Episode 22: Bob Leonard - The Continuing Evolution of the Horse
Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes
What is the artist's role in the altered and uncertain world we are entering?
…there is a human, passion for justice, and it would seem that it's hard to get…as human beings, we rely on the stories that we tell each other to keep our sense of direction. I don't mean down a road, but where's North. … And we understand ourselves through our stories, and that includes that passion for justice. It's not an abstract, … They know when it's something is not just. ...And that struggle is enormously dependent on the stories that we tell ourselves about that, and artists are the people who do that.
How has Alternate Roots manifested the struggle and evolution of American democracy?
This was in the spirit of the times, both in terms of the, from my point of view, the American revolution continuing, but also the times were about finding out what democracy can do in the face of oppression. Whether we're talking about women's rights or civil rights or Vietnam war, there were a lot of people who were trying to figure out new ways of understanding the paradigm of democracy and democratic decision-making.
So, we decided that the board was going to be everybody. It was not going to be representative governance. We were going to be a participatory governance, and what's absolutely really astonishing Bill, is that that still is the case. 45 years later, we have a board of 200 people, and it is functioning well.
Is there a community arts, story telling aesthetic?
And that can have all kinds of permutations and experimentations, with, with the aesthetic. Does it have to be told in a particular aesthetic? The commercial aesthetic of East Tennessee is Dolly Parton and the explosion of the stereotypes of a mountain people in East Tennessee, but that isn't necessarily the required aesthetic. You have to learn what the aesthetic is from the audience, as opposed to thinking what's the commercial version that will get the dollar. You're listening different things when you do that. There is what artists at Roots we're doing and have been doing that for now, for, several decades. And then roadside is a wonderful example of that.
What does the evolution of the horse have to do with the art of possibility?
I really liked the, the image of the horse, which in the age of the dinosaur, the horse was the size of a mouse. It was a tiny little creature and, things turned upside down. I don't know whether a comment hit the earth or something, but things turned upside down and the horse emerged over the course of a long time, and no one would have thought that little thing that might've been a sort of a shrew or a mole or something would become what the horse is.
Bill Cleveland: You know, I like to think of all the people I've had the privilege to speak with on this podcast as threads of a massive woven story fabric. A vibrating weave of bright and colorful threads, with thick and thin fibers, warping, woofing, twisted and bound together. so strong and tight, that if you try to coax, to pull, to yank one from another that whole thing will lock tight, resisting all force because there is not one strand, not one story that is not held by the rest.
Bob Leonard's story, today's story, is one of those caught up in that stubborn and infinite weave -- a crisscross of dialogue and music, lights and dancing, serendipity and surprise. Bound up with the layers of people and narratives that form the creative community fabric he’s fostered and served through his work In the theater of change.
Bob and I have known each other forever, but I'll be damned if I can remember where it was that we actually met, maybe in Massachusetts, or DC, maybe at a Roots thing, maybe in a previous life. That said, this exchange held deep in the COVID swamps of 2020 allowed us to add yet another chapter to the conversation that we started way back then, wherever and whenever that was. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we're happy you will be joining us.
This is Change The story Change the World, A Chronicle of Art and Community Transformation. I'm Bill Cleveland.
Part One: Duck Fat, Dirt, and Stumps
BC: Mr. Leonard, I have had the enormous privilege of connecting with many of my colleagues in this way over the past year, and every single time, all different twists and turns and stories and anecdotes and perceptions about the world show up that are marvelously surprising and energizing. I have an incredible sort of festival of rejoicing over the people I'm privileged to work with, and you're one of them.
So let me begin by asking you the simplest, most complex question, which is just describe, what you do in the world. What's your gig?
Bob Leonard: I think I, make theater, to bring people together. I like bringing people together, and theater is a means to do that in a funny sort of way. I've gotten myself into a full haul, a long life of making theater. The processes and the making of the theater, seem to me to be needing to be grounded in the drawing together of people in in a place where they could hear each other and where they could. Here someone else.
BC: And so, when you do that, what makes it worthwhile a good thing?
BL: Well, sometimes people erupt into a kind of, tangible, shared emotional moment or series of moments, and can get up and sing and dance together without anybody telling them what to do, or how to do it, or why they should do it. They just… it happens.
People […] in some simple level, people laugh together. That's a moment of breath breathing together. That's important in our human experience. So that's in the constructs of telling a story to get people to laugh and cry together, but there's also the breaking beyond the story. One of the great times in my life was a moment when the show finished, and the audience got up on the stage and danced. There was a transferal of the event into the people who were there, and it was just the celebration. That's in a kind of an immediate thing. I think about getting people together, in longer frames than just have a night. I've been working for a long time with the, ideas that came forward with a group of people to make Alternate Roots. And the coming together, when you do it right there is not about the momentary. It's about how an idea of, justice and, and, cooperative human, relationship can grow, and go through challenges that we didn't anticipate, or we might've anticipated, but thought we could duck and then found out we can't duck.
BC: So, Bob. You’ve been un-ducking these hard issues. Are questions for most of your life through theater? How did you come to this life path?
BL: I, played making characters with my friends when I was in grade school and younger. I'd like to put a towel on my head and parade around as a kind of circus character. We practiced, pratfalls, and telling stupid jokes to each other. So, there was something in me about performing that I really did. That's just something I was into.
When I was in high school, my high school did one play a year. It was always the same play. It was, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and I was in a boy’s school, and The Man Who Came to Dinner was done in a very carefully arranged partnership with the local girl’s school. And so, I wanted to be in the school play, but it was only for the seniors. So, I went through three years waiting to be in the school, play in my senior year they decided not to do that anymore.
I didn't get to be in the play, and I went away to summer work, down on Cape Cod, and I got a job washing pots in a fancy restaurant with 10 dozen ducks in big baking pans that I had to scrape every night. I was the only pot washer, and it was always a stack of pots by the time I get in of an evening, that was almost as tall as I was, and that's what I did all night long. It was pretty ugly work.
But it turns out that the wait staff and bus staff were all going to a music school. I think it was the, Massachusetts Conservatory of Music. But the students got a job to be at the waitstaff in this restaurant, and they ran a musical review in the evenings, under the tent with a piano bar, and they asked if I wanted to audition. I said, you bet! I jumped on it. So, then my first experience. Actually, being on stage was with all these, undergrad pre professional, musical theater performers, putting on adapted musicals, adapted to Cape Cod, with the lyrics and we'd go out and sing hoofers and dance and so on and put this musical revue together while I was scraping duck shit, duck fat out of the pot, and it made it somewhat more worthwhile.
BC: That's great.
BL: And, yeah, that's what I. That's what I found myself doing, but it, I couldn't not do it. It was there and I was hungry for it. I had no sense of a career. I didn't think of it as a profession or anything. It was just what I had to do.
BC: So, Bob was smitten. No, let's say bitten by the theater bug through his encounter with that duck fat and musicals in a tent on Cape Cod. That led him to doing plays in college and eventually a graduate degree in theater from Catholic University in Washington, DC.
While there, working at a small stage called the Washington Theater Club, run by a dedicated soul named Davey Marlon Jones he learned the hard way what life in the theater was all about. Namely produce well-known well-worn plays to attract enough people to pay the bills or do exciting new work on small stages by unknown geniuses like Lanford Wilson and starve. Responding to this frustrating reality, Bob's next move, which seemed kind of like a retreat at the time was actually a fortuitous detour.
BL: I stopped making theater and I started working with friends in the film industry, basic Washington DC, late sixties, early seventies film. But yeah, I was making more money carrying lighting cable around in a week than I made in a month as an equity stage manager
We were making the film with, David Wolper, a film called, They Killed the President. It was a made for TV film about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as if there had been a live TV news at the time. So, the premise was there were cameras and stuff, and the president was coming out for the first time at the end of the war he went to the theater and so there was a news team there and he got shot. So, we were doing the setup in Georgetown and I was a production assistant and so we got truckloads of dirt and put dirt down on the streets in Georgetown and got these hollow trunks of trees and put them over the parking meters, so that we transformed streets of Georgetown back to mid 19th century. It takes a fair amount of work to get that done, and then you'd drive a carriage down the dirt street, and somebody gets out of the carriage and it goes up to housing goes in and that's the scene. But we've spent three days moving this dirt and doing all this stuff.
What became really interesting to me is that while we were moving dirt and putting stumps over parking meters, people stopped and watched, and they stayed, and they stayed. I was like, there's nothing happening yet. And so, they stay until the carriage came in, and the people get out of the carriage, and the cameras are rolling, and they walk cup into the house and go in the house, end of scene. And people have watched that moment of a fantasy without paying anything and staying late (they were on their lunch break) and they couldn't go away. And over at the Washington theater club, we couldn't get them to stay, even get there. What happened to me was that I realized theater doesn't have any windows or it's forgotten that it is a window. There's an incarcerated, club of people that go to the theater who are not looking through the theater out to the world, they're looking into the theater as if it's something that is a value in itself, just to have the ticket.
I had this really amazing epiphany of what people are interested in when we're just moving dirt around on the streets of Georgetown, and I didn't know where that was headed, but it was really overwhelming to me how brutally wrong Davy Marlon Jones was to be killing himself in that way, and not that I blamed him, it's just the distance between what was his dream and what was people's interest in getting together. We're so not connected.
BC: Is that where your theater company got born as the idea that people are where they are and so theater ought to be?
BL: Where people are that's right. I wanted to get more engaged with what I cared about just personally.
I told this story the other day. In the Theater Club, we were housed in a stable, had been a carriage house, and the stage manager's booth was in the hayloft over the stable. So, I could look down straight down onto the theater onto the stage, and the audience was in a sense, underneath me. It was an old building and not particularly, air airtight, and we were doing this show and there was a protest going on over at the Vietnam embassy against the war. We are doing the middle of this show and the tear gas starts to seep into the theater and we're going, “Oh my God”, and I, at the time I was like, why am I in here? Why am I not out there? I got a job. I got a family. I've got to take care, okay. We got to worry, and so stop the play. We can't do a play with tear gas. But that anomaly of being in something I thought was important, but then the thing that was important is outside inside the building, and I'm trying to figure out where am I, what am I doing?
BC: Part Two: Remembering the Revolution.
BL: So in the midst of trying to figure out how to make my life into the film world, I'm tending bar and I'm riding a motorcycle, taking deliveries from one place to another.
And somebody says something about the people's bicentennial commission, and Jeremy Rifkin, a man who has become quite a star in his own, as a public intellectual, had this quest that 1976 was an opportunity for American citizens to reacquaint themselves with the American revolution and what it means to be revolutionary. And that wonderful anecdote of FDR going to the daughters of the American revolution, doing a talk to them on one fancy day and started his talk, “my fellow revolutionaries” ... Those places where the, American aristocracy is not cognizant of its own. Heritage.
So, Jeremy wanted to uplift all of that and turn things upside down. So, I went over there and said, I'd be happy to, to lick stamps or do whatever you're doing, and I had some, personal interest in the, Appalachian Frontier at the time of the revolution. How that is still defining of people, there’s the East Coast City, and then there's the East Coast Mountain people. And they're really very different people, all up and down the coast not just a one part like up in Maine or in upstate New York.
So, Jeremy, said, what are you doing? I said, I'm tending bar and I'm theater maker, but I'm looking at film. He said, you'd do theater. I said, yeah, he said, would you write a play about the American revolution? and I said, oh my God, I'll give it a shot. And I just started; it was crazy. I found some actors and we played around with improvisation, and the idea of stock characters. I’m not the traditional European Del Arte, Comedia Del Arte characters, but on the premise of that, looking what are the stock characters of American history, American culture.
And I got into Pecos Bill and I got into, Yankee Doodle, and I got into Miss Liberty and I got into a big daddy, corporate structure and big mama corporate structure. And off we went, and a friend of mine caught the fever and wrote a script for us, Michael Christopher. And we did this piece called AmeriComedia.
And, it had started on the back of a pickup truck that we took down to Lafayette square in front of the White House, and people liked it and we had a good time and we played on the mall and then developed it with Michael into a full-length play and got a school bus and we started touring the East Coast, and all along I was going where the people were that didn’t have a theater. I was going to, union halls and churches and high schools, gyms, and wherever people were interested in a story about American history, American revolution, three years before, 1976.
And so, we had, six or eight months of touring from here to there and I learned about the Highlander Center in Tennessee.
BC : For those of you who are not familiar with the Highlander Center, it's a relatively small organization in Tennessee that has had an enormous impact on the American social and political landscape. At its heart, it's really a training and support center for grassroots community organizers. But also, a movement hotspot that has played a seminal role in the development and growth of both America's labor and civil rights movements, providing training for many activists, including members of the student nonviolent coordinating committee, Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and John Lewis.
Originally named the Highlander Folk School by its founder, Myles Horton. The center has always regarded movement work as encompassing the social political and cultural aspects of community life. Now when it's 88th year Highlander, despite the burning of its executive officers under suspicious circumstances in 2019 continues its work from its facility in New Market, Tennessee.
BL: And I found myself at Highlander and, I discovered that there was a group of artists, extraordinary people, John McCutcheon, among them, who were choosing to live in the communities of Appalachia, in order to, connect with their music and get their music connected with what was happening in Appalachia around the strip mining and union, work with the coal, brown lung and black lung, and corporate ownership of common land.
And these were artists who were like me, but they were doing it. They weren't thinking about it. They were doing it and making their music and their work in the community where they lived. And I made all kinds of sense to me.
I packed up stuff from Washington, DC and moved down to Tennessee and brought the American revolutionary Road Company with me,
BC: Which became the Road Company.
BL: Which eventually became the Road Company. And it was a good name. And until the 5th of July 1976 up until then the American revolutionary Road Company made sense to everybody on July 5th, they started thinking it was the communist trick.
So, we dropped the American revolutionary name and stayed the Road Company, and I thought it was a six-month thing. I thought that was going to be the end of it. And that didn't happen. People wanted more. And I said, okay, I guess I'm where I was supposed to be.
BC: So, for though the Road Company really had its genesis in this idea that, local culture, local story, in the communities and places where they were born people and the stories, have, have a lot to say and, deserve to be shared and stimulated and generated. And so, you became almost a living, breathing, contemporary, story, making, sharing machine. Is that?
BL: Yeah […] we did stories about Tennessee's history prior to being Tennessee. A fascinating tale, or multitude of tails. I don't need to take up our time right now, but it's an untapped wealth of American struggle with what we're doing here. Are we making a democracy or are we making money? And who's who are we doing this for? Are we doing it for me? Are we doing it for us? And who's us, and is them us? and, there's, those questions are right at the heart of, and we did this piece, it was terrible, but we did this piece called The Momentary Art of State Making.
And it grounded on that. We didn't have the skills to, to reach the dream. But the, just ordinary people really were out trying to make a nation. And they didn't know how, no one told them I ever had. Nobody ever got told how to make a name. Nations are delivered to you by God, and people were out in the woods literally, trying to figure out how to make a nation, and they brought with them, both the dreams and the horrors of their own backgrounds.
BC: And so, in many ways, the questions that you're bringing up in this story, which is who are we, whose story counts who gets to decide, in essence, what our value system is and who wins and who loses, we're all, seminal questions that gave birth to Alternate Roots. Which is in the 1970s, right. You relocated your bicentennial, born revolutionary theater to Appalachia with the idea of celebrating the stories of those mountains in the communities that spawned them in. As I understand, along the way you encounter many fellow travelers.
BL: Yeah. There's of course, many interlocking threads. I had this theater company in Johnson City, Tennessee, that was no longer just doing one play, but we were looking for a longer stretch trying to figure out what's important to do and simultaneously, there were little companies, little efforts going on around in Appalachia, South central Appalachia in Johnson City there was a thing called Broadside TV which was Super Eight and then some form of beta, video, and they got, a deal going with the local public TV because they had to air public stuff to maintain their charter. They'd put a camera on a clock and that was their public airing. But they were open to anything that could be considered public in order to maintain their charter. So, Broadside TV started producing theater, producing a video and film for release on the local public TV station.
And they were taking their cameras into the chamber of commerce meetings and into the town council meetings and the PTA meetings. And they'd also go down to the wrestling, Saturday night wrestling. And they would put these on, they put all these shows up on the public TV.
They had warehouse and some space that they weren't using. So, they opened it up for the Road Company, and they would do video of our work and put it up on the next to the clock, with a barometer. I had also run into Appalshop folks over in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and eventually got to be friends with Don Baker, and Dudley Cocke, and, Frankie Taylor, and Jackie Wright, and several other people who eventually created Roadside Theater.
So Broadside and Roadside and Road Company were aligned in our sensibility. We were doing very different things. We were aesthetically very different, both in terms of form TV versus live performance, but also Roadside was following the mountain traditions of storytelling, and I was still pursuing, I was still pursuing a sort of politically motivated, musical revue, coming from the tents on Cape Cod in terms of my own formal structure of theater making. And, but we recognize that we were all aligned in wanting for there to be public voices. Not a capsulized version of the national whatever, but what are people here actually thinking about, what do they care about, what's the struggle? How do we advance our own lives collectively here? And all three groups were very interested in that, and they were all also somehow or other connected with Highlander.
Part Three: Highlander and Roots.
BL: Highlander had applied to the national endowment for the arts for a grant to bring, artists from around the South together.
I think the grant was with the expansion arts program, But the, the woman who had been influential at Highlander suggesting the possibility of this grant was a theater maker, and very interested in, this kind of local work, but she had identified, Roadside Theater, and the Road Company as being interlopers to her domain. That we were in some way or other. Not to be trusted. So, she told the Highlander people that they could go out and do anything accept, invite roadside or Road Company. So, Highlander being who it is turn right around and invited roadside and Road Company to begin the work of drawing people together. And I got a phone call from Highlander to say this grant had come in and could I, or someone in my organization, partner with them and develop and put out an invitation, and they would invite people to come to Highlander to talk about theater, and art, from the point of view of building community. […] Jo Carson was at the time in the company and, she was interested in this and so she and I agreed that she would devote a lot of her, road, company time in, working, to organize that first meeting.
So, we were trying to figure out, so how can we build something that is useful for us collectively, regionally? And we put an open call, we sent to everybody, we sent it to, outdoor drama people, to summer stock people, to academic people. We sent it to every professional theater company we could find in the South, and all the community theaters it was a completely open call. Please come. And in that one meeting at Highlander, we lit on this idea of Alternate Roots which was at the time an acronym for Regional Organization of Theaters South. R O O T S as a kind of pun with some apparent substance to the joke. And, we thought, so cool. We've gotten together, but we don't know each other. We don't know the kind of theater that anybody's making, So, we thought the first, next thing we need to do as a festival and basically to put on plays for each other in one place.
So the next step was to, go down to Florida in the winter time. And, we got a campus, to agree to this. And we had this festival of theater of people who didn't know each other to find out who we were, and we spent a long weekend together and it was quite wonderful, and all kinds of crazy theater, happening, Appalachian storytellers and Grotowski, body Wranglers, and it was quite a mix I'll tell you. And we decided that it was worthwhile and there were wonderful people. I'm not going to be able to name names but there were some amazing people who, as you put it, this is an organizing feat of some significance actually.
And one the things that we did was to say, and this was in the spirit of the times, both in terms of the, from my point of view, the American revolution continuing, but also the times were about finding out what democracy can do in the face of oppression. Whether we're talking about women's rights or civil rights or Vietnam war, there were a lot of people who were trying to figure out new ways of understanding the paradigm of democracy and democratic decision-making.
So, we decided that the board was going to be everybody. It was not going to be representative governance. We were going to be a participatory governance, and what's absolutely really astonishing Bill, is that that still is the case. 45 years later, we have a board of 200 people, and it is functioning well. And not to say it's easy, but all the, the naysayers that would say, Oh, no, the board of 12, that's the max, not for profit law. No, but this is a continuing organizing, marathon, of artists who are committed to social justice, working locally throughout the Southeast in a participatory democratic, self-help organization.
We are our own service organization, and it's one hell of a history
BC: …and it provided of a forum for an extraordinary roster of, creative leaders. Not only in the South, but throughout the whole country, in action-oriented, result oriented, making, presenting, creating, that interestingly at least to me is that it's recurring cycle of the festival having happening every year. [It] built both a sense of accountability because people's bright ideas were shared one year and the next year they would come back and, people would say what happened with that idea?
BL: That's exactly right.
BC: And then the other is an as an incubating force for new people, young people, people who are normally left out of the making ecosystem. So, it perpetuated itself in a way that was not mechanistic or predesigned, but organic.
BL: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, so in Roots, we would see each other's work and realized, “Oh my God, I can do that. Oh”, so there was this really healthy competition of, ‘Oh, I can do that too’. So, I would translate what I learned from roadside into what I was doing with our company. And it's the same thing with playgroup and they were doing Grotowski and I started exploring Grotowski, and I learned Joe Chaikin material from a man named Steven Kent who had studied with shaken and had started a theater company in Los Angeles, much on the same order of a theater company called Provisional Theater, and they were experimenting with what the theater project, the, open theater had been doing in New York, years later. And then it got to, it got to, me at a Roots meeting and, and it just completely Just, it was like yeast, suddenly the dough that I was working, we went like this and it, it supported me for 20 years
BC: So, Bob, one thing that may not be obvious to someone who's not familiar with this history is that at the very beginning of our conversation, you talked about the prison of the theater, that the limited view, outside looking in, fourth wall defined, structure and definition of what theater is in the world. And all of the companies and the people, that you're describing that are connected with Alternate Roots and these other initiatives had a very different idea as to where the theater was, what was the object of theater and of actually ending up with something more than just a playbill and a closed show at the end of a production. That in fact there was added value to, to what was happening in the community in which the production was created. Could you talk a little bit about that whole concept of making a difference?
BL: Yeah. I don't know whether it was in the air we breathe. I came out of one of the more conservative theater, educational systems and Catholic University was very conventional, and they certainly weren't teaching me this, but I couldn't help it.
It wasn't like I had a plan or some kind of a blueprint on how to do this, but it just seemed like the right thing to do. And what was happening was that there were a lot of people who were doing that same thing and there was a sense of that. For example, there’s a company that emerged out of Joe Chakin’s work at the Open Theater called Otra Banda. They started a regular thing. They would in the summertime Otra Banda would get up on the Mississippi river and go down the Mississippi. And they would make plays on their raft and they would stop at a town and do the play, which is an old convention.
This is something that has been going on in this country for a very long time. It's an amazing history. So, this was not like some kind of freaky radical thing. This was going back in a sense to a way of doing, by way of finding out what's good about that. What's what are the values there? People just have theater show up on their front door and they like it. They don't want to go get in their car and drive to it. They don't know what it is, but if it shows up in their front door, they love it. And Otra Banda was in fact at the original Alternate Roots meeting. They had heard about it so they showed up.
So, there was this thing happening in the country amongst young artists. And I don't think it was just by any means. I think jazz was doing the same thing. There's all kinds of art going on this way, but there was an impulse to go back into the community, and that got reinforced over and over again with successes.
If you're, if you follow your nose and you're going down in the river on a raft, you show up at a town, there's a possibility they're going to throw you out. Who are you, get out of here, don't be, don't trouble us.
But they came in and tooting their horn and marched around on the street without invitation people liked it. That feeds you, that people liking, performers like to be like, that's part of the deal. So, they do, I do my thing and people say, yes, I want to do it more. And that's a whole other dynamic then trying to, answer to the French's, royalty demands. Connecting the ticket to paying for the rights that's just a very different dynamic than doing my thing and people liking it and saying more.
BC: And the other thing is of course, is that the French’s catalog is, as you say, it's the cannon and it is limited. But the main street of the town that you just, tie it up to has a thousand stories right there.
BL: Exactly. Exactly.
BC: And you could never, exhaust the treasure trove of tails and sagas. And of course, your audience, since it's their stories, they don't have to be convinced that it has some meaning being to them.
BL: Exactly. I've told you this story before, but the first show that we did in Tennessee with the Road Company was the story about the emergence of the state of Franklin, before, Tennessee existed. And we did it, got it ready and took it out on the 4th of July, 1976 as a kind of best effort, to satisfy the peoples by Centennial commission's original mission.
There we were in Jonesborough, Tennessee playing a story about a revolutionary era. History of Tennessee, and we were outside the courthouse on main street and it's a big celebration 4th of July. Lots of people there and we'd set up and people start watching. Kind of like the people that were watching the moving dirt and in Georgetown. They didn't know what we were, we didn't make any big deal about it. We just set up our stuff and people start watching. And we start our show, and it came a big thunderstorm and it started to rain. And I said, okay, it's raining. We need to take a break here. And the audience said, no, they said, this is our story. No, we're not stopping. Keep going. And it was that exact thing that fed me. I was like, Oh, I'm, this is what I had been looking for, they weren't listening to my story. I was telling their story, and that's a whole ‘nother story
BC: … Service to the community in which it is being produced. Yeah, exactly.
BL: And that can have all kinds of permutations and experimentations, with, with the aesthetic. Does it have to be told in a particular aesthetic? The commercial aesthetic of East Tennessee is Dolly Parton and the explosion of the stereotypes of a mountain people in East Tennessee, but that isn't necessarily the required aesthetic. You have to learn what the aesthetic is from the audience, as opposed to thinking what's the commercial version that will get the dollar. You're listening different things when you do that.
There were artists, the Roots that we're doing and have been doing that for now, for, several decades. And then roadside is a wonderful example of that.
BC: Part Four: A Passion for Justice.
So right now, we are at, in essence, if you think of it as a road, we're at the crossroads, a major crossroads. And all the questions that all of those communities that you visited, which is who are we? Where are we? Who are you? What's the story? Where are we going? What's happening to us, are being lived with extraordinary intensity.
And so, my question to you is in the middle of this as a person with your history and with your colleagues with that history, what do you see as the service, in a sense, of the work at this moment?
BL: Bill it's, it's daunting to think about, but there is a human, passion for justice, and it would seem that it's hard to get, despite the fact that there is a passionate commitment to it.
And without getting into all the theories, which I don't, I feel like I know less now, given the kind of enormity that's going on in our world, it's overwhelming, we need to, as human beings, we rely on the stories that we tell each other to keep our sense of direction. I don't mean down a road, but where's North. How am I in this space? And we understand ourselves through our stories, and that includes that passion for justice. It's not an abstract, people understand justice. They know when it's something is not just. They may take political positions, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But there's not some kind of wizardry to know whether something is just or not just.
And there is a deep human need, drive, dream, all of that for that. And the struggle is enormously dependent on the stories that we tell ourselves about that, and artists are the people who do that.
We are the people who, make images. We tell stories and, not that you haven't known the history, you might have studied the history, but my perception of the history is a new thing for you, and that experience for you to hear the old history through my way of saying is a way of stimulating, and massaging, and exercising your imagination, because you join me in that experience. When you join me in imagining a story that is frankly speaking the healthiest civic action that's possible.
Just the action of shifting my imagination to correspond with yours is healthy social behavior, and it exercises the capacity to dream. So there's a whole, a cascading of value in that. What I'm aware of is that there is, a very pernicious categorization that would suggest there's such a thing as political art, as if there's also nonpolitical art.
It's pernicious because of the idea that there's such a thing as nonpolitical art. The fact is that when you do something on your trombone that I've not heard before, in a way that moves me to some color or to some image on the beach, or to whatever it is that happens in me, that is a subversive action. And your capacity to bend my imagination is a value to me because we share an understanding of us, and it builds our understanding of who we are. That is a political action. I'm not talking about an issue based, I'm not talking about a presence of a particular ideology. I'm talking about how do we relate with one another as human beings in a social environment? We are social beings. How do we do that?
BC: Polis is us.
BL: Yes. Yes.
BC: And in fact, if we don't practice us Us-ness, theater, it really is a formal practice of being together and finding a common language to tell a common story. But, and there's the cliche life is theater everything we do is theater, when in fact that is absolutely the case. And in many cases the formal theater really struggles to come up with the level of drama and poignancy that exists on the city street, and, those people who were very good at it can manage to transcend, time space, and suspend all those things that get in the way of the us, which is judgment and… in a sense, there's a stew making that occurs, an imaginative stew where certain aspects of the stew are ingredients you would never have put in there. The taste is a surprise.
And I actually think the human brain without surprises, without the exercise of being bent in a direction that it's not used to, it ends up in an orthodoxy, which is in some ways the struggle we're having now is, people wanting very much to find a new orthodoxy that answers all the questions and separates the wheat from the chaff neatly.
BL: Not going to happen.
I'm reminded that you pointed me back to that sense of imprisonment, in the form, that I believe that profoundly. It’s not so much that the form itself is wrong. In the sense that the architectural space of, of a theater has some real amazing capacity, and magnificent theater happens in the most wonderfully formal theater spaces that you can find.
The problem is that the, education and the new folks coming up are being told there is one way to do it in that space. There are some very strong forces that insist on this is the way you do it. And you got to learn it, and then you got to prove it, and then you go and do it, and then you go support it. And that imprisonment doesn't allow for the exploration that can happen, but people do.
Rachel Chavez last year, she did an, a magnificent, conversion of a Broadway theater into an immersive environment. Something that hadn't been done before. And it was quite successful building a play that had come up out of the streets in a sense and got it all the way to Broadway and turn the building around, but boy, it's a hard-fought battle and sometimes it just is a lot easier and more effective to walk away from it and create the Otra Banda or the Road Company.
BC: So, when you talk about the ferment that produced Alternate Roots, and produced the Road Company, this is one of those times. Whether we like it or not, the entire world is upside down.
So do you have a sense that, by hook and crook and serendipity and the extraordinary forces that play, that, the evolution of art and community life is….
BL: It’s happening! Absolutely, and I really liked the, the image of the horse, which in the age of the dinosaur, the horse was the size of a mouse. It was a tiny little creature and, things turned upside down. I don't know whether a comment hit the earth or something, but things turned upside down and the horse emerged over the course of a long time, and no one would have thought that little thing that might've been a sort of a shrew or a mole or something would become what the horse is.
The horse is an astonishing creature. So, there are things happening right now with graduates, from schools or people who are just decided, never mind school, I'm going to go do what I want to do, and they're monkeying with the computer. They're doing stuff, telling stories without anything. They're to deciding I don't need to have a studio; I can get on and make music with my friends who are in another country.
BL: Oh my God, did I hear that correctly? I used to be stuck with the people I had in Johnson city. Now I can make music with people anywhere on the planet,
BC: right? Yes.
BL: We don't know what the horse is going to look like.
BC: Exactly. I love this image of the horse. I think that this episode is going to be called the evolution of the horse. The continuing evolution of the horse.
BL: The Road Company did a play during the first energy crisis, when Gasoline was, “oh my God. Going to be 75 cents”. You remember that? It's going to, it's going to break a dollar and we're going to stay a dollar for gasoline.
People lined up the gas stations and, the Tennessee Valley authority was proposing that they needed to build, nuclear plants. And there [were] all kinds of stuff going on in Johnson city and in the Tennessee Valley about, the idea of having nuclear reactors in our mountains, and there was a lot of turmoil.
So, we did a piece that opened that up. We, started by, going down to the Tennessee Valley authority building in Johnson city, which is a public building, and you can, schedule it without costs. And we had a series of, speakers come in to talk about alternative energy. We had TVA people. We had, scientists from universities. We had activists. We had back to the earth kinds of hippies, and all came together in panel discussions and the Road Company basically organized it and listened, and Joe Carson was a part of that whole organizing effort and began hearing the question of making a rip in the universe. Nuclear power, suggest the possibility of a, really a rent of the fabric of our universe, and that imagery started to go ahead and fire with her and she built a whole mythology, and we had this play that involved the three fates who were weaving, and spinning, and cutting, and it was eventually put out with all the information, all the positionings, all the talk that had happened in those public hearings were embedded into this mythology.
And then we played it back with the same people that had gathered. We kept the signup sheets. So, we knew who would come. And so, then that play got played back to those same people in the conversation continued, with the additive of this piece, which was called Horsepower.
BC: Interesting. Absolutely, that's great. That's a good way to finish here, Bob. Thank you!
BL: Oh, Bill. Thank you.
BC: I have to tell you, inevitably the thing that we're a very rich country in many ways, but our great poverty is our disconnection from our history. And not just because there's wisdom there, or even just basic lessons, but also because the pure joy of just imagining someone else's story, digging the dirt on the side of the road that people came and watched the making of a play. All of this is I think we live in a world that is closer and closer to the danger of turning almost everything into a caricature and everything we do should be slowing that process down and rending ourselves back into being the human community rather than a cartoon.
BL: Yeah. Letting the heart live.
BC: That's the, that's the goal with these conversations I'm having with people. Everybody is telling stories about things that are meaning meaningful to them. Good to spend all this time hanging out.
BL: Thank you, Bill.
BC: And same to you listeners. We also enjoy being in touch with you. So let us know what you think of our show by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, by subscribing to the show, and by sharing the show with your friends and colleagues.
Change the Story, Change the World is a production of the Center for the Study of Art and Community. It is written and produced by yours truly, Bill Cleveland. Our glorious, soundscape and theme are by Judy Munson, and our inspiration comes from you. Adios.