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