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


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?’

Slung Low – combining the intimate and the epic in civic space

Slung Low

Yesterday I was one of a group of people who sat in a room with Alan Lane, the artistic director of Slung Low, as part of the New Perspectives series of master classes.

Slung Low’s aim, as stated on their website (currently undergoing maintenance work) ‘is to make unlikely, ambitious and original adventures for audiences, each with powerful, moving story at its heart. Shows that re-examine how audiences go and see a piece of theatre. Our ambition has always been to transport our audience to new places and to make them see familiar places from new perspectives’. Their work is highly ambitious and very well thought of, although I have yet to witness any of it. Their Blood and Chocolate project in York looked incredibly powerful, as did Camelot: The Shining City, which took over the centre of Sheffield last summer. I will not miss their next project.

Much of the workshop was taken up with Alan explaining the impulses behind the company’s work, and the processes by which they go about creating performance that re-energises civic spaces. Describing themselves as ‘political artists in the street’ much of their work seems to be about re-calibrating the relationships that occur in most public spaces where the ‘act of being a citizen is impossible unless you agree to be a particular type of customer’. Their philosophy is that you change the world by changing the square foot of space that you currently inhabit. And their venue The Hub, in their home city of Leeds, operates on principles that absolutely bring their political ideas into practice.

There was lots that we discussed that I could go into here, but as this blog is focused on the creation of the texts I want to look at two specific things that were mentioned and which I think point to useful questions and provocations when a writer is asked to create a play or text for a specific community and (potentially) a specific community space.

(Apparently the first thing that James Phillips, one of the main writers for the company, asks Alan after a project has been pitched and accepted is ‘what have you promised?’)

The first thing that struck me was Alan’s use of the word ‘ceremony’ as a term to describe aspects of public performance. I think that what he means by ceremony is when meaning is conferred specifically by location and by who is performing whatever is being performed. And when this becomes the most important communicator of meaning – this event can only happen in this space with this group of people and the fact that it is happening in this space with these people is the most important thing about the event – then we have ‘ceremony’.

For Alan ideas can be held in ceremony. But for a piece of theatre to occur the meaning must be held within the text – visual or textual – and the audience’s direction must therefore be pointed in a specific direction at all times. For good theatre to occur, the audience must be able to see and hear the thought process of the performers. The detail is important; very important. If the work becomes lost in the vastness of the space, then the meaning becomes muddied and we begin to slip from theatre to ceremony. And this is why the company uses headsets for much (all?) of their outdoor work; because ‘you must hear every breath, not just every word’.

There is a real tension here between the bigger picture that the outdoor world offers and the need to maintain the intimacy between performer and audience member. And the way that the use of spectacle and the intimate nature of one to one communication is combined appears to be key to their work. As Alan explained ‘if you blow up nine litres of diesel you get people’s attention. And so the next thing you say better be important’.

This brings me on to the second interesting phrase that Alan used; albeit one that he has borrowed from Tassos Stevens (a director who worked with Excavate, then Hanby and Barrett, on our 2003 touring show ‘Your Village No Longer Exists’). This is the idea of What Is? and What If?

What Is? is a social and material stock take of everything that a public space is and represents; a detailed investigation both into what a space/place is and what it thinks it is. In many ways it is about digging right into the heart of its civic function and examining the relationships between individuals that are promoted, permitted, discouraged, or prohibited within these spaces/places. And this is the ‘stuff’ that cannot be changed. (So for instance if the space includes a Pizza Hut you know that there is a certain power relationship between this establishment and the space around it; a relationship defined by economics and branding).

What If? as I understand it asks two main questions. How can we explore other relational values within this space? And, more specifically in terms of creating a piece of theatre, how can we use what is here, how can we add to it, how we can flip it in some way so that this – all of this – can be co-opted into my fiction? Which is an incredibly exciting and provocative question. (So what happens, as Alan posited, if you place a fictional armed guard outside Pizza Express? How have you redefined the potential meaning of that establishment at that point by this action?)

At which point of course the question of ceremony, or at the very least context, comes back into play. For the meaning of the play, of the event, of the scene, is now absolutely connected not only to the fictional world that is created, but by the interplay between this fiction and the real world that it inhabits. It is the meaning of the non-fictional world that supports and gives meaning to the fictional world.

Anyone making site specific theatre is, I would imagine, always on the lookout for how the real world can be manipulated and brought into play. Because for one thing it means that your sets are cheaper and that you can have extras that aren’t even aware that they are extras.

And the use of transmitters, receivers and headphones; of allowing performers to be wandering this space that is both a public space and a performance space at the same time, is a wonderful tool for allowing this type of interplay to happen. Because as a Director you can call the show live and communicate directly to groups of performers without the audience hearing this. (So, for instance, if something unexpected happens in the space it is possible for the Director to ask everyone to respond to it in the moment).

Both of these questions – the way that the awareness of the ‘ceremony’ of the event, and the way in which the reality of the world that surrounds the play can be brought into the text – are surely key ones for the writer of plays that occur in public civic spaces. And presumably lead to different ways of creating narrative.

There were a few other things that came up in the workshop that I’d like to briefly mention. One was Alan’s realisation that ‘hell hath no fury like middle class privilege’, and his story of how the only real problem that the company has had with non-audience members who have been inconvenienced by their work was in York, with four separate cases of people driving at an audience because they weren’t prepared to wait for between seven and fifteen minutes for a scene to occur. (Indicating perhaps how different cities with different traditions and histories of collective experience and identities understand – or not – what a civic space actually is, and their relationship to that).

Other phrases such as ‘as a company we’re often asked to solve a problem’ will be instantly recognizable for anyone who has been asked to work in a public context. And their philosophy, when recruiting performers that ‘nobody for any reason will be turned away from the gang’, goes right back to the heart of the ideals of the community theatre movement.

The notion of the audience always being present in the fiction is another key aspect of the work of the company, and again this framing of the relationship between the viewers and what is being viewed will have an impact on the construction of the script.

And finally the question of how much a writer needs to be connected to a community in order to be able to write a play was touched upon. For Slung Low I think the attitude is that the writers need to have a sympathy with the community in which they are working, and to understand the concerns of the community, but have no need to immerse themselves in research. But this is probably more to do with the nature of the plays that are created; which have a connection to issues within a community but which are also issues of national concern (‘community theatre can be parochial’). But there are, of course, certain plays which have to link the specific community stories to a wider narrative (as in Blood and Chocolate) at which point the interplay between ceremony and theatre comes into play. But – fundamentally – for Alan ‘the team need to feel that they are doing what they always wanted to do’.

Finally I’m really interested in the fact that the company have been asked to oversee the performance aspects of the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme in Manchester on July 1st. This is one of those events that is absolutely about ceremony, but is also a very interesting project for a company that ‘argue a lot about the definition of radical’ to be doing. It’s a project that is funded and led directly through the Department of Culture, Media and the Sport (apparently George Osborne wanted – and has got – Benedict Cumberbatch to be involved) and is bound to be tied up in a host of narratives, many of which the company may want to interrogate but which – in terms of the event’s civic symbolism – may just be too difficult to do so.

It’s not easy to combine spectacle and detailed narrative in public spaces. There are a great deal of companies that can amaze us with their lighting, pyrotechnics and giant puppets, but not so many that can tell the kind of stories that blend the intimate and the epic like much of the great storytelling does (War and Peace anyone?) One of Alan’s earliest statements – he appears to revels in provocation – was that ‘I will not cede the definition of theatre to an art form that has not moved forward a great deal since the fifties’. And it’s great to see a company, and an artistic director, really pushing at this to see what is possible (although tellingly the amount of speaking performers in these shows – which often have casts of up to two hundred people – is often less than twenty, with around four professional actors being a part of this; as opposed to those community plays which follow the Ann Jellicoe model and may have over one hundred characters with speaking parts).

I’m looking forward to seeing what Slung Low come up with next; and in hopefully reading the scripts of what look like incredibly exciting projects. Given the fact that so many of the NPO funded theatre buildings are having to find new ways to work with their communities as part of their funding agreements, it will be interesting to see how the company develops relationships with these whilst still maintaining what, at least in this workshop, was a pretty avowedly oppositional stance to the way that theatre is being run in the U.K today.