Appalachian Dramaturgy For Beginners
A funny thing happens on the drive across Kentucky via 1-65E. You cross from Central Standard Time into Eastern, from the Midwest proper into a region comprising its own distinct culture, language, heritage, and theater scene: the central Appalachian coalfields. A quirk of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas' regional map includes the whole of Kentucky in the Midwest region; points north (bourbon trail sites Lexington or Louisville, home of the Actors Theater and its Humana Festival) bear some resemblance to Heartland stage hubs Cincinnati, Chicago, and Minneapolis. The state’s southeastern counties, however, diverge as far from mainstream arts and cultural presenting as they do from interstate freeways. I work as a dramaturg (someone who studies how plays are made and how they impact communities) with Roadside Theater in this vibrant, often-misunderstood region of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. My experiences with professional and amateur artists here have revealed a world of community-based theater unlike any I've experienced outside the region – one which has led me to establish a new Central Appalachia regional group for LMDA.
Appalachian dramaturgy is community-based, grassroots, and ensemble-powered; it is rooted in the region’s mountain terrain, oral culture, music, and century-long coal economy. Dramaturgy in coal country concerns itself with questions of whose land we are on, how we honor (or fail to honor) it, and who gets to tell these stories – as “official” histories seldom jibe with workers’ accounts. We cannot separate the corporate and political narratives of mine drainage in our water, the vanishing mountaintops of our landscape, and the constant living presence of Native voices here from the dramatic narratives of plays we create. One recent grassroots production at the Cowan Community Center in Letcher County – in every sense an inclusive community event with standing-room audiences throughout its run – became a site of public mourning, as one woman’s elegiac monologue recalled the Scotia mine disaster to a house packed with elders, squalling babies, and pierced-and-tattooed Kentucky youth: a creative force in their own right, who move seamlessly from square dances to punk shows, from shape note sings and Old Regular Baptist choirs to bluegrass-infused stage musical rehearsals.
Directors, performers, musicians, presenters, and community members share in the play creation work here, and the presence of community is deeply felt in each of Heather Helinsky’s three “phases” of dramaturgy (pre-production, rehearsals, event coordination & audience engagement). Consider the Higher Ground Theater Project of Harlan, led by playwright-novelist Robert Gipe, which “uses oral histories to create a narrative about a specific issue or issues” affecting its county’s residents, crafting real stories into large-scale, intergenerational musical dramas.
Or, if you visit Whitesburg, stop into national grassroots arts and media training center Appalshop, which today comprises a youth documentary filmmaking program; a community radio station; an Appalachian cultural archive; an independent record label; and a nationally-touring professional ensemble theater: my workplace, Roadside Theater.
Roadside, founded in 1975 as the child of Southern justice movements like SNCC and the Free Southern Theater, uses as its central play creation unit the story circle. Our ensemble’s play creation is iterative, generating Appalachia’s largest body of original musical drama from stories of community participants, who then engage audiences in post-show story circles to gather more stories and memories – these often inform future performances of the shows themselves, or help residents build plans for community actions related to the plays’ themes. In this way, the cerebral, sometimes polemical “talkback” model is supplanted by image, memory, and narrative sharing, which engender empathy and allow community stakeholders to communicate across perceived difference.
Roadside’s dramaturgy, like most central Appalachian play making and presenting, necessarily keeps class intersectional with racism and other forms of inequality. National surveys (including those by the League of American Theatres and Producers and the 1991-1996 Wallace Foundation-sponsored AMS survey) consistently report that American audiences are 80-plus percent white and originating from the top 15 percent of the population, as measured by income and education levels. By contrast, seventy-three percent of Roadside’s national audiences have annual incomes under $50,000, and 30% of those earn $20,000 or less a year. Roadside finds that when it creates imaginative drama that is faithful to its specific Appalachian experience and collaborates with other national ensembles faithful to their cultural roots (such as New Orleans’s Junebug Productions, and Idiwanan An Chawe of New Mexico’s Zuni pueblo), it is able to speak to a wide cross-section of people in many places.
2016’s catastrophic election cycle cast our region’s political and artistic viability into national scrutiny. As dramaturgs organizing our institutions and communities for change, we recognize that the counter-narrative of Appalachian creative integrity is a hopeful one: that, as an historical site of resistance to exploitation and oppression through labor organizing, cultural advocacy, and nonviolent protest, political artists of Appalachia and the deep South claimed the vanguard of every major justice movement of the 20th century. The reason is simple: as occupants of ground zero for extractive mineral and agricultural colonization within a pervasive myth-framework of white supremacy as “heritage,” our survival has depended on our ability to creatively organize alongside diverse sister communities. Roadside honors the legacy of Appalachians who have sounded out theater’s revolutionary potential to enact a durable pluralism; countered trends of anti-community and isolationist artistic and political policy; and trained fellow artist-activists to spark like-minded creative movements in their home communities.