Tent theater developed in America as a popular form in the late 1870s, during a period of profound social change brought about by the shift from a rural agricultural to an urban industrial economy. Burgeoning metropolitan areas had become the principal stages of expressive culture, and their theaters mirrored the ethos and concerns of the urban populace rather than those of their rural neighbors. Those in the small towns viewed the theater with mixed emotions: though the stage was admittedly a vehicle for respectable cultural expression, its urban form was seen as basically disreputable. A rural theater movement that reflected provincial tastes and borrowed heavily from regional folk culture eventually developed out of this tension.
Borrowing from circus and minstrel traditions, tent rep companies usually opened the show with a band concert and interspersed variety specialties, ranging from juggling to ventriloquism, between the three or four acts of the play. The dramas themselves were often built around the ideological conflict between country and city life, idealizing the common man in a way that appealed to rural audiences. Certainly the most enduring character to rise out of this dramatic genre was that of Toby, a redheaded, freckle-faced country boy whose humorous antics and recurrent, though at times unwitting, triumphs over the forces of evil made him a favorite. With a personality drawn directly from American folklore, Toby captured the hearts of rural theater-goers and became so popular that many tent rep companies regularly included a Toby bill in their weekly fare. (The 1969 Festival featured a Toby show from Iowa.)
Whereas these tent shows were largely made up of white performers, a distinct Afro American entertainment tradition also thrived under canvas. From the 1920s through the 1940s, large troupes of black musicians, dancers, and comedians traveled through the South in variety shows such as the Silas Green or Florida Blossom minstrels. Using a format that merged minstrelsy with vaudeville, these tent spectacles presented fast-paced revues of classic blues singers, jazz bands, tap and eccentric dancers, comedy teams and choruses of dancing girls. Blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and comics such as Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham and Butterbeans and Susie spent much of their careers on the tent show circuit, performing material firmly rooted in black folk culture to enthusiastic Afro American audiences.
By the end of World War II, the number of tent shows on the road had markedly decreased; most of the survivors have since disappeared, leaving only a vestige of the tradition. In the course of their history, tent shows brought pleasure to millions, offering entertainment reflecting the rich folk culture from which they evolved while creating and popularizing new heroes, songs, jokes, and dances. By presenting black and white performers from the tent show tradition, the 1981 Festival hoped to celebrate this oft-forgotten era of American folk and popular entertainment history.