Toward a Theater of Action: The Grassroots Theatre Movement, Aimed at Social Transfromation, Finds Savvy New Ways to Flourish. (the People's Voice)

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THE ARTS WERE ON THE NATION'S BACK BURNER, and the Bush White House was gearing up for a war in the Mideast. But 1989 was a good year for Roadside Theater, the dramatic limb of the grassroots-media center Appalshop of Whitesburg, Ky. For 13 years the Roadside troupe had been refining its repertoire of unsentimental Appalachian entertainment--stories and songs drawn from the oral traditions of economically impoverished Eastern Kentucky--and it was being rewarded with broad appeal. It had fattened its annual budget from $20,000 to half a million, was employing a dozen local artists full-time, and its shows were being plugged into presenters' seasons from Miami to Minsk. For a dressed-down "people's theatre" tucked deep into the Smoky Mountains, this was a miraculous level of success.

For Roadside, though, it was a kind of failure.

"We were losing our souls artistically," says founding director Dudley Cocke. Like many theatre artists, Cocke and company believe the medium is essentially a collaboration between actors and audience, existing "between the stage and the seats," as Cocke puts it. Roadside highlights this idea by eschewing the fourth wall and announcing at the top of each show, "We're all in this together." But touring on the commercial and nonprofit circuit, which accounted for 60 percent of the theatre's budget, only allowed Roadside to "collaborate" with a too-select group--the top 15 percent of income earners, which, studies show, is the stubbornly consistent demographic of live-performance audiences in the U.S. According to Cocke, the lack of interaction with the other 85 percent was depleting the artists and diminishing the art.

"We had to either brand what we were doing and let others go out and perform it," says Cocke, "or make the choice to work only with communities who wanted to diversify their audiences." Roadside decided on the latter, turning down all offers for one- and two-night stands and transforming its company of actors into "cultural organizers" who spent months building relationships with so-called non-theatregoing audiences in towns across the country. By 1996, Roadside had succeeded. According to six years of audience research (done by an independent firm), 73 percent of its current national audience earns less than $50,000 a year, and 30 percent of those earn less than $20,000 or less a year. Cocke proudly calls this "a good thing for the box office, for democracy and for art."

THE NOTION THAT WHAT'S good for democracy is good for art is at the center of an inspiring, unruly and problematic movement that, although as old as democracy itself, doesn't yet enjoy much name recognition in the U.S. It's referred to variously as the Grassroots Theatre Movement; the Community-based Arts Movement, the Community Cultural Development Movement or (with a nod toward the presumably more enlightened cultural policies of Europe) Community Animation, from the French animation socioculturelle. The name game has to do in part with the difficulty of defining the movement's key concept--"community"--in a world where likeness comes in an infinite number of degrees and is no longer linked only to locale. It also has to do with a tendency to euphemize the unfashionably earnest task at hand: that is, to liberate the socially and economically oppressed by way of creative expression.

In their book Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, Seattle-based community-arts researchers Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard write: "In contrast to elite arts activity, which asserts the primacy of 'art for art's sake,' community cultural development is undertaken in aid of the larger goal of social transformation and personal liberation." Not all community-arts practitioners are comfortable with such a stark and morally loaded dichotomy, but the question of whose "sake" art is for is key within the movement. Community-artists strive to reflect, in both their process and product, the democratic ideals of inclusion and pluralism. …