Adventures in Folk Drama: Lessons Learned from One Year of ALT

Address to the American Folklore Society, 2019

by Jake Rosenberg




Good afternoon, distinguished folklorists and fellow members of the American Folklore Society. My name is Jake Rosenberg, and I am a folklorist at City Lore and the executive director of American Lore Theater. To begin with I’d like to express how grateful I am to be allowed to present at this year’s annual meeting, and to share the successes and pitfalls of one year of the American Lore Theater, a small but growing organization that has for its entire existence been distinctly tied to the American Folklore Society. The ongoing mission of American Lore Theater is to preserve, protect and perform American folklore, including legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales, tall tales, dialects and customs of or pertaining to North America, with our current emphasis being the United States. To measure how successful we have been at this mission, I would like to share with you our history, methods, and our plans for the future, and ultimately ask you, the knowledgeable folklorists of the field, how we can improve.


American Lore Theater got our start formally at the American Folklore Society Annual Meeting in 2017, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when we decided to change the “L” in ALT from “Literary” to “Lore,” but to tell you how we got to that point, first we have to talk about our very first project, the original play “Shotaway.”


“Shotaway,” based on the lost 1823 “Drama of King Shotaway,” by William Henry Brown, was based on the life of Joseph Satuye, a Garifuna chief who led a revolt of Black Carib people on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent against the British colonists in 1795. (1) The rebel Joseph Satuye has been compared to “a George Washington figure” by contemporary Garifuna (2) and is still venerated with folkloric drama today within the sizeable Garifuna communities of Honduras, and in The Bronx, New York. Due to racist resistance at the time of the premier of the original play, both the script and the African Grove Theater that premiered it were lost to us forever, and yet, when we first read about Shotaway, we became very excited by the idea of forging a connection to this lost piece of New York history and in particular, connecting this play to the contemporary Garifuna community through a new version of the drama. However, a question that quickly emerged from our exploration was, what would our version of Shotaway sound like? The answer to this question brings us to a second living tradition, the Gullah Geechee Language.


Gullah, also known as Geechee or as Sea Island Creole is “a language traditionally spoken along the coastal area of South Carolina and Georgia. It is an English creole, born several hundred years ago out of a contact language situation where Africans were abducted from various nations and language groups to grow rice in the marshy low country area along the southeastern coast of the American colonies.” (3) We are happy to report that this language is still spoken in the Sea Islands. What ultimately connects Gullah Sea Island Creole to the ongoing performance tradition of the life of Shotaway is one critical document, the 2005 translation of the King James Bible into a useable Gullah Orthography by the American Bible Society. This Gullah New Testament is the best practical example of a form of Gullah derived from a version of English similar to what was spoken in Shakespeare’s age, which was a proven influence on William Henry Brown. However, beyond this translation, Gullah is almost entirely an oral language, and so we quickly decided we would have to hear it for ourselves… so we boarded a Chinatown bus and headed down to St. Helena Island, off the coast of Beaufort South Carolina, and made contact with the elected representative of the Gullah Geechee Nation Queen Quet Marquetta L. Goodwine, in order to learn from her and work with her on issues of environmental justice at the first and second inaugural Black Folks Land Legacy Conferences. The trip was a great success, and opened our eyes to the possibility of collaborating with living communities outside of New York for our live theater work. What is now apparent to us is that by studying the living traditions of a living community in order to create a living artifact what we were doing… was folklore fieldwork! Since Folklore is not really popularized at the undergraduate level, we had no framework to conceive it as such. However, we knew we were on to something, which is why we were so enticed to attend the American Folklore Society Annual meeting, which we learned about from a simple post on Facebook. We applied to the mentorship program and were paired with Steve Zeitlin, the founding director of City Lore, a nonprofit Manhattan-based center for urban folk culture, who offered to answer any of our questions, and shared with us his vision of folklore, an expansive view that “tries to establish alliances and explores other disciplines freely, asserting that other arts and humanities fields have as much right to practice folklore as folklorists have to practice those fields.” (4)

It was here at the Society’s 2017 Meeting that we decided that our previous name, the American Literary Theater, was no longer an accurate title for the vistas we were interested in exploring. The field of Lore, with its promise of living traditions within living communities and its access to the humanity involved in expression of these traditions, was of greater interest to us than any accolades or titles that a perceived “literary” establishment could grant.


Shortly after this illuminating meeting, I began to work for City Lore as a folklorist, and was given the resources to implement our vision for creating community centered drama, and more importantly, make critical distinctions outside of an academic context between what is and what is not folklore. It is here that I must make a brief aside and say that it was Steve’s expansive definition of folklore which allowed me to consider myself a folklorist, and further pursue study in the field, outside of a graduate program, an insight and intellectual framework that has directly impacted my life, and which I hope has an impact on further young folklorists and folk artists.

It is because of this that American Lore Theater has chosen to model our definition of folklore as “a living tradition within a living community.” While there are many lengthy, academic definitions of folklore, many of which can be found on the AFS website (5), we found that the metric by which we were most quickly able to identify in the field whether a tradition was “living” or not was “is it expressed primarily from person to person? And is the human body, the human voice, and the human hand the main medium of its creation and expression?” These questions continue to be important not just as a definition of folklore, but as a way to connect real folklore traditions that have deep meaning in their original contexts, to the discipline of live theater, which when done correctly is as vital and expressive as any meaningful ritual, and is by necessity transmitted from a living performer to a live audience. Benjamin Botkin says in his 1938 Manual for Folklore Studies (6) that all folklore traditions depend on key principles of repetition and variation, and we believe this to be true for the formal discipline of theater as well. Whether it’s in the repetitions and variations of memorization of lines or movements, or repetition and variation of the same performance on a multiple night run, Botkin’s principles are highly applicable to achieving excellence in performance, and we let these principles inform our approach to our first season of folklore plays. Using these principles, we were able to rapidly generate massive lists of potential living traditions in American communities, all rife to be performed, and more importantly, participated in.


While work on the Shotaway project is still ongoing, American Lore Theater has had a few successes with performing live work, including our 2017 production of Valley Girls, focusing on the folklore of Trans Programmers in early Silicon Valley. However, for the scope of this address, I would like to focus solely on 2019 as an exemplary year by which ALT began to hit its stride as a company consistently producing new work under a tested theoretical methodology.


At the dawn of 2019, we selected a test group of three theatrical ideas that we felt spoke to our vision of what a populist folkloresque theater could be.


These plays were:

1. “Whittier, Alaska” by Paige Esterly, which centered on the real town of Whittier, Alaska, in which the 2016 census estimated 214 people lived, almost all of who live in a single building.


2. Salt Water People, by Jake Rosenberg, me, which focuses on the plight of the Baymen of Long Island, and of the Bonackers, descendants of the oldest European settlers on Long Island, in particular their unique and rapidly fading American English dialect.


3. Mothman! By Charlotte Ahlin about the 1960’s Mothman sightings of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.


In order to determine if both traditional and recreational audiences would respond positively to our work, we decided to give each play as identical a development process as we could. First, we networked with a selection of writers which were already known to us, and who were willing to work under the conditions we prescribed. Each playwright was given an initial four-month period in which they were able to independently research their chosen topic, with an emphasis on documenting and contacting the living bearers of their traditions. Playwright Paige Esterly writes about her research process:

“To research for this play, I first reached out to those on Whittier’s city council and port and harbor committee, whose emails were posted on the town website. I was able to get some interviews from that, and through those connections I was able to reach out further to other residents. One thing that surprised me was how open the residents were to the idea of me writing a play about their town. I am used to a certain level of reluctance or a desire for privacy, but those I interviewed jumped at the chance to tell me all about their lives and their experience living in Whittier… nearly everyone I interviewed for the project started off by insisting vehemently that there was no lore to be found. This is, of course, not true at all; Whittier has its own traditions, stories, and culture. This is powerful because it certainly challenges the common assumption that folklore has to be “old.” Because many of Whittier’s residents are unaware that they are, in fact, part of modern lore, we were able to consider this idea aloud together during our interviews.” (7)


After researching, each writer was given one month to deliver a first draft, the average lengths of which were 77 pages. A selected cast of trained New York actors who were not necessarily members of the folk group they were performing then read these drafts. Then each play would receive an equal amount of rehearsals, no more than 6, then a reading to the public, the space for which was graciously provided by City Lore. The average attendance for these events was 80% of the capacity of the space, which houses 50 people. After each of the shows, the authors were asked to write a flag report summarizing their research. While in general our performances were met with strong approval, it is from these reports and the analytics of ticket attendance measured through Eventbrite that we could make some key criticisms of our first year. In hindsight, the plays selected for the first season of American Lore Theater all focused on communities and themes with key similarities. Each community in question was:


1. Removed from Urban NYC

2. Perceived as Middle and Lower Class

3. Majority European American


These themes tend to lean toward the popular, and to a certain extend, populist, idea of folklore, and is reflective of the creative teams of each play, which are primarily European American cis-females between the ages of 20-29. In short, it’s apparent that we need to expand the scope of our programming in order to accurately engage with the fantastic diversity of American culture, and we have vowed to achieve greater variation in our creative teams in future selections. Furthermore, the playwrights selected have unanimously been outsiders to the communities they have chosen to write about, though this is of course why we place such great emphasis on active connection and collaboration with tradition bearers. This indeed does indicate that while the finished plays contain authentic folklore from these communities, the finished scripts and performances themselves are not folklore objects, merely folkloresque.

While these details are pronounced, we have still had a positive impact on connecting folklore programs to a broader community. We have grown our artistic reputation with each new production, with the Wall Street Journal saying about our process behind Salt Water People that our “theatrical approach illuminates folk culture in ways that a museum exhibit can’t.” (8)


So what’s next? We have consistency made returns on our investments in each show, and have managed to turn a humble, but consistent profit from these readings, which we will not report here. This indicates that there is indeed a demand for explicitly folkloric content from a non-academic audience at least within the urban milieu of New York City, though we suspect this interest extends as far as folklore does. Our goal continues to be the preservation, protection and performance of American Folklore, and we hope to continue our work towards achieving a repeatable methodology that can accommodate and promote the rich variations of our continent’s folkways, singing, dancing and poetry. We hope to continue this virtuous cycle of presenting and selecting content, and using the money to fund further research, which comes in the form of extended direct contact with living communities. It is our ambition to continue the steps we have outlined here, as well as putting a greater emphasis on taking our plays out of New York to directly collaborate with and perform within the geographical reach of the audiences our plays are about, the first of which will be in two weeks, when we will perform Salt Water People in front of an audience of Long Island Baymen with support from Nancy Solomon of Long Island Traditions. We will have to report on its successes and pitfalls at next year’s conference.


In closing, this has been our journey thus far, and our first steps toward the future of folklore theater, a future we envision in which traditional communities continue to be dignified and consecrated by the power of live performance. Our next play, Salt Water People, will have its second performance on November 3. I hope to see you there.



Works Referenced

1. George Thompson, A Documentary History of the African Theatre, Northwestern University Press, 1998, p.53

2. Interview with Rey Allen, contemporary Garifuna Theatre Director, August 19, 2019

3. De Nyew Testament: the New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole with Marginal Text of the King James Version. American Bible Society, 2005.

4. Steven J. Zeitlin, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 113, No. 447 (Winter, 2000), pp. 3-19

5. What Is Folklore? - American Folklore Society, www.afsnet.org/page/WhatIsFolklore.

6. B.A. Botkin, “Manual for Folklore Studies” (1938)

7. Esterly, Paige. “Whittier Alaska Flag Report by Paige Esterly.” ALT, American Lore Theater, 25 July 2019, https://www.americanloretheater.com/post/manage-your-blog-from-your-live-site.

8. Passy, Charles. “New Play Looks at 'Bonacker' Fishermen of Long Island.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 20 June 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/new-play-looks-at-bonacker-fishermen-of-long-island-11561067111.

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