A Culture of Possibility Podcast #28 Ben Fink and Kate Fowler on Art in a Democracy from Roadside Theater

Arlene Goldbard
9 min readMay 18, 2023

My new book is out! You can order here: In The Camp of Angels of Freedom: What Does It Mean to Be Educated?

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 28th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available starting 19 May 2023. You can find it and all episodes at Stitcher, iTunes, and wherever you get your podcasts, along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts.

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By the time that Kate and I both came to Appalshop in 2015, it was an organization that had for 20 years been fighting for its life at the height of a long campaign to defund and privatize anything that could be considered public life, a public commonwealth — that whole idea of the arts and humanities belong to everyone.

Ben Fink

I first visited Appalshop around 1980, a long time ago. This arts and media center in the Eastern Kentucky coal-mining town of Whitesburg had an unusual origin story. In the late sixties, in the midst of the federal “War on Poverty,” money was flowing from public and private agencies such as the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to regions hit by high levels of economic stress. Most of them were inner-city areas that experienced mid-sixties uprisings, places like Watts and Detroit, but they also included the primarily rural Appalachian region.

Appalshop was founded in 1969 as the Appalachian Film Workshop, one of ten Community Film Workshops started by a partnership between the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and the American Film Institute. In contrast to Watts, for instance, a short geographic (if not cultural and economic) distance from the center of movie-making in Hollywood, the Appalachian region wasn’t home to many job opportunities for aspiring media-makers. So what may have been conceived as a kind of training leading to apprenticeship actually led to a vibrant movement of young filmmakers telling true stories of their own communities in place of the “Beverly Hillbillies”-style distortions that peppered commercial media. From that evolved a multidimensional program that included a community radio station, a recording label, photography, educational programs, and our main focus for this podcast, Roadside Theater, making work grounded in traditional stories and the communities that carry them forward.

I’ve been happy to know (and sometimes work on projects with) some of Roadside’s founding members — Dudley Cocke, Donna Porterfield, and Ron Short — over these decades. Now Roadside’s founders, members, friends, and allies appear in a quite remarkable two-volume publication entitled Art in a Democracy: Selected Plays of Roadside Theater. It features not only the series of scripts that reflect and encode the development of Roadside’s approach to theater-making, but essays by a wide range of authors reflecting on the company’s work that unfolded between 1975 and 2020. François Matarasso and I were eager to talk with two younger members of the Roadside cohort, Ben Fink (who edited the books) and Kate Fowler (who formerly directed Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute).

Kate and Ben met on their very first days at Appalshop. As Kate explained, “on our first day, the executive director said, ‘Welcome, go find an office.’ And so like two rats in a maze, we went scurrying through this gigantic building, searching for our private office in the history of 50 years of organizational creating. We ran, coincidentally, to the same office, where I politely sat across from Ben for a day until I said, ‘Ben, this is my office, you’re gonna have to go and find another office.’ He very courteously handed over the premium view and found another office somewhere else in the building.”

Kate supplied some context for those who don’t know the region. “Appalshop is situated in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. It’s the coal mining region of the country in the Appalachian Mountains. When people usually refer to Appalachia, it’s really a few state clumping that also happens to be one of the most economically impoverished regions of our entire nation. The coal fields of Eastern Kentucky where Appalshop is situated is in the top five poorest communities in our nation. And it’s also in a very rural community, a town of 1200 people. It is a pretty mighty organization that does storytelling from all of these different intersections. I am coming from a filmmaking background and a media background. Building this relationship with Dudley and Roadside members happened just through peer to peer contact at the organization. But we’ve found that the methodologies for filmmaking and media making and storytelling from a documentary lens are very much the same in our practices.

“Ben and I both left the organization at around the same time. He went back to the East Coast. I’m back home in Richmond, Virginia, at a three staff nonprofit called Studio Two Three, which is a community print shop and community art center that has over 180 artists members. We also support people making art for social change.”

Here are a couple of other links to regional cultural organizing that might help flesh out the context. Check out the Southern Arts and Culture Coalition; and the Letcher County Culture Hub.

One interesting line of discussion had to do with generational communication and transition. Before Kate arrived at Appalshop, she’d done all the research she could. But walking in the door she understood one of the challenges of entering a long-lived organization:

“Appalshop has files and files of the same idea you’ve had tried at different points in history. You think, ‘I am going to radicalize this, or I’m going to bring a new pedagogy and I’m going to reframe their summer program.’ Then you realize that the powerful parts of this organization — in many organizations — are the most simple parts, the core parts: an inherent belief in the power of storytelling to bring people together. The simple premise that all programs run from is how can we get people in a room telling their stories together and connecting? And then how can we transform that into a film or a play? Or how can we transform that into economic wealth, and a community right, or resources? The farther away any new generation got from that basic premise, the messier things got, and the more disconnected.”

Ben pointed out that “The same experience that we had at Appalshop is happening in so many organizations that had been around a while. I’m especially thinking about that generation of organizations that came about influenced by the civil rights movement. By the time that Kate and I both came to Appalshop in 2015, it was an organization that had for 20 years been fighting for its life at the height of a long campaign to defund and privatize anything that could be considered public life, a public commonwealth — that whole idea of the arts and humanities belong to everyone. It’s a relevant history, and we keep our eye on it in a way that a lot of organizations don’t. We’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on in the outside world, we’ve got to pay attention to what’s happening nationally, what’s happening internationally, because it’s going to affect us at home whether we like it or not. The coal industry is a global phenomenon. And the campaign to privatize public space and public resources is a global phenomenon.”

The National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. federal cultural funding agency, figured prominently in Roadside’s development, providing, for example, touring funds that weren’t otherwise available in the region. Ben explained that “Roadside Theater was a touring theater, that is the way that they were able to sustain themselves economically, because there just is not the audience base. When you perform in communities in Central Appalachia, you just cannot charge a lot of money. If you are wanting the people to come to your shows, especially if like Roadside, we’re wanting the poorest people to come to shows and working-class people and middle-class people, there’s no local base of philanthropy to support a professional theater. So touring was something that Roadside started out of necessity. Along the way, it deeply enriched the work in getting to know companies like Pregones in the Bronx, and Junebug Productions in the Deep South. This touring market existed on the grassroots level. There was a whole program supporting at the National Endowment for the Arts that was slashed in the mid-90s. Major funding cuts created a regime of scarcity — Kate likes to call it imposed scarcity. It creates a situation where it’s so easy to view your fellow arts organization, your fellow community, struggling with oppression and exploitation, not as a potential ally, but as a potential threat. Because there’s not enough to go around and what you get is what I don’t get. That is a situation that is imposed on us. I think all of the institutional challenges that so many organizations with a civil rights legacy are facing right now. It’s important to understand the challenge in that context.”

Art in a Democracy provides ample and fascinating context. Reading it made me think a lot about legacy, how community artists who came up decades ago pass on what has been learned without being preachy or condescending. Neither attitude shows up here. What struck me most powerfully was reading about the evolution of Roadside’s approach as it unfolded through stages of learning and experimentation, building on that experience, then watching changes in the systems and structures that supported it render that learning far more difficult to apply. The backdrop was a conventional system of “audience development,” where theaters put on mainstage productions, sell season subscriptions, hope their advertising sells tickets if they tour: a transactional model. In contrast, as you’ll read in the books, Roadside had a sustaining success by building relationship: spending time, collaborating deeply, bringing as much nourishment to the places they visited as to their own place. When they started, the typical audience survey of U.S. theaters revealed a largely white and prosperous audience, but as their way of working evolved, the figures for Roadside’s own performances portrayed an economically and racially diverse audience that suggested to the theater world what was possible. When the funds to sustain that approach were cut off, audience surveys snapped back to the bad old days. The question arises whether a new generation will able to use and develop that model under current economic and political conditions.

“The reason why we put out the books is to make available” said Ben, “to make legible, to make understandable, a lot of work that otherwise could be forgotten. It’s taking a lot of the stuff in those overstuffed file cabinets at Appalshop and curating it. Most people won’t have the time or the opportunity to go through those file cabinets, but they might be able to look through a two-volume collection of plays and essays that say, ‘this is how far we got. You can take it from here.’ Both of those are really important, understanding how far we got, and understanding the limits, understanding where we never got to.”

This was a substantial and deep conversation, and I’m leaving you here just a taste of the beginning. Please tune in to hear much more about Roadside’s work rooted in traditional oral history-based tales, and how that took them from Appalachia to communities in New York, Montana, New Orleans, Zuni, New Mexico, and beyond. How that approach often broke down the fourth wall that separates audience members from the people onstage. Listen to Ben talk about how “we are so taught today don’t do it unless you have the perfect best practices, logic model, theory of change, degrees. The lesson of Roadside is ‘No, do the thing. Get together with your neighbors and share some stories.’ And if you want a little bit more structure to help start, here’s a guide for how to facilitate a story circle. We have a lot of those at our website. There’s a whole bunch of not only audio and video and essays and that stuff, but how-to guides.” Listen to Kate describe her takeaway, “things can start really small and have enormous power. It’s sometimes saying ‘we can create this thing and it doesn’t have to be everything all at once. It can be something little and it can be an idea.’ What can be learned from a place like Appalshop or from Roadside or from these books is that you can read with a critical ear to what moves you, and what moves your generation forward and what can be taken.”

And then tune in to hear Kate and Ben talk about the many cultural organizing efforts they’re involved in, with the foundation idea of “community centers of power,” a concept from Bayard Rustin, a great civil right leader of the mid-twentieth century. And about the biases that are built into the funding system. And much more!

Here’s a short clip featuring Roadside’s Ron Short playing, singing, and talking about his music.