Grassroots Theater

A book whose time has come -- thirty years later

One of the articles in Art And Ceremony In Sustainable Culture (IC#5)
Originally published in Spring 1984 on page 31
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

There is a long, but not well enough known, tradition of people working to nurture community-based art in the United States (which is still primitive compared to most other developed countries). This review gives a small taste of that tradition and what it is doing today. A good next step for exploring further is the October 1983 issue of Art & Artists, available for $1.75 from the Foundation For The Community Of Artists, 280 Broadway, N. Y., NY 10007. Another good next step would be to contact your state’s Arts Council and its Community Arts Director. You will probably find him/her to be a willing and helpful ally in the work of promoting cultural health via the arts. If your state director isn’t much help, contact Maryo Ewell (Community Programs Director, Colorado Council On The Arts and Humanities, 770 Pennsylvania St, Denver, CO 80203) or Donovan Gray (Community Services Coordinator, Oregon Arts Commission, 835 Summer St N.E., Salem, OR 97301) to get on the right track.

Grassroots Theater by Robert E. Gard, Greenwood Press, 88 Post Road West, PO Box 5007, Westport, CT 06881, $24.00 (includes shipping). Originally published 1955; reprinted 1978. Order direct from Greenwood Press: they will not fill single orders by bookstores.

OCCASIONALLY A BOOK will be written which causes a ripple for a time . . . lies dormant . . . and then, years later, bursts back – more relevant, more gripping than it was. I do not know who thought to reprint Grassroots Theater; but now, thirty years after its initial publication, we have a book whose time has returned – or perhaps, finally arrived.

It appears to be a simple book: the narrative of a young professor of theater, employed by the University of Wisconsin in 1945, who comes to further the ideal of the Wisconsin Idea: that the boundaries of the University are the boundaries of the state; that the Dean of the College of Agriculture wanted "to make poetry as important to the people of Wisconsin as dairy farming." And, in Wisconsin, Gard realized that people, their places, and their expression are the same thing. He recalls his own teacher:

Crafton had imbibed the goodness of places. He had traveled to the far cities of the earth and he spoke of them in their own fashion. He turned back the landscapes he viewed like the pages of a book, seeking the sights and sounds of old generations.

Grassroots Theater synthesizes this passion for places – their uniqueness, their past, and the love of the people for whom they are present – with his concept of theater: that theater is not scenery, costumes, budgets, lights, plots, and speech, dry and distant; that theater arises from the lives of people and their everyday experience; that theater flows from our land and from our collective experience; that thousands of people have plays within them that have been stifled.

He relates the development of the Wisconsin Idea Theater – from an initial hunch, an initial passion, to the creation of a viable statewide organization in which hundreds of people were writing plays, fiction, poetry. He recalls a catalytic incident: "Ranger Mac," a well- known 4-H leader, put the word out that Gard would meet with people who wanted to write rural life plays:

. . . On a hot June morning when I had almost forgotten about the proposal, my phone rang. It was McNeel and he said:

"There are nine people from rural Wisconsin here to see you."

"What for?"

"They want to talk about that writing."

"The rural plays?"

"Sure. "

I said, "I wish I’d known they were coming today. I’m pretty busy."

"One of the women has thirteen children."

"A farm woman with thirteen children has time to come to Madison to talk about writing?"

"She’s here," he said.

"All right, I’ll see them right now. Where?"

"Bascom Hall. There’s a classroom reserved."

I went up the Hill to Bascom. I found the nine people in a hot room that looked out on the slope down to Lake Mendota. There were eight women and one boy . . .

I said to the eight ladies and the one boy: "You are like a group of my neighbors when I was a kid down in Kansas."

The tall, gray woman said: "You remind me a little bit of a neighbor of mine up in Manitowoc County. He’s a farmer. Not really a very good farmer."

"Why did you come?"

"I don’t know exactly. Except that we’ve heard that you want people to write about their own places and the folks they know well. I think I could do that."

I said to them: "Tell me about yourselves. Where did you come from and what kind of places are they?"

And then began one of the most incredible experiences I ever had. These nine persons stayed at the University for three days; and every day about 9:00 in the morning we would start talking together. And as we talked our lives and the struggle in them emerged to lie against the whole fabric of our native places; and as we talked, hour after hour, a kind of fantastic play that was like life itself began to emerge and to encompass us all within its spaceless and formless self. There were times when we would speak, not as ourselves, but as imaginary characters that grew from our talk of people and events that were as real as the earth itself. The whole affair was a kind of dramatic ecstasy in which we were both the actors and the audience, the dancers and the music.

When the three days were over, it was as though a kind of dream had ended, with no more explanation than that with which it had begun. Then we awoke suddenly and realized that we had hardly mentioned the processes of writing at all and that, instead of a partly completed manuscript tucked in pocket or purse, we had only a confused but terribly exhilarating sense of something that had stirred our lives….

"I wish there were more persons like yourselves."

"Mr. Gard, " said the tall, gray lady, "there are hundreds and thousands of rural men and women who live on the land and love the land and who understand the true meaning of the seasons and man’s relationship to man and to his God."

I said, "If that is so, the plays they send to me don’t reflect such an appreciation."

She replied that she thought one reason the plays reflected little poetic appreciation of the area was because everything was made to seem too complex, too technical, too difficult. She said there must be a great, free expression. If the people of Wisconsin knew that someone would encourage them to express themselves in any way they chose, if they knew that they were free of scenery and stages and pettiness and that the plays we do seem so full of, if they knew that someone would back them and help them when they wanted help, it was her opinion that there would be such a rising of creative expression as is yet unheard of in Wisconsin and it would really all be a part of the kind of theater we had had these past three days, for the whole expression would be of and about ourselves.

Perhaps this sums up the book better than I could. It is a book about faith, about our places, about our life together, and about how we go about communicating that life.

Over the past generation we were a society valuing the material over the spiritual; the specialist over the generalist; the rational over the passionate; the organization over the individual. Only now has the cycle brought us back to collectively acknowledging the importance of educating the whole person, the value of simplicity, the importance of our land and our relationship to it: and in this context Grassroots Theater is not only a call to action but also shows us what is possible.

It is a book which we can read to use, and use again. It is a book to pass around, to become well-worn, to guide us as we decide where we will go, together.

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