three-week run at the Dance Theatre Workshop in New York City in September 1983. In this musical, author Ron Short depicts his boyhood world in Dickenson County, Virginia, through original songs and the reflections of his family.

A common thread which runs through Roadside’s productions is a search for cultural identity. In the words of Short, the 1980s are “a time of conflict” for many ethnic groups in this country. “Like here in Appalachia, people are asking, ‘Should we mainstream? Should we change the way we talk or think?'”

In South of the Mountain, Short deals with these questions directly as he explores the choices that individuals must make when their society changes from an agriculturally-based one to an industrial, coal-mining community. One New York drama critic complained that questions like these are no longer valid in today’s modern world. In contrast, Short recalls being overwhelmed after the performances by people from the audiences who could relate. “The second generation Italian people were saying to me, ‘This is the story of my life’,” Short says. “the hillbilly thing was less important.”

In April, Roadside toured several predominantly Navajo communities in southern Utah on a Western States Art Foundation tour sponsored by the Utah Rural Arts Consortium. In the West, Cocke and Short were amazed by parallels between the Native American cultures and their own rural Southern one. In the Indian villages the actors found a strong affinity for the land, an oral history tradition, and conflicts between old and new.

In the Native American communities, says Cocke, “There’s a wide deep gulf between the traditional way and the modern way. Two seemingly irreconcilable ways of

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being. The two tracks go parallel but it’s a no-man’s land in between. I was sitting in a house waiting for an ancient religious dance to begin, and ever so often out the door I’d hear bells and see a dancer or two running by to join his group. Directly the drumming started, and in the corner I noticed that Love Boat was on TV. The program never looked so strange.”

The tour was perhaps a learning experience for both visitors and hosts. Some of the Roadside cast members, with their long beards, were objects of curiosity to be sure. Actor Tom Bledsoe, who sports a red beard and long blond hair, was the object of some good-natured teasing from Indian children who thought he looked like a band member of ZZ Top. But beyond that, the Roadside cast may have been quite unlike most Anglo people the Native Americans had seen, an example of a possible bridge between the modern and the traditional. “After all,” notes Cocke, “we were white people doing something between the two extremes.”

In talking with some of the teachers at Montezuma Creek, Short learned a truth about his own art. “They were wondering about the possibility of developing their own kind of Appalshop. The great conflict was how do they cross over from that religious all-sense and tell their story so it still has meaning. I had to ask this question of myself and my work too.”

During the past year Roadside has enjoyed the artistic fellowship of other regional theater companies who are attempting to maintain a sense of cultural identity. Roadside was a part of Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song, a touring performance festival which included the Free Southern Theater from New Orleans, A Traveling Jewish Theater from San Francisco and El Theatro Campesino from San Juan Bautista, California. Through their use of indigenous storytelling and music, and by re-examining their people’s history, the four companies have produced some of the past decade’s most exciting original American theater.

In the spring of 1983, the four groups performed simultaneously in the San Franciso Bay area. Last December, the joint tour included a festival at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, produced by Josephine Ayers, a pest producer of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The show also traveled to Roadside’s home base in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and the groups will probably collaborate on future tours.

In bringing their art to a large, non-theater-going audience, Roadside has spent nearly ten years on the road. The company maintains a schedule of two hundred performances and workshops annually, as well as a summer tent tour of coal camps and back hollows. Many of these are one-day stands.

For most of its existence, Roadside has had no resident theater, instead rehearsing in church halls, living rooms or even outdoors. According to Cocke, the peripatetic lifestyle has given Roadside an uncanny ability to size up an audience and set the tone accordingly. “You can imagine that some of the groups we run into have no clue who we are,” he says. “But the idea has always been to go with the space we find ourselves in and to meet the audience more than halfway.”

Coupled with the rigors of the traveling life is the need for Even with the opening of the 160-seat Appalshop theater in 1982, the theater-going audience in the Whitesburg area is so small that the company could never hope to survive on ticket sales alone. Government grants play a large part in keeping Roadside afloat.

In Lee County, Virginia, a man auctioned off a cow and used the proceeds to help pay for the performance. Roadside was able to match the cow’s sale price with a state arts grant.

“Theater is losing ground nationally,” observes Roadside’s director, “and some smaller theaters are falling by the way. We just keep trying to hold on. We’re like a company with just one car (in this case a blue Ford van), while other larger companies have a fleet of limos. They may lose their limos because they can’t pay for them, but we keep plugging along with our one car.”

Finances have played a large part in Roadside’s decision to tour beyond Appalachia. The actors reject the notion that one must leave the mountains “to be somebody” but they know the value of media exposure and interaction with other professionals. “Touring outside the region wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to do at first,” explains Cocke, “but we made the decision to do so in 1976 or 1977. We had to get some stamp of approval before we could convince the national funding agencies–and ironically, the even less flexible state agencies–that we did qualify. We’d still like to find a way to travel less.”

Roadside’s five full-time and eight part-time employees form a community that stretches over the three counties and two states in which they live. Touring is sometimes a family affair. Eight-month-old Jubel Slone has been traveling with actress-mother Angelyn De Bord since he was eight weeks old. A full-time staff at Roadside’s Whitesburg office handles bookings, mailings and fundraising. For the most part, the company is traditionally taught. Roadside tries to keep a reservoir of trained talent that can be called upon for various productions. Writers Short and Baker are both currently working on new plays.

A criticism of Roadside’s work voiced by some political activists is the charge that the shows aren’t political enought.

“There are a lot of ways to get at politics,” responds Cocke. “Some would say a Zuni dance isn’t political. Much of Roadside’s work comes from the perspective of a whole culture, way of life.”

Adds Short, “Our work takes something as fragile as cultural identity and places it in a public forum.” Short says his work has been termed apolitical because it does not openly advocate social change. “I feel that a political statement, like life, is a whole lot broader than that,” he says: “It’s an exploration of human values that I’m most interested in. In watching a play which explores these values, people are free to get their own ideas.”

One way in which the theater company is exerting considerable influence is through their work in the nation’s school systems. “Taking it to the schools is just like taking it to the streets,” observes Jack Wright, an early Roadside member.

The actors are committed to the idea that a good performance doesn’t end with the applause. Cocke notes: “One criticism of arts programs in general is that they don’t have a conception of the more basic values they’re trying to promote beyond the immediate performance. I’m interested

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in things that go beyond immediate aesthetic value. We hope the people who see our shows will gain a sense of possibility about their own lives and communities.”

In many of the school tours, the ability of the actors to ignite this sense of worth in one’s own heritage is evident. A teacher from Chincoteague, an island off the coast of Virginia that was isolated from the mainland until 1930, wrote to say that she hoped Roadside could return to “help the students appreciate and develop the marvelous supply of tales and remembrances in their own area. Our area is very rich in this valuable resources, but there have been only isolated efforts to explore and appreciate what we have. It would be a wonderful experience for our entire community to have someone direct efforts to explore our own folk history.”

According to Cocke, Roadside would like to develop the financial resources to be able to embark on these community treasure hunts for two or three weeks at a time in different localities. He notes that funding sources generally lean more toward the twenty-shows-in-twenty-four days tour than to supporting a long term residency in one community.

A climate of uncertain financial support places pressure on the company to come up with consistently good productions. While this may explain Roadside’s good track record, Cocke says it “doesn’t encourage chance taking with new writing. We know some things we’d like to try, like a summer works-in-progress festival to encourage local people to write for us, but we just are not in a financial position to do so.”

One indication of an outreach toward new writers is a play opening in May at the Appalshop theater in Whitesburg. Drama students at Whitesburg High School will present In Ya Blood, which is based on a film by the same name which was produced by Appalshop in 1973. Under the direction of Roadside’s Jeff Hawkins, the students wrote an original script about the choices young people must make in deciding whether to leave the mountains or stay and face the limited opportunities for employment.

After a decade of writing and production, another challenge facing Roadside is one which confronts many independent artists across the country: how does one gain access to the media? While the company has succeeded in keeping a busy touring schedule, it has yet to reach a wide radio and TV audience. Both Red Fox and Brother Jack have been recorded as radio serials, but both have yet to find a buyer. Similarly, a video presentation of Red Fox was completed in 1983, but is still awaiting nationwide distribution.

“What we’re facing with TV–I mean all of Appalshop’s work–is that the PBS system is not responding to independent artists,” says Roadside’s director. “It’s very difficult for film and video people to get their work on PBS and get paid for it. It’s a political problem because our message generally is contrary to the message that has been selected for viewing. Also, there is a certain style that producers getting the money have figured out. But what PBS is forgetting is that audiences will respond to content.”

“The gulf between traditional and modern life is not just a concern of a particular ethnic group like the Native Americans,” Cocke maintains. “Appalachian people are struggling with the same things as people in other parts of the country. More than anything, it’s a question of finding a path through life.”

Sharon Hatfield is a free lance writer who lives in Virginia.