A woman with long hair wearing a bold floral print dress using a cane. She is holding a microphone and sports green Chuck Tayolors.
Artistic Producer
Calling Up Justice
National Theater Project Advisor

The National Theater Project Regional Convening: Appalachia was hosted at the Press Room in Knoxville, TN, December 1, 2019, with generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The room was sunny and warm where around 60 of us gathered to learn and listen and connect. The printed program included a great statement from NEFA acknowledging colonization. The live event began with this value embodied in artistic exchange.

After sharing lunch we experienced the work of Kaya Littleturtle, Kat Littleturtle, and Nakaya Leviner, “Traditions of our Southeastern Native Culture.” It is a gift to receive something moving, educational, and entertaining. Their performance revealed a depth of experience in sharing their culture.

This performance was followed by the first panel discussion “Learnings from The Carpetbag Theatre and Appalshop’s Long Legacies” where Jonathan Clark, Managing Director, The Carpetbag Theatre, interviewed  Linda Parris-Bailey, Executive/Artistic Director, The Carpetbag Theatre; and Dudley Cocke, Artistic Director 1976-2018, Roadside Theater (Appalshop). Both of these organizations have a rich history of developing artists and cultural productions despite classist and racist resistance. Big takeaways from this conversation were the power of longevity, the necessity of having both national support and local support, and the challenges to land ownership. During the reflections on touring we were left with the evocative question of “what are we asking the community we are entering to risk?"

After a networking break we gathered again to witness “Revól” from NOUVEAU SUD PROJECT. The Story of a Flag examined the historical presence of the confederate flag in the South of the United States through virtuosic circus arts, spoken word, live music, and visual storytelling. Carlos Alexis Cruz, Theresa Edge, Jordan García, Jarrell Wallace, Dejarius Bright, Deandre Bright, Michael Romney Tavera, Brandon Lomax, Byron McDaniel, Sean Mulcahy (music-composer), Mathew Tully (music-composer), and Kayla Rivers (stage manager) provided a  visceral and powerful experience that left us entertained and deeply moved.   

The next panel on “Collaboration in the Region” featured Jarius Bush, Artistic Director, Good Guy Collective; David Ferris, Education Team Co-coordinator, Highlander Research & Education Center; Bob Martin, Partner, Clear Creek Creative; Rachel Milford, Artist & Cultural Organizer, Executive & Artistic Director of Cattywampus Puppet Council and Good Guy Collective; Kiran Singh Sirah, President, International Storytelling Center; and was moderated by Joe Tolbert, The Carpetbag Theatre. It was an impressive group of artists representing a large community. Jarius Bush’s toddler was a charming addition to the panel and periodically interrupted the deep exchanges about equity and impact with hilarious babble. Kiran Sirah gave a great takeaway thought about storytelling as medicine. “Story is like the force. It can be used for good or evil.”

The next performance was a wholly different but equally expanded vision of circus performance. "Webs Circus: a Circus Confronting Sexualized Violence with Humor, Tragedy, and Empathy." Megan Gendell, Lissa McLeod, Laura Burgamy, and Daje Morris used aerial dance to give voice to the shared experiences we humans rarely know how to talk about with each other, from hard-to-identify microaggressions to hard-to-discuss assault and abuse and ended on notes of hope and healing. 

The third panel “Geography of the Appalachia Region” was an embodiment of the themes that many of the speakers touched. At this point in the day the sun was shining directly in every panelists eyes. Instead of honoring the printed schedule the room chose to honor the people there. The first step was to move the table and find a different perspective where everyone could see more clearly. In the background, a combination of stage managers, event producers, and participants hung blacks to black the sun. Moderator, Keryl McCord, CEO, EQ: Equity Quotient, had us take a moment to make sure everyone could participate in the conversation. We had the pleasure of learning from panelists A. Hasan Davis J.D., Founder and Director, H D Solutions; Becca Finney, Director, Roadside Theater (Appalshop); Robert Gipe, Producer, Higher Ground; and Kim Pevia, Founder and CEO, K.A.P., Inner Prizes. 

The final performances began with “What the Water Tells ME” from CATTYWAMPUS PUPPET COUNCIL and Good Guy Collective featured Jarius Bush, Rachel Milford, Jake Weinstein, Katie Myers, Jill Frere, Semaj Johnson, and Elle Collins. We followed two children’s journeys to adulthood, as they navigate the changes that occur in their home town and within themselves, when a large utility company comes to town and threatens the waters that raised them. The themes of civic engagement, climate crisis, and growing up were shared in a combination of big bold puppets, hip-hop, and dance with a cast of all ages. 

The final performance featured Rhea Carmon (RheaSunshine), Executive Director for the 5th Woman; Ryan Andrews; Heather Davis; and Destiny Shell. Since 2014, The 5th Woman has expressed love, struggles, laughs, and inspiration of those that experience the feminine through original spoken word. The raw honesty and authentic emotion informing their poetry gave us all a lot to think about.   

After the panels and performances we gathered together over food and conversation and continued our lively exchanges. The participants included members of the National Theater Projects advisory team, regional funders, and arts and community leaders. Appalachia is a vibrant region with a diversity of artistic expression and deep community engagement. The thoughtfully curated program provided us with the opportunity to learn and build the relationships that allow us to truly understand what our national theater community is about. If you have the chance, check out some of the archived live stream and get to know Appalachia better.  

Watch the Convening


A woman performs an aerial ribbon dance.
Webs Circus | photo by Meena Malik/NEFA
In front of a floral backdrop, three women sit, facing each other.
The 5th Woman | photo by Derek Schwartz/NEFA