When I was a student I remember feeling like ‘community theatre’ was boring.
I held an uneducated picture in my mind of patronising companies visiting schools and telling the students not to take drugs. Or of ‘less capable’ amateur performers performing under the direction of professional directors in what were twee performances.
There was a rift in my mind between a perceived integrity in the process of making an art work, and what seemed to be a process of using creativity and ‘drama’ to engage a ‘community‘ with pressing social issues (often with very little success).
In truth, that rift does exist to a certain extent. Or at least, there are poor examples of what is sometimes referred to as ‘community theatre’, but there are also terrible examples of what is sometimes called art-work. And even then, that is subjective. But more importantly, there are excellent examples of both, and most excitingly for me, the excellent examples are when the edges of both of these terms are totally blurred; where artworks are inherently for and with a community- born from a need that already exists, that only through the creation of an art work can the need be addressed.
In this blog post I thought I have listed some projects I have been part of that upheld more of a community sensitivity (in chronological with oldest first). I wanted to focus on this because during the years of working professionally as an artist I have had to engage in community focused practice initially for the purposes of getting paid work, but also because it has become more and more woven into my practice as an intrinsic concern, and also importantly, it has become a required component a lot of funding agreements as mainstream performance and theatre seems to be taking on more and more of a strong social agenda.
How To Build
This was an 18 month project funded by East Dumbartonshire Council and Creative Scotland, led by Hidden Giants that aimed to engage school refusers in an alternative learning process than a typical high school experience. We were referred pupils that the schools had not been able to successfully engage and retain. We started off with around 15 young people and ended with 4. We tried many techniques/forms/media of engagement, from drama, to sculpture/furniture making, growing food, cooking, audio work, installation making and the final sharing involved inviting their teachers to the place we had been working and cooking them a lunch with food they had grown, upon a table and chairs they had built. The success of this project for me, was that despite the huge drop out of pupils (who were never going to stay), the 4 that stayed found a temporary space they felt they belonged to, just for the hours of the work we did together. Outside of that space their world was very different- often chaotic and unsafe- but the timescale of this project allowed for an accumulation of experience and bonding that allowed them to trust us and perceive something different to the often traumatic experience of having to be in school or elsewhere. I learnt from this project that success would never be determined by an outside agenda (or curriculum) but instead it would be through a slow and incremental shift in understanding of who we were in relation to each other, to encourage an understanding of what ‘trust’ means through this process, and how we could work together in a way that allowed us to see the world differently. We used multiple forms of art work to best understand what creative ‘languages’ were most effective in bringing us together, which with any number of other people would inevitably had different results.
Teaching at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
I taught for 5 years on the Contemporary Performance Programme degree. I taught first and final year students in their performance class, from some of their initial creative experiments to their final degree works. The context of this programme (and my job as a guest artist lecturer) was not just the curriculum, but having a sensitivity to the hundreds of people who had studied it before and the community that we all made up by virtue of being there and contributing to it. We understood our working methodologies as shaped by the people who had passed through the doors of the programme. We were open to the influence of the outside world, we did not see our programme as separate to the cultures outside the walls of the programme. By virtue of all of this, the programme was regularly revised to make sure it felt relevant. It was hugely porous and sensitive to an ever shifting world. Again, this was not a working community that had a fixed idea of what it was meant to be other than fluid and open to change.Working within the community of the Conservatoire which had its own politics and culture that often felt different to ours, we found it important to remain sensitive to that context, allowing our identity to be shaped by the immediate environment we existed in. This process taught me to be open to the needs of an ever changing world, and build strategies of engagement with each generation of young person that entered the programme and the experiences they would be carrying which would be different one year to the next.
Battersea Arts Centre Homegrown Company
For two years running I led the Homegrown Young Company at Battersea Arts Centre, to create an original performance work to be shared in the main theatre space at the arts centre. This company comprises the young people in and around Battersea local area. It is an amateur company run by rotating professional directors. This is the area of Clapham in South London, which covers a broad spectrum of the population, including a lot of diversity relating to class, race and age. One of the processes involved an unexpected and intense examination of racial tensions within the young company itself, resulting in a work entitled ’17 Young People Attempt to Make A Show About Racial Tension’. As a white, able-bodied, middle class male, I found this process one of the most influential of all my work, as being in a position of leadership, I had to also admit that I wasn’t in a position to lead the process, given my privilege and my racial bias. I did not have the contextual understanding and experience to hold a process about racial tension for black/brown young people, and spent a lot of the time there working with the producer of the project who is black to advise on the ethics of the work and to follow her lead around certain issues. This process taught me to be humble to a context in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and taught me the fundamental approach to not expect you know the needs/wants/politics of a group before you’ve met them, and more importantly that you might never know, and only through the mutual collaboration of the process, can you only hope to meet.
This work was funded by Creative Scotland and in partnership with The Tron Youth Seniors Theatre group. This was also an amateur group led by professional directors. This work wanted to foreground the voices of young people in response to the imminent threat of climate collapse. The project had the responsibility to not only directly address the concerns of the group we were directly working with, but it also had to have an impact on the world beyond the studio. We invited the young people into a process of discovering their opinions and experiences of climate change while facilitating them to feel like they could apply these concerns in a way that might challenge the immediate environment they lived in outside the studio. What could they do to affect the changes they needed to see in the world? This approach felt right, rather than leaving the enquiry to the space of the studio. The work was about ecological collapse and so the process had to be ecological in nature too, it had to be connected beyond the privacy of our collaboration. The notion of community therefore had to be ecological too. How far does the definition of community expand- can it expand beyond being for only a human context? What does that look like? In this respect, this project really held fast to the idea that the walls of the creative studio are porous. As a slightly different approach to directing, I also invited the collaborative artistic team to feel like they should really trust their instincts in terms of creating what ‘felt’ right in relation to the production- I decided to experiment with relinquishing control of certain elements of the production despite being the artistic director. This might sound obvious, but in the end this particular invitation being extended to the designer, the assistant director, the video and sound artist and the lighting designer created a sense of creative freedom in the team, which felt in keeping with the ides of a practice that extended beyond me. The work moved beyond the vacuum of ‘me’ a single artist, and this was a valuable practice to inhabit- a kind of conceptual ecological approach.
Finally, I would like to mention this work, a sited, solo research project that happened on the uninhabited island of Mingulay off the southern reach of the outer Hebrides. This island was abandoned by a population that had resided here for nearly 5000 years. I had been commissioned by a Gaelic arts fund as part of Glasgow Life, to research and present some some material into narratives of migration, place, traces of human narrative on the land, and an overarching inquiry into the idea of landscape as story-teller. How does a space speak? Can we listen to that space? How do we do so? As part of this work I travelled the 8.5 hours (over two days) to get to Mingulay where I was dropped off by a private boat on the island, to spend time there by myself as the only human on the island. I had a brief residency there with my collated materials- maps, geological survey, anthropological books, recordings of the last inhabitants from the 60’s reminiscing about their final departure, books about the bird and plant life, and my own personal writings on how I feel I connect with this context, as a third generation immigrant, as a new father, as someone concerned about the impact of climate change on coastal communities and the erosion of contemporary narratives of place and belonging. After my isolated residency, I invited a small audience to travel to the island, where I met them and presented a 2 hour walking performance on the island that detailed the research with artistic practice. We then held a traditional story-telling ceilidh on the island- a practice that hadn’t happened in that place for over a century- and had a meal together. We then camped and travelled back the following day, on a boat ride around the island, eventually taking us to Barra where people returned to their own homes. There is still a lot of learning to unpack in this project for me, but I see this work as a community engaged project for and with the ghosts of that island, for the ecology, the plants, the animals, the weather, the difficulty and remote-ness of island life. It really is an extended idea of community, but I think that is interesting. Here the idea of ‘sited’ work totally blurred and was inextricably linked with community, and this deepened my sense of practice in terms of how we engage with a place and its people, its history and its physical and anthropological environment.
I suppose a conclusive comment to all this might be that for me, all good work is aware of the community that might benefit from it, or be inspired by it, or for who it is for. In this sense, I might argue that all work is community work if looked at a certain way. This might not necessarily be the case for everyone, so here is a list of some other companies/artists/organisations to look at for more working examples of sophisticated community sensitive performance:
A provocation for you:
Dream up a community project.
Identify where the needs of a community meets your ability/experience/desire/autobiography as a maker. Why would you be the right maker for that project?
Consider how you would begin the project- what would the invitation to the community be that begins the process?
Thanks a lot for reading.
See you next time.