Roadside is the theater wing of Appalshop: a nonprofit multi-disciplinary arts and education institution in the heart of Appalachia producing original films, video, theater, music and spoken word recordings, radio, photography, multi-media, and books. Each year, Appalshop productions and services reach several million people nationally and internationally. For more information, visit: www.appalshop.org
- To enlist the power of theater to document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of Appalachia;
- tell stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell;
- challenge stereotypes with Appalachian voices and visions;
- support communities’ efforts to achieve justice and equity and solve their own problems in their own ways;
- celebrate cultural diversity as a positive social value; and
- participate in regional, national, and global dialogue toward these ends.
In 1975, Roadside Theater was founded in the coalfields of central Appalachia as part of Appalshop. Its young founders start telling, in a new ensemble way, the stories they had grown up hearing from their families – tales more intact in Appalachian communities than they were in the British Isles where they originated. Through collaborative research and play, these artists would go on to recognize and fulfill a sharply-felt need in their communities: for a new theater which would draw upon the collective riches of memory, imagination, and heritage in order to tell stories that revealed the distinct character and texture of 20th century Appalachian life. By turns hilarious and elegiac, ribald and reverent, Roadside Theater’s early riffs on eastern Kentuckian and southwest Virginian culture rang like a bell through audiences in community centers, church revival tents, middle school auditoriums and off-Broadway theaters alike. The ensemble spoke of-the-moment truths to exploitative (often invisible) power structures within the region, sounded depths of civic feeling without sentimentalism, and flouted official historical narratives with an exuberance and technical virtuosity that could not be bought in elite theater conservatories. They were ornery and footloose, touring every state in the nation; and they did not shy away from the audacity of making art in a democracy – that is, plays which reflected the whole, complex communities in which they were created and performed.
Over 43 years, Roadside has created Appalachia’s largest single body of original plays where none existed; made, in collaboration with racially diverse professional theaters and communities across the country, new plays which address pressing civil rights, economic, and cultural issues of our times; cultivated new arts leaders through college and community training and teaching; and advocated for cultural equity as a universal human right. We've toured to 43 states, performing and conducting community cultural development residencies; been in residence at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Theater for the New City, Dance Theatre Workshop, and Pregones Theater in New York City; performed at Lincoln Center; and represented the United States at international theater festivals in London, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia. For the ensemble's stewardship in the community-based arts field, Roadside was awarded the 2009 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre and (under the umbrella of Appalshop) was named to the 2017 Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 100 List of Cultural Influencers.
Our philosophy of change addresses class inequality intersectionally with racism, transphobia and misogyny, and other forms of systemic oppression. 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 nonprofit theater audiences are more than 80% white and originating from the top 15% of the population, as measured by income and education levels. By contrast, 73% 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 and facing similar economic struggles (such as longtime collaborators Junebug Productions of New Orleans, the Bronx-based Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, 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.