Time for a community theatre of the absurd?

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As I’ve been reading through the texts of the many community plays that have been sent to me one of the most obvious things is that they nearly always have large casts. In many ways this sense of scale, of creating a large cast of characters both to reflect a wide social milieu that can somehow capture the breadth of community, with its many different components and interactions, whilst at the same time creating opportunities for as many people as possible to engage with the process, is at the very heart of what a community play is.

During the eighties and nineties this wasn’t a problem. The community play, as a specific form of theatre, had many cheerleaders and received a good share of arts funding. But such a structure – one that needs a lot of people to engage in it – was always going to be vulnerable if the money started to run out and the rather large organisational costs started to become a little prohibitive. As, it appears, happened.

But there is also a connection between scale and narrative. Organising a very large amount of characters who represent different aspects of the social strata calls for a narrative form which demands clarity, to allow the audience to navigate their way through this mass of humanity. As a result the community plays that I am reading, from the eighties and nineties and into this century, are often full of conflict within and between families, and within and between social classes. There are usually traumas or challenges which families or social groups or whole communities find themselves having to grapple with and which are resolved at the end, often with the characters having learnt something about the larger social world which they inhabit; they have somehow learnt about the role of community in a mirroring of the audiences relationship to the material.

This need for the writer to carefully plot a series of characters journeys through a wider social environment often results in plays that, in terms of their narrative structure, are rather classical and conservative. And coupled with the fact that many are based on historical stories they can appear as though they are the theatrical equivalent of the Victorian novel. It would be difficult to imagine, for instance, a community theatre of the absurd.

The community theatre writer is tasked with balancing agendas and ambitions. As a result of this they have many different jobs and roles (and as I start to interview more writers I will begin to get a sense of what these are). After hearing Gaby Saldanha’s paper ‘Translation as Performance’ at the recent In Dialogue symposium, where she looked at theories of performance and comments by translators to interrogate the performative nature of the art of translation, I have begun to think that one of my jobs as a community theatre writer is a little akin to that of the translator. Of course we have to act as storytellers and dramatists, to construct narrative and plot, but we have a host of other roles to play as well. Chief of which is to somehow translate an evocation of the community – of place, of the local, of some form of collective identity – and to find the right words (and narrative structure) to communicate this.

Alongside this there are the agendas that are brought to the table by the commissioning bodies, and their understandings of what the community theatre playwright is expected to produce. Often these come in the form of explicit social interventions, the idea that the plays are to serve a purpose and that the actual art is really a by-product of a range of interactions  and interventions that take place during the process of creating the finished piece of theatre (interactions which are then evaluated and sent up the shute to someone who can suggest that ‘yes this is all helping’, although it doesn’t really look that way right now).

With the move of much community based theatre into the heritage sector there are other agendas at play still. The social imperative is still there hovering in the background, but these agendas are more about communicating ‘fact’; of unearthing a historical story and re-presenting it rather than using this story as a way to trouble the present. Maybe there is space for work to reflect on current issues, but these usually come in the form of some kind of parallelism – look how what happened then reflects on / can teach us about now. Then there are the agendas and expectations of the community and the participant.

Mid Pennine Arts have recently set up their MPA50 project, one of several examples of  community arts organisations using anniversaries to reflect on their history and to try and unearth artefacts from their many years of work (and often funded by the HLF, such as this project marking the fortieth anniversary of Junction Arts). One of the moments that is well documented by MPA is the visit of Welfare State way back in 1971. There is a letter to the Burnley Express that caught my eye, in which the writer says ‘On Saturday evening my two youngest children persuaded my wife and I to take them to see the ‘Welfare State’ performing one of their – I thought meaningless – rituals on Turf Moor Estate’. And although Keith admits that ‘I can’t say I fully understood what it was all about’ he found the event ‘a most pleasurable experience’.

What is so interesting about looking back at the work of Welfare State is how, through the use of image and spectacle and music, they created a blend of carnival and ritual that allowed a real space for interpretation. Obviously for Keith Whalley such a space turned out to be of much more value to him than he was anticipating. Which, I think, is a very useful admission. It always interests me to see the numbers of people who attend the Nottingham Contemporary where the artwork is often difficult to contextualise and where entrance points for understanding the work are not easy. It seems to me that there may be a greater thirst for people to be lost in something that they cannot quite grasp, which is slightly out of reach, than we realise. In a world where interactions are increasingly monetized and graded and graduated perhaps this sense of slight bewilderment and disorientation is a very healthy one.

With community plays, rather than the community performance model of Welfare State, there is much more of a reliance on text, and an interpretative space is perhaps much less easier to create. The narrative structures, as mentioned above, at least in the large community play model, find themselves needing to tie up threads of plot and story, to draw together the social and character conflicts, to offer resolution. Narrative forms which are highly recognisable, being seen daily in film and television.

But what happens when the production process changes, when the possibility of creating such large works vanishes, as has generally been the case over the last fifteen years? How can a smaller cast, a smaller group of people carry out the weight of the work that the community play is meant to be doing? Might it mean moving away from the narrative form that the larger casts, as I am suggesting, imply? Maybe it offers a chance to experiment with form and narrative. Maybe through experimenting with form and narrative the job of ‘translating’ the community may be done in more potent ways. But doing such a thing, of experimenting with form, is no easy task. Because of the production processes that surround the making of the work.

As well as the HLF the other main funder of community theatre is, right now, the Creative People and Places scheme. As it states on its home page – ‘Creative People and Places is about more people choosing, creating and taking part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live’ (note the fact that choice is given priority here over the act of creation). From my own experience, and of many others I have spoken to, there is a real disappointment in the way that this scheme has played out.

Instead of genuine conversations between artists and communities that create spaces that may be troubling, uncertain and genuinely creative in their search for a language and form that responds to the very specific questions and environment that the community is grappling with, more often than not the conversation is a very one sided one. Communities get to ‘choose’ and the artists come and ‘deliver’. For reasons of funding, local politics, community agency, but ultimately perhaps of artistic cowardice, the overriding need is to ‘give people what they want’, thereby closing down any real discussion and experimentation in the reaching instead for forms that are readily understandable. The exact opposite of the situation I mentioned earlier at the Nottingham Contemporary.

Theatre and performance is increasingly finding ways to engage with the social creating work that searches for new forms responding to gaming, digital technology, global networks, amongst many other influences. This could be a hugely liberating moment for community theatre makers, and for community theatre writers. Perhaps it is time that a community theatre of the absurd is initiated. Or at the very least a community theatre that is hungry in its search for new narrative forms.

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