Arts in the community as a place-making event

bike

My work with Hanby and Barrett (which became Excavate in 2014) led us to the door of The University of Nottingham where we asked if anyone could help us understand a little more clearly the processes that lay behind the work we were making. Since then our relationship has gone from strength to strength. In 2009 and 2010 we created a series of shows in Bilborough (documented here in a short film) before going on to develop another series of projects around Raleigh (including this rather impressive archive of audio interviews). We’ve since been involved in the Performing Impact project and the last two Being Human festivals, re-staging our community play about the Luddites in the Galleries of Justice, and creating a day long version of B.S Johnson’s ‘The Unfortunates’ across Nottingham (which The Spectator wrote about). And now we’re working on more two projects with them (of which more later).

Below is a chapter for The Routledge International Handbook of Arts and Education that came out of this work.

Arts in the community as a place-making event

Pat Thomson, Andy Barrett, Christine Hall, Julian Hanby and Susan Jones.

Stuart:            Hello everyone, my name’s Stuart, thanks for coming along this evening, it’s good to see you all; especially those of you who have helped me over the last few months, trying to discover the history of this… (unveils tandem) It’s a Raleigh. Someone gave it to me ten years ago. …

On the screen we now see an image of a leaflet – ‘Request for Help. Stuart Bull is trying to discover the history of this bicycle which he has recently taken possession of. If anybody has any information on the bicycle, or would be interested in helping Stuart in any way; then please call him on … or email ….

Stuart:            Many of you will have received one of these with your Raleigh pension cheques; …. and this evening has come about because of the response that I had to these requests for help, just about all from ex Raleigh people, because, as it turned out, this tandem and The Raleigh, the factory, seem to go pretty much hand in hand. Which made sense to me because I used to work there too.

And, as ex Raleigh people do, we began to share memories; and of course we all had stories from the different shops that we worked in.And after all the talk about the good times and the bad times and the work we did and the nutters we knew, someone suggested that all of this information that I’d gathered from these people about this bicycle should be shared with others; because as I said, in some ways the story of this tandem could be seen to tell the story of the factory itself. And there are people out there – like many of you – who would want to know that story. Because the factory, The Raleigh, was such an important part of all of our lives. Such an important part of Nottingham itself. And so we started talking about the best way to do this, the best way to make something that none of us had ever made before. And we decided that we would have to go about it the Raleigh way; with each of us looking after a part, a component and then finally sending it to Finishing so to speak, where we would put the whole thing together.

(Abridged introduction to A lifetime guarantee: A history of The Raleigh and the people who worked there by Andy Barrett, 2012.)

This is the beginning to a piece of community theatre, developed as part of a project to mark the 125th anniversary of Raleigh bicycles. As it happened, it was performed in the year when Raleigh ceased to be a British brand. The shift to Dutch ownership was the last in a long series of associations between bicycles and the city of Nottingham. The project was developed and put together by an interdisciplinary team consisting of Hanby and Barrett, a community theatre company, and academics from schools of Education, Engineering, English, History and Computing Studies at The University of Nottingham. The university’s newest local campus, named the Jubilee Campus for its opening in 2000, occupies the site of the former Raleigh and Sturmey Archer factories. A Lifetime Guarantee was the culmination of a series of activities designed to remember and mark the ‘place’ that Raleigh had in Nottingham’s history and identity.

This chapter explores arts in the community – that is, activities such as A Lifetime Guarantee – as place-making events through a case study of one community theatre company, Hanby and Barrett. We firstly report three key elements of Hanby and Barrett’s methods when working in communities: an ethnographic approach, an emphasis on recognition and the role of language and narrative. We then consider this as a case of place-making practice and suggest that this approach has much to offer institutional-based education in general, and arts education in particular.

Before we begin it is important to signpost the basis on which this case was produced.

Our partnership

Academics Thomson, Hall and Jones have been working collaboratively with Hanby and Barrett, a community theatre company, for six years. Most often, Jones has worked as an ’extra pair of hands’, both observing and participating in productions, but Thomson and Hall have also attended planning meetings and performances. During that time The University of Nottingham has funded four community theatre productions and associated lead- up activities.

We have been jointly engaged in a community theatre practice which builds networks between the university and a section of the city which is generally known by a series of council estate names, or by sets of statistics which designate the area as one of high unemployment, poverty and deprivation. We have taken a counter-view, an assets-based approach (McKnight, 1995; McKnight & Kretzmann, 1996), which began with the understanding that people who lived in this region had histories, experiences, stories, literacies and arts practices which we were interested in and wanted to know about. While there was no doubt that many households in these neighbourhoods were facing hard times, this did not warrant seeing them as uninterested in the arts, in social activities or in policy and politics, which was how they were usually portrayed in official documents. We all saw community arts in general, and community theatre in particular, as running counter to demeaning and demonising discourses.

We were also interested in understanding better how community theatre ‘worked’ and ‘what it did’. To that end, we engaged in a great deal of documentation of process, and Susan Jones worked as an ethnographer on the first three community productions undertaken in the Bilborough estate (Hall & Thomson, 2010; Jones, Hall, Thomson, Barrett, & Hanby, 2013). We also undertook a desk study to see what kinds of literatures might inform a better understanding of the processes so highly valued by and in community theatre(Thomson, Sanders, Hall, & Bloomfield, 2013, see also www.performingimpactproject.wordpress.com). This chapter is a further exploration of a key concept we have been working with – that of place.

An ethnographic approach

Hanby and Barrett are usually contracted to work in specific places, material locations boundaried by their postcodes (Cresswell, 2013). Some of the work we discuss here is based in a large post war Nottingham council estate, Bilborough. Like all geographical locations, this is not a homogeneous neighbourhood, but has multiple social and cultural networks and associations within it, and which extend beyond it (Massey, 1995). However we also discuss the production with former Raleigh workers: while most of them live in one region of the city, their association is one brought about working on the same geographical site. The University of Nottingham Jubilee campus where the academic authors work, is strongly associated with the city itself as the site of the former sprawling Raleigh factory. In this instance, the place involved is the site of the factory, not where former workers live.

Place based community artists typically begin their approach in ways not dissimilar to community developers or teachers planning a unit of work. They start by doing some research about the area they are about to enter. Hanby and Barrett began their work in Bilborough and on The Raleigh in the library. They were not looking for official statistics, but rather for documents which told a story – how the council estate was developed, how bicycles were advertised, what the public were told about how they were manufactured, which important people visited the factory. They also searched for current organisational contacts and addresses – sporting clubs, churches, social organisations listed in Bilborough, and retired employee and bicycle-based organisations in the case of Raleigh.

This desk research was followed quickly by person-to-person connections. Hanby and Barrett always seek out places where they can talk with people (Figure 1 details an early stage of their first project in Bilborough, a play based on memories about how one post war working class garden estate was built and occupied).

Teas and breakfasts are ordered and A and J tell me about the meeting they had just had with various people – luckily, one meeting had led to others, when they had bumped into people. They seemed pleased with the reception they had got on their first encounter ‘proper’.  A man who was apparently ‘Mr Bilborough’ had thought the project was a good idea and A and J felt that having such a mover and shaker on board could only be a good thing.  They left with an offer of the community group of which this man was a chair distributing 800 flyers around the community to promote interest in the project (invitations to a meeting).

A and J are buoyed by this interest in the first hour. However, they warn me that there are many issues with a project such as this.  A shows me a LONG list of contacts they have made with various community groups, all of which have to be re-contacted now the work has started.   This is extensive and ranges from social issue agencies funded by local government to Guides and Scouts.  J receives a phone call from someone who is responding to an email.  He invites them to a meeting next week (Local Action Group), of which there are two – one in the eve for families, and one during the day for elderly people ‘who daren’t go out at night’.

A and J then set to work on looking at shop windows for community notices. A and I go to find the church.  We find the church hall, with a notice for Bingo, Karate and Japanese sword classes.  The church is nearby, although closed.  There are two services a week here.  A has been in contact with a local GP who is interested to involve young mums and toddlers in the project.  He decides to write to them, though, rather than drop in today.  The medical centre is right next to the pub, in front of the library – it feels like everything is located in a 200 yard stretch. We go to community centre to look at notices – A continues to list them (there are many) – dance groups, T’ai Chi, toddler craft sessions, youth drop-ins…

Then we head off towards the stadium. On the walk there, we pass many prefab houses, some of which have been externally modernised.  A thought he’d heard that there was a nickname for this area, ‘tintown’, based on the style of houses

(Susan’s field notes. 2nd October, 2008)

Sites for conversation ranged from child care centres, play groups and senior citizen’s centres all the way through to ‘door stopping’ – bringing a lounge chair to the local market and inviting people to stop and talk for example.

sofa 2

(Andy Barrett chats with a local resident at the local market. Julian Hanby is behind the video camera recording the conversation).

John Thompson (2009) argues for applied theatre practitioners to take just such an ethnographic approach. He writes of theatre in trauma and war contexts and argues “for an ethnographic perspective that starts with the knowledges and practices within a community before diagnoses, treatments or performance techniques are assumed to be appropriate”(p. 71).  Listening, hearing and respecting local ways of being and dealing with life militates against incoming theatre practitioners initiating activities that are can lead to more distress and harm, rather than the healing that is intended.

Of course, the residents of Bilborough and the workers from The Raleigh are not in war-ravaged Rwanda or Sri Lanka. Hanby and Barrett are not engaged in theatre as healing. However, council estate residents and factory workers alike have been subject to a range of belittling discourse and antagonistic and/or paternalistic policy agendas. Community theatre runs the risk of perpetuating harm by reproducing stereotypes, or berating residents for failing to mount sustained and effective political opposition, or commiserating with them for being powerless victims of a totalitarian state.

But common to theatre in war contexts and that undertaken in Nottingham is ethnography as a practice of ‘recognition’.

Recognition

This ethnographic approach continued right through the Hanby and Barrett theatre-making processes. Working in much the same way as good journalists, or good academic ethnographers, Hanby and Barrett focused on the places where people congregated and then asked questions, followed up leads, listened carefully and took copious field notes. They wanted the performances to ‘ring true’ to the people who were involved, and the people who came to see. And they did.

All of us – academics and theatre practitioner alike – have frequently observed how people reacted when they saw their stories re-presented back to them in artistic form. Even if the story was not exactly as they told it, but as a version of it, they almost always responded as if something of the essence of what they had talked about had been successfully captured. They didn’t leave the performance moaning about how ‘they got it wrong’ but rather left talking animatedly to others, using the performance as a way of re-remembering the events and others like them. The performances were also very important to those who were involved.

The Wigman Ladies group have been in every Bilborough production. They have been meeting together since the 1950s. They were important sources of stories for the first Hanby and Barrett production which was based in memories of the area. They starred in a film which recreated their get-togethers from that time. Jones reminisced with the Wigman Ladies about this experience:

Susan: What was it like to be in the film?

JF: It was brilliant.

JW: I’ve never laughed so much in my life.

JF: When I’ve let people see it, they think ‘Oh no’, then when they watch it they say ‘that film’s absolutely brilliant’.

JW: You know when we’re all walking in the door, that’s the funniest bit.  I can remember Daphne – you know Daphne, who died – it was a windy day and her hat blew off!  We was running down somebody’s garden path fetching this hat back.  We kept saying I hope a bus doesn’t go past.

B: And everybody got involved, even the people who couldn’t walk very well, they all got a part to play.

JW: Joan did the money, didn’t she?

JF: Doris worked at – what did she do – worked at Boots?

B: You know when you watch the film back, I’ve got about three jobs – I worked at Boots, I worked at Raleigh and I did something else.  I did everything.   I didn’t realise.

JW: I loved it, when we all watched the film, when we all stood up and sat down.

K: Me and Daphne had to change hats.

JW: It was brilliant. I think they’re (Hanby and Barrett)  very clever people.

JF: How they got it exactly…

As the women got braver, they carried on these re-enactments into further productions.

wigman ladies

(The Wigman Ladies re-enact on the stage).

The concept that seems most to capture ‘how they got it exactly’ is that of recognition, as used in the writings of Nancy Fraser (Fraser, 1995, 1997, 2000). Fraser argues that one of the ways in which people are marginalized and discriminated against is if their identities, languages, choices and ways of life are mis-recognised. This misrecognition then turns into active discrimination and injustice. Fraser argues that a politics of recognition works for justice as a parity of participation – that is the right to participate in society on an equal footing with others. She says:

“According to the norm [of parity of participation], justice requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers. For participatory parity to be possible, I claim, at least two conditions must be satisfied. First, the distribution of material resources must be such as to ensure participants’ independence and “voice.” I call this the objective condition of participatory parity. … the second condition requires that institutional patterns of cultural value express equal respect for all participants and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social parity. This I shall call the intersubjective condition of participatory parity. … either burdening them with excessive ascribed “difference” or by failing to acknowledge their distinctiveness.”(Fraser & Honneth, 2003, p. 36)

Community theatre does at least some of these things, particularly in relation to respect and voice. We know that many of the community members and school students who participated in Hanby and Barrett’s productions do not experience parity of participation in their everyday interactions with for example, school, the health service and housing authorities. We know that they come from an area of the city which is spoken about in media and government reports as if they are feral and feckless, or quaint relics of a bygone age or simply unimportant places where ‘nothing happens’ (as a local government officer described Bilborough to Hanby, Barrett and Jones). We know from conversations that Jones had with participants in the project that they are often fed up with other people making decisions for them and speaking for them. They often feel that their versions of events do not warrant attention and that the attention they do get is sometimes stigmatizing or misleading (c.f. Peel, 2003; Vincent, 2012).

But the ways in which people interact within the frames of community theatre might offer some redress to this lack of parity. We have seen that community theatre can provide moments and spaces in which stories of everyday life can be told and be valued and respected and held in esteem equal to any other life story. Recognition via parity of participation is one of the processes which leads to community members saying they have valued the experience of participation and of being an audience member, that they have ‘got something out of it’.

Sharing in a performance which ‘recognises’ allows a reinvestment of local meanings in a site which has been largely been taken over with nationally oriented representations of apathetic, social abjection and deprivation (Tyler, 2013). Arjun Appadurai (1996) argues that local neighbourhoods, as a context for human activity, have been under serious duress. Not only are neighbourhoods vastly unequal in income, power and status, but neoliberal governments have sought to turn localities to their own ends, defining them only in relation to national needs and interests. So the council estates in Nottingham and other places are best known by national referents to levels of employment, income, health and education levels, and are discussed in policy in relation to their use of services, capacity to contribute economically, and so on. Projects that seek to work with local understandings of place can thus be seen standing out against the erosion of local meaning-making practices (c.f. Hayden, 1996; Rose, 1997).

In this process, language and narrative played a key part.

Texts of their lives

‘Texts of their lives,’ is a term used by Bob Fecho (2011) in his explication of the dialogical writing classroom. Fecho begins by suggesting that, in school, many students are given assignments and exercises that have no connection with their own lives. They do these dutifully, reluctantly or not at all, and the learning that results is valuable only in terms of test results. Fecho argues for classrooms that not only allow students to gain the skills and scores that count but which also ‘create opportunities for students to use writing to explore who they are becoming and how they relate to the larger culture around them’ through the provision of ‘systematic and intentional means for reflection and action,’ which offer ‘a means for making sense of their lives’ (pp. 4–5). Such a classroom sees the lives of students and their families and communities as valued, key classroom multimodal texts from which to build and extend learning.

This is not the same as an experiential curriculum but is rather, as Fecho puts it, an extended ongoing conversation that brings together the intersections of the personal and academic in ways that help children and young people – and their teachers – build understandings of themselves and their worlds (pp. 7–9). Fecho proposes that teachers take the idea of ‘texts of their lives’ as central to their classroom practice.

Hanby and Barrett worked with ‘texts of their lives’ in all of their projects. We suggest that a key to the recognition that was produced in Hanby and Barrett productions was the practice of deliberately searching out, valuing and using the texts of the lives of Bilborough residents and the former workers at The Raleigh. And of course, these texts were sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes a reminder of what making a life in past times actually meant – the realities of working. Hanby and Barrett did not dodge the unpleasant.

‘I was put on this tool punching holes into wheel hubs. It was a very difficult job; you just couldn’t earn your money. One and threepence a hundred. How they came up with that figure I’ll never know. You may as well have stayed in bed all day for the amount of money you were going to earn. And once you were on it that was that. Nobody was ever going to offer to swap jobs with you. Nobody wanted it. And then this lad who lived over the way from me told me how to get off of the machine, because he’d been stuck on it once. And it was simple really – if you put the wheel hub onto the lathe backwards then the tool would break. And if you broke the tool then you’d get taken off of the job.

It took me a bit of courage to work up to that. They weren’t stupid. That machine had been broken quite a few times. But I thought never mind, it’ll be worth it. But it wasn’t. I was given as right dressing down and they put me on Banding. Even worse. Taking off all the little bits of scrap metal from the screws and nuts that had been drilled and tapped. It sounded easy enough, it always does. ‘You just pick up the screws and touch them on that emery band. That’s it. Three pence a hundred’. But the screws were that small you could hardly pick them up, and as soon as they hit the band, that was going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, they would ping out of your fingers. Terrible’.

(Excerpt from the script A Lifetime Guarantee).

The extract contains expressions familiar in Nottingham and other parts of England – ‘the lad’, ‘a right dressing down’ ‘to moan’. Here is also a narrative of mindless labour, of work that hurts the body, of low wages, of no other option. This was a narrative familiar to very many who worked at The Raleigh – they had either experienced this directly or knew someone who did and thanked the arbitrary employment gods that this wasn’t their lot.

In their ongoing conversations with local people, Hanby and Barrett were always on the lookout for individual stories, local expressions, recurring events and views. The field note extract earlier in the chapter shows Andy already thinking that the expression ‘tintown’ might have some resonance locally. This was something he then proceeded to test out in subsequent conversations. Finding out about the neighbourhood was an iterative process. It was this attention to language that alerted Andy very early to the fact that although most of us knew the bicycle factory as Raleigh, it was known by insiders as The Raleigh. Using this terminology created rapport in interactions, showing Hanby and Barrett to be on the ‘inside’ and also perhaps able to be trusted with further insider information.

Audiences recognised this language, the stories and the events. Some could pick out the exact words that they had spoken. But all of them knew that what they were seeing was ‘true’, as shown in this extract from an interview with residents of a retirement home.

Brenda: They did it true to how people had said, really.  They were using a lot of the words that was in it.

Betty: Perhaps they were the memories that most people had got, you know.

It was these moments of shared recognition, produced by the narratives and specific use of language, developed through taking an ethnographic approach, and their presentation in an artistic form, that constitutes place-making.

While Hanby and Barrett productions were discrete and occurred over a relatively short period of three years, they did change associational patterns in the neighbourhood. New friends were made, and the performance itself became a new shared memory.  A place-making event has these characteristics – the material, geographical location becomes, for those who are involved as either audience or participants, a little more imbued with public meanings – meanings built from the life experiences of those who live there, told in language that is familiar. This stands in contrast to media and political recasting of local experiences into bureaucratic and sensationalising texts (Smith, 1993).

Arts in the community as place-making

Place is not simply a physical location. A location becomes a place by virtue of the meanings that people attribute to it (Casey, 1998; Tuan, 2011). A postcode becomes meaningful through what happens there, the social interactions and networks that are established, the cultural and political actions that are taken and experienced, the memories and stories that are built up about it (Gallagher, 1993). Place as meaningful to people is always in formation. Meanings can be changed over time, as relationships, events and interventions occur (Hiss, 1990; Nast & Pile, 1998). Some places appear to be consolidated in memory, but these memories of place do change – and these memories are what community theatre often works on and with, as is the case with Hanby and Barrett productions.

We are drawn to Massey’s (2005) notion of place as an ‘event’. Rather than place being fixed, it is always in formation, always being made, unmade, and changed. Massey argues that a location becomes special, meaningful to people not because of a ‘romance about a pre-given collective identity’ or coherence. Rather, she suggests place is ‘throwntogether’, the result of ‘the challenge of negotiating a here-and-now… drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres’ (p 140). Massey contends that place, as an on-going act of negotiation requires dealing with multiplicity and this entails a particular, political engagement with human and non human others … ‘the sheer fact of having to get on together; the fact that you cannot ‘purify’ spaces/places’ (p. 142). If place is always an event, then community arts in general, and community theatre in particular, can be seen as having the possibility of place-making through the processes of bringing people together as performance and audience.

We want to suggest that the notion of place-making goes beyond our case study of Hanby and Barrett; it is one that could be of interest to arts educators.

The notion of place is not unknown in schools of course. There has been a great deal of interest in recent years in place-based education (Gruenewald & Smith, 2008). This approach suggests that school students can learn a lot through a focus on their own local area. They are able to use their own existing knowledge, as well as that of family, peers and residents, to connect to the mandated curriculum. Using local and intergenerational ‘funds of knowledge’ (Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) can also create new social networks for young people, allow them to do important identity work, and consolidate understandings about the local, national and global (Thomson, 2006). Some place-based projects are overtly political, seeking to address local issues of pressing significance, such as the conservation of water resources (Comber, Nixon, & Reid, 2007), and the preservation of significant oral histories (Wigginton, 1986).

The notion of place-making however offers a more active role for schools and teachers than simply educating in and about place. The notion of place-making suggests that teachers can be active in producing new social connections and cultural meanings. By adopting the three key elements that we have outlined – an ethnographic approach, recognition, and the use of ‘texts of our lives’ in the form of local language and stories – teachers can encourage students to connect with their wider neighbourhood in acts of place-making.

We propose that arts educators are very well positioned to do this kind of place-making work. The arts can bring people together to engage, as participants and audiences, in acts of shared meaning-making. They offer ways for students and their extended families and friends to build a collective public expression of what it means to be ‘ in this place’. Arts education might be seen as not simply responding to place, but as actively making and remaking what place means to young people, and to the people with whom they interact. When place-making events are put together as a practice and pedagogy, arts education has the capacity to not only offer knowledges, but also an enhanced sense of identity, and a lived experience of ways of living in the world together.

References

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity at large. Cultural dimensions of globalisation. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Casey, E. (1998). The fate of place. A philosophical history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Comber, B., Nixon, H., & Reid, J.-A. (Eds.). (2007). Literacies in place: teaching environmental communications. Newtown, New South Wales: Primary English Teachers Association.

Cresswell, T. (2013). Place: A short introduction. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fraser, N. (1995). Politics, culture and the public sphere: toward a postmodern conception. In L. Nicholson & S. Seidman (Eds.), Social postmodernism. Beyond identity politics (pp. 287-312). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fraser, N. (1997). Justice interruptus. Critical reflections on the “postsocialist” condition. London: Routledge.

Fraser, N. (2000). Rethinking recognition. New Left Review, 3(May-June), 1- 9: http://www.newleftreview.net/NLR23707.shtml. Accessed September 22005.

Fraser, N., & Honneth, A. (2003). Redistribtion or recognition: A political-philosophical exchange. London: Verso.

Gallagher, W. (1993). The power of place. How our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions, and actions. New York: Harper Collins.

Gonzales, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gruenewald, D. A., & Smith, G. A. (Eds.). (2008). Place-based education in the global age. Local diversity. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hall, C., & Thomson, P. (2010). Grounded literacies: the power of listening to, telling and performing community stories. Literacy, 44(2), 69-75.

Hayden, D. (1996). The power of place. Urban landscapes as public history. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hiss, T. (1990). The experience of place. New York: Random House.

Jones, S., Hall, C., Thomson, P., Barrett, A., & Hanby, J. (2013). Re-presenting the “forgotten estate”: participatory theatre, place and community identity Discourse, 34(1), 118-131.

Massey, D. (1995). The conceptualisation of place. In D. Massey & P. Jess (Eds.), A place in the world? Places, cultures and globalisation (pp. 45-88). Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Massey, D. (2005). For space. London: Sage.

McKnight, J. (1995). The careless society. Community and its counterfeits. New York: Basic Books.

McKnight, J., & Kretzmann, J. (1996). Mapping community capacity. Evanston, Illinois: Institute for Policy Research. Northwestern University.

Nast, H., & Pile, S. (Eds.). (1998). Places through the body. London, New York: Routledge.

Peel, M. (2003). The lowest rung. Voices of Australian poverty. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Rose, G. (1997). Spatialities of ‘community’, power and change: the imagined geographies of community arts projects. Cultural Studies, 11(1), 1-16.

Smith, D. (1993). Texts, facts and femininity. Exploring the relations of ruling. London: Routledge.

Thompson, J. (2009). Performance affects. Applied theatre and the end of effect. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thomson, P. (2006). Miners, diggers, ferals and showmen: School community projects that unsettle identities? British Journal of Sociology of Education, 27(1), 81-96.

Thomson, P., Sanders, J., Hall, C., & Bloomfield, J. (2013). Performing impact. Swindon: Arts and Humanities Research Council.

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Tyler, I. (2013). Revolting subjects. Social abjection anbd resistance in neoliberal Britain. London: Zed Books.

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Wigginton, E. (1986). Sometimes a shining moment: The Foxfire experience. Twenty years teaching in a high school classroom. New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.

 

An interview with Kevin Fegan

selkieboy1

Kevin Fegan is a poet and playwright who works across a wide range of theatrical forms. In January of this year we had a conversation about his work, specifically as a writer of community based theatre. (The image above is from The Selkie Boy, written for Barrow Senior Youth Theatre, and commissioned by The Ashton Group). This is an edited version of that interview.

How do you describe yourself?

I keep it simple; I’m a playwright and a poet. That catches it all really. I’m very clear about that. It’s how I see myself and the work that I do. Playwright tends to come first; when I started out poet did. The crossover interests me. Everything I learnt from poetry I invest in my playwriting. Sometimes I write full length plays in verse. Sometimes I mix verse and prose. It depends on what the subject matter is and what serves that best. They cross over naturally for me and separating them out is often somebody else’s business. The poems are usually written for performance and some of them are an hour long. If they work as good story telling they hold an audience. It takes you a while to find out what your strengths are. Mine as a poet are dramatic verse.

What was your way in to community art / theatre?

I became Writer in Residence at Stocken prison in 1987, one of the first of those schemes where writers worked in prisons. It had a profound effect on me and I mark it from there. From that point I became aware of how powerful the work that we do can be in certain communities.

Before the interview for the post Kevin was sent into the prison to meet an inmate. It was someone he knew; someone that he had grown up with, someone who went to the same schools as him and who was now in his twelfth year of a jail sentence for murder. After this encounter Kevin felt unable to continue, close to tears, and wondered if he would be able to go into the interview when called. He found himself writing a poem which allowed him to carry on with the process.

I learnt then what I already knew. That’s why I write. That got me through that experience. Imagine what that means to people like T and others like him, to get them through a life sentence or the trauma of what they had done. That was massive and it answered my question straight away about why I do this work. I realised straight away from that experience how significant this work was.

How did you move into community theatre?

I wrote a few plays from that experience. We toured forty odd jails and theatres, with a professional two hander. We always had a conversation afterwards. And it was really powerful. I knew I had used my skill as a writer to empathise to the extent where they were saying (in the prisons) ‘how the fuck can you write that? You’ve never done a life sentence; you’ve never even done a sentence’.

Shortly after this finished I was offered resident dramatist at Welfare State International. They were coming towards the end of their epic career as a company but they were still on fire. Their last big project was something called Shipyard Tales and I was the resident dramatist on that. So I lived in Barrow on Furness for eighteen months and with the shipyard workers and the community of Barrow in Furness we created thirteen shows and ran an alternative cabaret nightclub. And I set up a writing club as well and published works. At the end of the eighteen months we put on these thirteen original shows that we had generated in that town. I write one, and performed it myself which I wasn’t expecting. That was in verse. I toured it for two years afterwards.

I wrote a big show with John Foxx called Lord Dynamite, a community opera. We did that at Forum 28 in Barrow in Furness and then after that, and you know most community plays don’t have a life beyond their original performance, we wrote it again for a professional company for LIFT 91 (London International Theatre Festival) on an outdoor site two football fields wide. And then we rewrote it for Totnes and then we rewrote it for the docks in Newcastle. So this was a show that had to reinvent itself. The subsequent shows weren’t with community casts. The original cast had around sixty actors but the tour was done with eight professional actors.

It was very much a hybrid of me and Foxy. He doesn’t normally write with other people; I think I’m one of the few that has managed to do that and still stay friends. We just locked ourselves away for a couple of weeks and wrote it together. It was great for me; I was a young writer (Kevin was thirty at this point) and I learnt a lot from him and he felt he could learn from me.

How would you define community art?

I haven’t got any neat definitions for you. Community Art is about artists helping non- artists, helping people in any community find the artistic expression in their own lives. If it’s a play it’s finding the drama in their lives; finding the theatrical expression within them. Art isn’t exclusive to certain individuals in society. It’s not like some people have got art and some people haven’t got art; everyone’s got art. But has it been awakened in you? Have you got access to it? Are you given permission to go there?

Everyone has culture. Does everyone have art? What is the difference between culture and art?

Culture embraces the tribal way in which you live. What tribe do you belong to? What is their language and what are there customs? What’s their ancestry? People engage in the arts by their millions. They’re as popular as sports and very comparable. People dip in and out of them at different times in their life. You might swim for five years and then never swim again for twenty and then take it up a bit later in life. It could be the same with playing a guitar or painting.

So a lot of the time it’s about giving a platform for that because people are doing it anyway … it’s about recognising that and allowing them an opportunity to express it and hopefully along the way raising the bar. If you’re working as a professional artist in the community your ambition is to create as high quality work as possible. Whatever level people are engaged at, and you have to be good at tapping into what level they’re at, you want to show them the next step up. And some of them turn out to be your peers; there as good as you are at what you do.

Have you seen the form or the ethos of Community Theatre changing?

It’s changed; it’s developing all the time. There may well come a time when it gets the recognition it deserves.

I’ve been aware over the span of my career that there are different types of community theatre … and when someone commissions me to write a community play there’s always a discussion about what they mean by community play, where it fits in the spectrum of community plays. Because at one end I come and work with your community, I engage your community and I go away and write a play and bring it back as a gift and say this is what I’ve made for us to perform; and that’s a perfectly valid form of community theatre and maybe the most prevalent one, but it’s not the only one. I’ve also been into communities, where I’ve said on Day One, like with Opera North in Mansfield in 1993 where I said to the group of writers, local writers who were interested and came forward, ‘in 18 months we’re going to have written a community opera, we’re going to perform it in that leisure centre, and I won’t have written a single word; you’ll have written all of it, do you believe me?’ And that’s what we did. I drew that material out of them; I edited it, I structured it; I shaped it; I helped them put it together, I helped them to get it as strong as it could be before it was handed over to the community actors. But they wrote it. And that’s at the other end of the community theatre spectrum.

In between are the ones where you write with a team of writers; I’ve done that as well. Where I’m the lead writer on it but I’m also using other writers material as we go along and I’m structuring it and shaping it because I’ve got those skills, that’s why I’m getting paid to do it. I understand how plays work; I understand how to structure a play; I understand how to respond content to form. And so there’s a whole spectrum of what we call community plays.

I did a couple of pieces for Quarantine in their early years and what Quarantine do is work with people finding the drama in their lives, irrespective of whether they’re professional performers or not. One of the shows I did with them was with refugees and asylum seekers in Leicester and again I didn’t write the script, I put it together. I tease the material out of people and you’ve got to be good at that as a community playwright. Then I help them shape it. Is this a song? Is this a scene? Is this a story? Is this a poem? Is this a dance? Is this a video projection?

I did a show with them called White Trash. We took young unemployed men, took them off the dole, from white trash areas in Manchester and formed a company with them. We said ‘right we’re going to create a show called White Trash and it’s about your lives because people call you white trash, you know that don’t you?’ And of course they know it. ‘Let’s explore that. What’s behind white trash; who are you really?’ They, we, created that show. So I’m writer/devisor alongside a director, and you work as a team getting this material but I take charge of structuring it. I haven’t written a single word of it but I’ve shaped it. And it’s really powerful stuff sometimes

Where do you think community theatre finds itself now?

My understanding is that the generation before me made a bold attempt to take theatre out to the people and community theatre was part of that. They’re admirable sentiments but they become very patronising really quickly. It’s not about bringing theatre to the people it’s about finding the theatre in the people and letting that theatre breathe in that community. And the only reason it doesn’t breathe is because it doesn’t have the profile that the other end of the theatre spectrum has.

The genre is developing in lots of different ways and has become more subtle and more sophisticated. In terms of recognition we’re a long way from that.

I feel I’ve been privy to the most incredible experiences that I’ve shared with people and next to nobody apart from that group are aware that that happened . No-one knows what you’ve just done but it can be, not always, but it can be, the most awesome experience. I let go a long while back of the excitement of high profile work, those commissions you get with a top theatre company; sometimes those experiences … they don’t move you as much. You may not have the experience that I know that I can have and I might have had with something that has no profile at all.

What I love about theatre is that it’s live, it happens, it’s gone. It has the potential to be incredibly beautiful and powerful and then you move onto the next one. So I’m not interested any more in who’s seen it and who hasn’t. I’m interested in the community that has engaged in that piece; what’s it meant for them. And I’m part of that because I’m part of the people that are putting it together

Is there anything that you are aware of that you are doing differently now when you write for community theatre than when you first started?

You have to take into account the make-up of your likely cast. There will be strong performers, there will be weak performers and so how do you create a meaningful experience for the whole cast? And that has to affect the way you write. You have to make a virtue of that.

The things that you can do in community theatre that you can’t do in mainstream theatre, simply because of the cost, are those large casts; and I love writing chorus. I love writing for a large group of people to speak as one voice and then also within that chorus to have individual cameos and individual characters, that step out of the chorus and perform and then step back in. That’s what I mean by making a virtue of it; that’s playing to its strength, when you hear a group of people speaking as one voice, and for me that would usually be in verse. That’s something that you can’t achieve, certainly not in repertory theatre because you can’t have those numbers.

That’s with a big cast, but what if you are writing for smaller ones?

I think all the time you are aware that you have to stretch your cast but not provide them with the impossible; so you probably can’t be as obtuse as you could be with a skilled cast.

How does this inform the style of the play? If you are saying that characters may have to be less complex is there a tendency for them to become more emblematic?

I think it affects the style in which you write. You’re going to avoid heavy naturalism in a community play. Invariably it is more stylised … as you say characters become a bit more representative and you haven’t got the space to create a really subtle three dimensional character or set of characters in the way that you can when you’re dealing with a small professional cast. But I wouldn’t want to say that one way of writing is more skilled than the other; they require different skills.

Does the fact that you know your audience affect the way that you write? Does your relationship with the audience in some way change and does that impact on the script?

I’m not sure what you mean. 

Quite often I find that when I’m writing a community play, and I know the audience … say it’s for the community of Bilborough and I become very aware of who these people are and their experiences of theatre and so I’m trying to find the right language that I think that community will relate to. But also because ultimately it’s a piece about living in this place together I’m trying to tie that up in some way what’s happening on stage … I’m trying to mirror that in some way in the text. Does that make any sense?

Are you talking about one of the dangers of patronising your audience? Of giving them what they want? Because we can quickly identify what will please them and you can give them that if they want, but I find that patronising and I won’t let myself do that. So occasionally I’m fired, occasionally I get sacked … because I won’t … I say to them ‘look I want this to hurt a bit as well. I want it to be joyous but I want it to hurt as well. I don’t want it to be an easy show. I’m not interested in writing easy shows for you’.

But the very fact that you’re saying that suggests on some level that you’re thinking about the audience. And in a way perhaps that is slightly different than you would do if you were writing a play that is going to tour, and the audience is just a collection of people in that theatre.

Yes I am thinking of the audience; without a doubt. I got fired from the Warwick Community Play. Warwick is a very middle class area and the people who were bankrolling the play were chief execs and bankers and business people, and I had a pop in the script at this community in a light-hearted way. It was fun, but I had a pop; and I insist on doing that. The script never got performed. They paid me off and said to me ‘we can’t do this. It offends our middle class values’. They actually said that. And I said ‘look when I work in a working class area I offend working class values’. That’s part of my job. I come in, I identify what makes a community tick and I say ‘what do you reckon to this?’ You have to do it in a way that isn’t exploitative or offensive, but equally isn’t tame.

The important thing for a writer is not to patronise and not to do it the easy way. You can do that but it’s not as enjoyable for you; and you know it won’t be for them.

Does this awareness of the audience give you a focus that you may not feel if you’re not writing for a specific audience? Is it helpful?

It probably is helpful, but I have a base line that I use for any play I write. I imagine myself in the audience and I didn’t want to be there … my friend or my girlfriend or whoever has brought me and I haven’t read the programme and I don’t know the title of the play, I don’t know what it’s about and I didn’t want to be there. And I have to reach that person; I have to engage that person at the simplest level. And then over and above that I’m in the audience and I’m a human being that wants my senses excited, I want my emotions excited, and I want my intellect excited. And when I’m getting all three I’m getting a good deal. And that’s what I try and write, every time.

Have you read any other community theatre texts?

There are so few published. When I worked for Welfare State I would read what Foxy had written for comparable shows so that I could get a sense of how it worked on the page. But plays for community casts that you can read are very few.

Is it a field of work then that requires a lot of self-learning?

Yes, but it doesn’t have to be. Walk The Plank started doing some proper training for National Theatre of Wales for the show they were creating for their millennium, and they were training people up around Wales; emerging artists and experienced artists who wanted to develop their skills for site specific theatre. I know this is separate but there’s a cross over because you often find yourself writing site specific community theatre which is a really fascinating area. I was saying to them ‘did you include a writer in the training?’ and they said no. And I said ‘so to your knowledge there’s never been a time when a playwright who has written a lot of site specific shows has attempted to pass on what they’ve learnt?’. And he said no. But they might include it next time.

One of the big things that I pass on to writers when they ask me about site specific work is – and it’s very simple – is that verse works a lot better outdoors. If you’re doing a show outdoors, back off on prose and up the verse, because heightened language works more outside. It’s mnemonic, especially if you use rhyming verse. Your audience latch onto it; prose just disappears in a way that it doesn’t in a theatre. Rhyming couplets, which aren’t very sophisticated at all in terms of poetry, come into their own in outdoor work. So there’s little tricks like that that I’ve learnt that I pass on to other people.

Without networks around you, and the fact that there is so little to refer back to, how do you think you have been able to move your craft forward?

You do because it’s what experience is; you don’t stop developing your own skills and everything I’ve learnt I will endeavour to take into the next project. And that learning is sometimes about what works but it’s also about what doesn’t work. I’m not going to make that mistake again, because I made that mistake in that play. So it’s that; building up that knowledge based on experience that allows you to walk into a venue or a community or both and say OK I know what will work here … a bit of this and a bit of that.

And have you ever tried to assemble that learning?

No it’s in my head because no-one has ever asked me to put it on paper. It’s important and valid and it should be collected and passed on.

Can I just go back to what happened at Warwick? Do you think that you weren’t as committed to that community in some way perhaps?

I think it exposed me as much as them. Afterwards I thought about it and I thought ‘what prejudice was I taking in to that project?’ And I’m kidding myself if I think I’m not, because I am. We like to think of ourselves as broad minded and tolerant but actually I’m aware that I will struggle with the class system as much as anyone.

When you looked back at the section of the play that offended them did you think ‘I’d gone too far’ or ‘That was fine!’

My original reaction was where’s your sense of humour? It’s funny. It makes me laugh why doesn’t it make you laugh? You’re being over sensitive! But when you think about it more, which you have to do because I don’t want to get the sack, even if they pay me off – which they did – I want the show to be performed. I am culpable certainly … I’m not living in a vacuum am I?

Are you aware that there are things you have learnt from writing for Community Theatre audiences and casts that you to carry over into your other theatre writing?

One example would be I’m very confident and experienced at writing for a group as well as for individual characters. So just as I write huge choruses for community casts I like taking those principles into situations with smaller casts. I want them to be an ensemble, and this is why and this is how they will express themselves as an ensemble. I like those type of plays and that’s a skill I think I’ve learned from one area of theatre that I’ve used in another area of theatre. That’s just one example – there’ll be others. Use of verse would be another one. How to use verse; when and why?

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone writing a community play what would it be?

Respect. Respect that community and that material and get the best out of it. I don’t mean do it for the money; I don’t mean do it because the NT says we want some top writers to work in a community like they do with Connections (a youth theatre scheme). A lot of those plays are crap because the writers aren’t respecting that community of young people. Treat it with the respect it deserves and you will get the most incredible rewards from any community. It’s there to be had; those riches are there to be had, not just for the people involved in it but for the creative team as well.

There is a pink gas station; there is a yellow gas station

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Excavate are about to start work on a project for The University of Nottingham as part of their Green Spaces project, funded by the A.H.R.C. It will be a series of promenade performances in five parks and walks, created in the city following the 1845 Nottingham Enclosure Act.

I live reasonably close to a large area of parkland and often walk through it. And it is usually people from the emerging communities in the city that seem to engage with it in the most social way, with the smell of barbecues wafting across the many anglers that sit patiently next to their tent and landing gear developments.

I will track my process on that project through this blog, as the issue of social space, and the lack of it in the U.K. is something that I think about a lot. This short essay from the Caravan of Dreams project (written on the hoof) for ICAF in 2014 is perhaps a good way to start:

You know those petrol stations that used to sit empty on the side of the road until the hand car wash guys moved in? Well there are two here in north Amsterdam, either side of a road that has vanished somewhere down below. One is pink and one is yellow. As in totally pink and totally yellow. The pink one is closed today, Sunday. It’s a home now to some kind of musicians collective. The yellow one belongs to Hot Mama Hot, a creative collective that has been going since 2000. Originally visual artists they branched into areas of specialism; one a cook, one an interior designer and so on. They started making installations for festivals, and providing food as well. They became well known within that scene and make a fair amount of money out of it. When they’re not doing it they’re doing this. Running all sorts of projects in their yellow petrol station, or gas station as Maikke calls it. It sounds better.

Yorick (not sure if this is how you spell it alas) is there on his own today (until his partner and two month old daughter arrive) and is telling us of some of the things they get up to. Most of it involves the local kids. Like holding a monthly meal which is cooked by children with the help of a guest chef.

This gas station (there, I’ve said it) is on the border of a group of old Dutch houses from the twenties which are lived in by a pretty prosperous crowd, and a neighbourhood that is not. One of the things that he enjoys most about the work is the way that, through the children bringing their parents along, different social classes interact.

The project was funded by the housing schemes that operate around here, by the government, and by Shell. Now the local government have decided that Hot Mama Hot should pay rent. For these disused buildings that weren’t demolished by this same government when the highway was lowered because to keep them was cheaper. The disused buildings which are now used every day by the local children. And staffed by people who are paid, not by the local government but by Hot Mama Hot. Yorick doesn’t seem to mind. They make money from their festival work so they can afford it. But still.

We go back with Maikke to the North Park where the dancers and musicians are packing up and the volunteers who have been cooking food are cleaning up the pavilion. The park sits, like the yellow gas station and the pink gas station, at the centre of a number of ‘disadvantaged’ communities. It has been here for five years. Every Sunday there is a workshop or a performance. There are coloured umbrellas hanging from lines strung between the trees. (And today there are young children handling power tools, making clothes hooks from umbrella handles).

Maikke was a city planner and now works in the neighbourhood as part of a team running projects. The pavilion is home to around five projects a year, each based on a theme. At the moment they are running Burenbal – a Neighbours Ball. Dance ambassadors are going out to the community to invite the many different dancing groups that are out there, young and old, from the line dancers to the hip hoppers, to come together to create a new dance which will be held in the park on the 27th April. The dance will evolve from the groups that take part. It will be designed so that the audience join in, ‘so there is no audience any more’.

They also have a project called Broedstraten (Incubator Streets), where artists are given reduced rent to come and work in and with the community. There is a Music Street where workshops are given and concerts held; Market Street where designers and makers share their products with things that local people make; Theatre Street where twenty three theatre makers share a building; Fashion Street and Colour Street, originally the greyest street in the area but now being painted up. Each one of these Streets has its own project manager.

Maikke then introduces us to Christine from Rhizomatic, another arts collective who are embedded within their community. They run an experimental arts space and work with many different artists on collaborative projects, but ‘they must have a strong social interest’. Then we meet a couple who will be cooking a meal in the Living Room Restaurant on Monday; yet another project. And there’s the Pop Up Restaurant space as well; an empty building that was turned into a space for would be restaurateurs to run for six weeks at a time to build up a clientele and learn the ropes.

I’m getting exhausted by it all. And I think it’s the fact that I am so tired that makes me suddenly, whilst watching a woman get up on stage to join in with the dancers and seeing a real mix of people in this park dancing away to the music, feel as though I am going to burst into tears. And I think this. That it doesn’t take much to bring people together; and yet such a huge amount of effort is made to do the exact opposite.

And I wish that more things like this happened in the U.K. But they don’t. And I think it’s about space. About the idea of a shared environment on a very local level. So much of the work is funded to some degree from the housing associations who play such a large part in the way that accommodation is provided; some private, some social (which I am told is generally really good here in Amsterdam). There is an understanding that living in a street means being in that street, not just in the house on that street, hidden away inside your four walls. In the U.K. so many of us live inside buildings that we buy, and which we spend our lives paying for and adding to. We may have play parks where children can ride on the swings and parents talk to each other; or some people may decide to set up some kind of informal collective activity. But it’s not part of the culture. It’s not expected of housing associations, or architects, or city planners. At least I don’t think it is. And, of course, it should be.

On the way back to Rotterdam, as we pass Schipol Airport yet again, there are army jeeps on the side of the road and soldiers with machine guns on the bridges overhead, security for the Nuclear Industry summit that is happening here. A cavalcade goes past. A huge number of cars and motorcycles for what looks like one car with a flag on it. We pass a petrol station that is closed. This time for security. (In this context I notice that the word ‘gas’ does not come into my mind). The way in and the way out are blocked off with huge concrete slabs. It is being patrolled. Maybe one day someone will come and paint this bright pink or bright yellow. Perhaps some of the children who are growing up in Koopvaardersplantsoen in De Banne. Or Colour Street, as it is called, at least for the time being.

The attempt to create a democratic text – some reflections on the acta seminar ‘Whose Theatre Is It Anyway?’

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Last week I went down to Bristol for the acta seminar ‘Whose theatre is it anyway?’ which was advertised as ‘a conversation with participants, practitioners and others about ownership in theatre. With artistic facilitators and communities working together, who exactly are the experts, and how does individual and community ownership of theatre happen?’

It was an interesting experience and one which brought to the fore issues of authorship and the role of the writer within community theatre.

On the acta website the questions that would be posed at the session were listed as:

  • What do we mean by ownership and why is it important in community theatre?
  • How does the theatre facilitator work towards creating that, and do they control the means of production?
  • What power relations exist between the participant and practitioner?
  • Is there such a thing as collective ownership?
  • Do processes always end with collective consensus?
  • How does the practitioner facilitate ownership?

Although the seminar meandered a bit, as such events often do when there are so many people with different agendas and perspectives in the room (producers, commissioners, academics, artists) there was something interesting that happened when we were asked to break out into groups to feedback at the end. Three of the six or seven groups all reported that they felt that there was a tension in the room between community theatre and non community theatre; that there was a sense that community theatre was seen as a good thing, a potent thing and other theatre as less so. And this feeling was quite strong amongst a good number of attendees.

I think this perception was a little unfair. The session did weigh more heavily towards the acta methodology but this was because we heard from three acta participants who wanted to sing the praises of the company, having obviously gained a great deal from working with them. And acta have a very clear way of working.

The company has been going for thirty years now and operate out of their very recently refurbished and equipped actacentre. I first became aware of their work when I met the artistic director Neil Beddow at a workshop held by Parrabbola at the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam. Neil had contested the way that Parrabbola worked during the workshop and we had a discussion about this in the bus afterwards. And it was all about ownership and power.

For Neil, and for acta, the idea of the writer going away and creating a text that is then performed by a community group (as Parabbola seemed to suggest that they did, although the decision on what story to tell comes through a process of community consultation) is an anathema. For Neil the work needs to come out of the experiences of those involved. His method is to find the people first and then work with them to make something from their experiences; to find a way to tell their stories, rather than ‘writing a play and having to find the people to do it’.

But before acta spoke, in the guise of the participants, we heard from two other community arts organisations; the very long running (set up since 1972) London Bubble and a relatively new company Common Wealth (who I’m not sure would call themselves a community theatre company). Jonathan Petherbridge (‘Peth’) from Bubble spoke first and explained the company’s recent methodology, which they have been using for around five years, in culinary terms

They begin with the Foraging, gathering testimonies, stories, facts, images and other artefacts. Then begins the Prepping – sorting, cutting, tasting the material that they have. The third stage, and the one where they bring in a writer and a designer, is what they call the Curating. And at this stage the writer, over a six week period, produces a script. The Cooking is the rehearsal process. The Feasting is the performance. And there is another stage, the Washing Up; where ideas for the next project often come.

Next up was the speaker from Common Wealth, a designer, whose name I have, rather poorly, mislaid who read from their website as this seemed to be the best way for him to explain their work. Which says: ‘Common Wealth make site-specific theatre events that encompass electronic sound, new writing, visual design and verbatim. Our work is political and contemporary – based in the present day – the here and now. We make work that is relevant and addresses concerns of our times.

We seek out places to stage our work that are right in a community; a residential house, a boxing gym, places where people who might not go to the theatre might come to instead – we aim to make theatre for people who don’t usually think it’s for them, we’re bored of theatre being for the middle classes and those that can afford it – we genuinely believe in theatre as an art form and the power it has. We think this should belong to everyone – as audience, participants and as protagonists.

Common Wealth started working together in 2008 in a very DIY way with no funding just access to massive buildings and networks of great people to collaborate with. On every project we seek to make something that will engage audiences in an encounter that pushes what theatre can be. We’re not necessarily interested in traditional story-telling but in creating memorable, unexpected experiences.

Our ideas are rooted in socialist politics, working class backgrounds, a keen interest in contemporary music/theatre/art/design, the people that we meet and an idealistic ambition to shift things. We see our plays as campaigns, as a way of bringing people together and making change feel possible…’

The company has been making waves. They seem to have a strong connection to many of the strategies of the National Theatre of Wales. But unfortunately the speaker seemed to be a bit muddled when trying to explain exactly how the company works with the community and in dealing with the central issues at play in the seminar. Ultimately however, what he seemed to be saying was ‘if the community come to us and say they want to get involved’ – showing us an example of some line dancers, who appeared whilst the company was working on a show and who asked if they could be a part of it – ‘then they can’. For him the process seemed to be about setting up an idea and then letting it go, releasing it into the community as a process and seeing what evolves out of it. Of being totally open to changing everything. Which appears a very risky and chaotic strategy but also one which in many ways does seem very democratic. (If, of course, this is what actually really happens).

I was particularly interested in the role of the writer, as a key conduit in the debate about ownership and power, and wanted to tease this out a little. I wondered how Bubble knew when the recipe was cooked and Peth said that the writer produces two or three drafts and that the participants are asked to come and feedback on this. ‘We read it, we feedback, the writer usually agrees to these notes. But the writer also often says ‘no, we have missed this’. And so the writer, I presume, ultimately has the final say. Ultimately has ownership; or at least more ownership.

I do not know how Common Wealth produce their scripts, but for acta using the words of the participants, through a devising process, is key. And this seems to lie at the heart of how acta see the issue of ownership and power. But, I asked, at some point surely someone has to agree that these are the words that we will use when we share this work with an audience. Neil explained that acta do not use a writer as such, but rather someone who is a ‘devisor / writer / facilitator rolled into one. It does have to be crafted. But this is then shared and reflected on’. As Bubble do.

I attended the seminar with Stephanie Dale, the writer of the seventh Dorchester Community play, which follows a very traditional method (which I will write about soon). But, in a nutshell, Stephanie will go away and write a play, with various workshops being held during the course of the process. There will be some reflection and feedback on the script, but that will come from a committee. Another variant in the creation of community theatre texts.

And so we reached the end of the session, and the concerns that I mentioned at the beginning were aired, and Kerrie Schaeffer, who was moderating the event, suggested that in future seminars there would be a need to think about this apparent ‘silo’ mentality. There was no doubt that there was a feeling in the room (not from everyone of course), that issues of power, ownership and artistic quality seemed to be tied up somehow. Although no-one had actually really said this. No-one had used the word ‘quality’. And very few people had spoken about the audience.

Given the different ways in which the writer works on these projects it is clear that they sit at the very heart of the issue of ownership and power. At one end of the spectrum you have the writer who goes away and creates the script that they want to write and then the community comes together to perform that script (which never happens quite like that, but many ‘community’ projects may not be too far from that model). And at the other end the writer is more of a reporter of what is happening in the room. But of course the simple act of editing, of moving text around, of making a decision to record this comment rather than that comment, is still a huge act of ownership. And so I would be very interested in seeing exactly how this role is carried out.

For me one of the most interesting comments of the session was one that suggested that in such a situation – where shows are devised together –  rather than thinking of the participants having shared ‘ownership’ of the text and the performance, they should instead think of having a shared ‘responsibility’; a concept which somehow seems to bring the audience right back into the heart of the exchange.

And what happens to these words, these texts, when the show is finished? Stephanie told me that Jon Oram, the artistic director of Claque, the holders of the torch of the ‘community play’ (the Ann Jellicoe model), said to her on the last night of ‘A Time To Keep’, written with David Edgar (who also wrote the first Dorchester play ‘Entertaining Strangers’, which interestingly is one of the few community plays to be restaged, with a performance at the National Theatre) that watching these final performances is like watching a firework burning out. And that this is part of their beauty. The ephemerality is key; and the residue of the performance is not held in artefacts but somewhere else within the community. (Interestingly ‘A Time To Keep’ has been made available for a student sized cast, something which apparently caused some disagreement within the Dorchester community).

Peth, who describes the work of Bubble not as Community Theatre but as Vernacular Theatre, had a wonderful phrase: ‘a script is a report of a sighting of theatre’; which is a fair enough comment. A script, of course, cannot in any way communicate the live performance. Again, from Peth, ‘theatre can’t be owned. It’s in the loop between stage and audience. It can’t be commodified’. And when I asked about the idea of keeping and sharing scripts he said ‘in some ways I want to ban scripts; along with videos’, and other artefacts of the event.

Many scholars and theatre historians bemoan the lack of scripts from the agit prop and community theatre traditions; but for many of those that make the work it is the ephemerality of these shows and projects, along with the fact that it is not the text that communicates the event (which of course is a readily accepted concept), that means that there is no hunger for texts to be shared by the companies that have created them.

If there are no texts to read then surely that means that there is less material around which may help community theatre writers develop their craft. Or for groups starting out on devising to help them think about the many different ways in which text can convey meaning. But if a script is printed then who does it belong to? Which brings us right back to my opening question. What is the role of the writer in community theatre?

There is a seeming distrust of the authorial vision and a real search in many companies to create a genuinely democratic text. Because words are important. But if a Director is given the chance to say ‘if we all stand together here instead of there at this point the emotional impact will be stronger’ then surely a Writer is able to say ‘if we say this instead of that at this point the emotional impact will be stronger’. It’s an interesting tension.

And if we all agree that it is not the text that communicates the meaning but a whole host of other elements, then why worry quite so much about this issue of who said what? I wonder if the acta participants had any say in the redesign of the theatre space in the building? A decision which impacts on the way that the shows they make are performed just as much as the text of these shows. Do they decide collectively how to set up the theatre space? How to light the work? (They may do).

And given that there is an implicit agreement by using working methods that strive to create texts that have a common ownership that the words are important, then it does seem strange that they are then dispensed with so easily at the end of the process. We know that the text is not the show; but if a group of people have worked together over a process to tell their story, and much of that is through their own words, then surely there is some value in making the texts available somewhere.

Issues of ownership in community theatre are key. And one of these issues still seems to be ‘what exactly is community theatre?’