Recognizing arts and culture as community assets


Program director
Roadside Theater (division of Appalshop)
Phone: 937-901-9205



Do you intersect with small towns in the course of your work?
I live in Big Stone Gap, which is a very small town that some of you might have heard in Southwest Virginia. I work just up the road in Norton, Virginia, which is only about 13 miles away, very small town. Appalshop, my parent organization for Roadside, is located in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which has a population of around 5,000 people, I believe. That is over Pine Mountain in Eastern Kentucky, and is a very small town. Roadside is the only Appalshop division that is based in Virginia rather than Kentucky.

What do you do in your work with towns?
Roadside is an organizing political theater company, although we don’t claim to say that any politics are the right politics. The way we make change is, we go into a town, by invitation only, so the people there have to identify a problem that they want us to work with or address through playmaking and story circles. We go and we facilitate story circles for the community where we invite people to, in a very kind of formal way, get together and respond to a prompt that invites them to connect in an empathic way and an emotional way rather than just lobbing their ideas back and forth and their opinions. That enables people to communicate across their perceived and their actual differences in a way that maybe just asking for their opinion doesn’t. That’s a good moving forward point, at which point, we start making a play together, if that’s what they want to do, that is about this problem they’re having in their town that they all agree that they would like to find a way in.

In this play building process, which we make using story circle stories from the citizens in the town, we make sure that multiple viewpoints are represented so that there’s no just one viewpoint that we’re trying to pound people over the head with. An example in Whitesburg, in a play we recently did, might be coal culture, and what is the future of Letcher County, and do we want coal to be a part of it or do we not want coal to be a part of it and the different points of view and their feelings about that. That began through story circles. We didn’t ask them about coal to start out with. We asked them about their families and their backgrounds, and their memories of childhood, their ideas and their imagination for the future.

In coming to work with people in a way that’s not didactic, we help them make a play about their community, and then that leads to more story circles that might suggest some kind of community action that people can take together. We’re not really the ones taking the actions and making the change, and implementing what we think needs to be done. We help people talk to each other, so that they can identify what they – the citizens of this town – want to do with each other.

How can the arts help with economic development?
Roadside’s orientation has always been to poor and working class communities, both in rural areas and also in cities. We’ve never just been strictly a rural company.  We also have done residencies in West Baltimore, in New Orleans, and urban sites all across America. We’re continuing to make plays and organize in this way. Recently, we’ve started a project called “Performing our Future,” that is Roadside Theater working with another Appalshop project called the Letcher County Culture Hub, which is an economic development organizing project. We’re working with them and a couple national partners – one of them is Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, and the other is called EEGLP, the Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project.  It’s a really long title, but a really great organization, that’s based at Lafayette College in eastern Pennsylvania.

So we [have a] team of people – including now some partners at Virginia Tech [such as] Bob Leonard, through the Virginia Tech Artworks Initiative – [who] are looking at asking each other, how can arts and culture catalyze equitable development in communities with histories of economic exploitation? That’s a lot of communities around where we live and work. We sort of use Letcher County as a test site, making plays and organizing with Letcher County Culture Hub partners there – which is kind of a loose knit organization of 19 non- and for-profit businesses and artists organizations and government agencies and volunteer fire departments and food services and all different sorts of organizations within this county – to see how they can work together, coordinate their activities and sort of leverage their latent assets in the community, which we have a lot of.

People don’t necessarily think of things like arts and culture as assets for their community if they haven’t been generating a lot of cash or revenue to date. But they are assets. So we help sort of brainstorm solutions for them using these assets and activating them and making them available in a way that makes sure that they – the communities that produce the value – enjoy the benefits of that value. So if they create songs and stories, rather than outsiders extracting it and profiting from it, the community that create these songs and stories enjoys the financial benefit of that.

Are there towns that you can think of that do a good job of using arts assets to spur economic development?
I think Whitesburg, Kentucky, is a good example, which is where Appalshop is based. I think [it] speaks to the power of an institution like Appalshop as a community center of power, which is the role that Appalshop has played there in Whitesburg since 1969. In a nutshell, the background is it began as the only rural outpost in a mostly urban cohort of test sites for Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative in filmmaking. They came, they gave these eastern Kentucky people filmmaking equipment and taught them to use it and the assumption was that these young people in Letcher County, Kentucky, would leave and go get jobs in the filmmaking and TV industries. They said, “No, I think we’re gonna stay and we’re gonna make documentary films about our families and neighbors and the way that people live here. We’re going to tell first voice stories about real rural life in eastern Kentucky.”

That was the beginning of Appalshop, and since then, as an institution, Appalshop has encouraged not just Whitesburg, but cities and towns in Letcher County and throughout central Appalachia to speak up – to tell the truth about the way that they’re living, to make media, to host music presentations and live theater, and to participate in organizing activities to help them sort of represent themselves rather than having the national news media represent them. Which is something that’s been kind of a big issue, always, but especially since the election.

What do you most wish that mayors and town managers in small towns knew that they don’t necessarily know?
First and foremost would be – it sounds obvious, but it’s a really important thing – to remember is that you serve the people. Therefore, it’s absolutely incumbent on you to listen to the people and to be accountable to the people. I think that politicians and local civic leaders are like anyone else. We become embroiled in a certain mindset that’s oppositional. Maybe we feel it’s a zero sum game, that it’s us against them, that it’s my party and party loyalty is the thing I need to be most loyal to to further my career, my agenda. Everyone has a self-interest and it’s not honest to say that anyone is doing anything through altruism, that’s not realistic. But to be a public servant is a huge responsibility, particularly in a de-industrialized community. And there is great need there.

I would say to leaders, to see you physically doing town halls or out speaking to people or working directly with them to solve problems. I know in Appalachia, and in many other places, there can be a problem with remove from the constituency and a separation between the politicians and the public that they serve. We need for that separation to be mended a little bit and for there to be more direct communication with the stakeholders and the citizens so that we can begin to solve these problems together, not from our silos of occupying the position of power higher up, and citizen lower down, who never gets to talk to anyone in power. Let’s make it a less oppositional thing and a more conversational thing.

Can a town come to you and say we want you to come, and you will?
It’s not a guarantee that we will, but we don’t go into a community residency unless we’ve been invited. Part of that invitation means reading our literature, the documents that are available for download on our website so that you understand our methodologies and the way that we work, the way we like to organize within in a community, the way we like to work with people. If you’ve done that kind of due diligence, and there are people who have identified a problem in the community, or something you’d like to address, or a challenge that you’re facing, or even an opportunity, and you know who we are and what we do, and you get in touch with us, if we can within our capacity work with you, generally we will.

Is there a charge?
It depends on the conditions that we’re going into and what people are able to offer. If people are in need and are inspired by the work and they want to work with us and they want either training or a residency, we just build it according to the availability and the needs of the people. We’re not able to work for free a lot, because obviously we have to sustain ourselves, but it’s highly negotiable in terms of time, in terms of compensation. In general, we’re going to ask more compensation from say a large institution that has that kind of thing.  But for, let’s say an inner city community of color really with no infrastructure or without any kind of attachment to an elite institution wants help, whatever we can do we’re going to try to find, even it’s just a series of conversations. Whatever we can do.

How do you define a residency in terms of time?
Some are less than a week. A brief story circle training residency might be three days if that’s what works out best for both parties. Then there are extreme examples in the other direction. We’ve had 25, 30-year, very elaborate, in-depth community cultural exchanges and artistic collaborations with communities like the Zuni Pueblo in Zuni, New Mexico. There’s a Zuni theater company there called Idiwanan An Chawe. Over the course of many years, we created a play with them called “Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain,” that had both Appalachian traditional song and storytelling and Zuni song and storytelling. The script was published in a volume that is bilingual, that has the Zuni language on one side, English on the other, and that book became the textbook for teaching the Zuni language. That culture, like a lot of Appalachian cultures, is rapidly disappearing and changing in the modern age.

We’ve had similar partnerships – partnerships with Junebug Productions in New Orleans, which is an African-American theater company, and with Pregones Theater Company in the Bronx, which is a Puerto Rican working-class theater company. Intercultural exchange is another huge part of what we do, because there’s no real point in promoting and advocating and building Appalachian arts and storytelling if we’re not connecting our communities and saying, “What are the economic conditions and the social conditions that we’re facing here that other people are facing elsewhere that we might assume we know nothing about, who are strangers to us or live really differently from us? What is the commonality there?”