Friday, April 25, 2008

Folk Drama

Almost one hundred years ago, a remarkable man named Fredrick Koch began teaching drama at the University of North Dakota. Within a decade, his accomplishments were noted by other universities, including the University of North Carolina and he was “invited” to design and launch a Carolina-based theatre program.

Koch pulled up stakes and came to Chapel Hill. The results changed American theatre forever. Koch encouraged his students to write one-act plays based on events drawn from the history of their home towns, their state and regional folklore. The results were remarkable. Over the next decade, his students wrote hundreds of plays on subjects ranging from ghost stories (Elizabeth Lay’s “When Witches Ride”) moonshine and bootlegging (Herbert Heffner’s ‘Don Gast Ye Both”), legends of outlaws (Paul Green’s “The Last of the Lowries,” and Thomas Wolfe’s “The Return of Buck Gavin,”) and the birth of Abraham Lincoln (“Nancy Hanks, Bondswoman.”)So began the Carolina Playmakers, one of America’s greatest theatrical movements. In time, these fledgling saw their plays produced and toured throughout the state. In the process, the Playmakers learned to build portable sets, design costumes and create essential lighting. Eventually, Koch published eleven volumes of folk drama and the folk drama movements spread, eventually taking root in other countries.

Many school children in North Carolina (circa 1920-1940) saw their first plays when the old Playmakers van arrived at their school. (I was in the 5th grade when I saw“Lost Horizon” and went back stage to see the airplane that flew over the town at the play’s conclusion. (It was a piece of cardboard pushed into an electric fan). Since the primary goal of the Playmakers was to promote an interest in theatre, their productions stressed simplicity – plays that could be done with a minimum of resources. Playmaker productions were often done in gyms, cafeterias and classrooms. The benefits were impressive. In addition to seeing a dramatic work, students learned about their region’s history and culture. Assuredly, the children who participated in these events found their lives immeasurably enriched and the memory of the Playmakers’ visit gave them a sense of pride in who they were and were they lived.

Which brings me to this conclusion. I think it is time to do it again. Is it within the realm of the possible that Writers Network West could be instrumental in launching a new “folk play movement”? Are there students in the high school in Hayesville or the Community College at Blue Ridge Community College who are capable of writing a one-act play? Could Writers’ Network West nurture this movement by monitoring progress? Arranging for productions of student-written play, planning a festival?
Comment, please.
Gary Carden

Gary reviews books at


  1. What a marvelous idea! The downside is that school curricula are so prescribed now because of mandated testing that there is little to no time to add anything else. One open-ended (flexible) requirement, though, is that all students must carry out a "senior project" of their own choosing with guidance and direction from a mentor in the community. Writing a "folk play" would fit that requirement beautifully.

    By the way, Gary, I've included PRINCE OF DARK CORNERS in a literature class I'm teaching at SCC this semester. I'll encourage the students to try a bit of such folk drama themselves.

  2. This is an excellent idea that needs a home. Gary Carden idea to have writers net west sponsor such a porgram makes sense.

  3. I typed a wonderful essay on how I was enamored with the idea and how it could be made to happen... and it being the crotchety, old fart that I am...I will not do it again...I will just say...

    When do we start.

  4. I'm happy to see so much interest in the Folk Drama return. Netwest will support anyone who takes on this project and do all we can to make it successful. We'd love to see young people involved in writing and performing their plays.

  5. And it isn't JUST folk drama that could find homes this way! Any kind could. As a teacher, I had the greatest success with an elective for juniors and seniors that wasn't drama so much as theater arts--everything from acting and directing through all the techie aspects, and it made the only real across-track class that ever worked. From college prep down, everyone loved it. Think how much better it could have been if writing had been included! Go for it--in community theaters as well as schools!

  6. Gary, I think the time is right - again. As we face the fearfulness of war and terrorism, as our economy shrinks as it did in the 20's to the 40's, we need that cultural glue to bring us and bind us together. I think we will be pleasantly surprised at the response by young people who may seem to be jaded by TV and text phones and gadgets. If they are encouraged to participate and to become a part of a "new" movement, they'll realize tenfold benefits as you did; their lives may be changed. Thank you for the history and for sharing your experiences, and for never giving up on playwriting. Penny Morse

  7. My mother was the eldest of six girls born to immigrant Ukrainian parents in an Appalachian coal mining town. She did not speak English when she started first grade.

    She would talk about she was impacted by folk plays put on in her junior high and high schools. In a community with new immigrants from different places, these plays were important, not only in expressing pride in heritage, but also in unifying students in accepting the basic values of the USA. They were even more important in demonstrating the practical applications of the arts in everyday life, and especially the literary arts.

    Folk plays written by students could be equally effective today, with a commercial and cultural impact beyond WNC, a drama version of the famed Foxfire series. For many students, they would be resurrecting their heritage. For Hispanic, Latino, and Native American students, they would be expressing it. One key to their success would be simplicity, as Gary noted.

    To get anything done, money and direction must be found. Could Netwest prepare a proposal, with input from Gary and his cohorts, to receive grants from the NC Arts Council and other relevant organizations? If adult literary artists are paid to put on performances in schools, why cannot students and faculty be funded to do the same?

    To coordinate this project, at least in its inception, could Gary and his Lost Playwrights be utilized? Putting on simple plays in simple settings, they would be qualified to show students and faculty how to do the same.


    Dick Michener

  8. Florida Studio Theatre has a plays in the schools program where FST gives lesson plans to K-5 teachers, comes to the school with three actors, puts on a show discussing elements of plays, and then teachers submit plays thier classes have written, either in groups or individuals.
    One day readers go to the theater, get a packet of six or seven plays which they read and give numbers to, then have lunch and short presentation by actors.
    Then Under Five plays are presented by the actors, probably twenty one page-three page plays in about two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon. Then the students and their parents have lunch and award certificates are given.
    This was successful program was fun for all, and has very wide participation.

  9. Perhaps I should mention that when I was teaching English/drama/speech in the 70's, high schools in Georgia and North Carolina still had one-act play festivals (regional and state). I miss that excitement. I am anxious to see a modern-day version of Koch's
    folk plays and this project would take the old one-act play concept one step further with student-written plays.
    Gary Carden

  10. I received this email from Ron Rash to be posted on Gary Carden's Folk Drama article.

    "I just wanted to say that Gary Carden's immense talent would make any funding he can get for programs a wonderful investment for North Carolina students. Gary's plays and storytelling are of the highest order, and his interaction with students will help develop young actors and writers."

    Ron Rash
    Parris Chair in Appalachian Studies
    Western Carolina University


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