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?’

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