Some Scatty Thoughts About Theatre & Community
On Sunday (8th November 2020) I had the privilege of attending a workshop done by A GOOD NIGHT OUT READING GROUP about the intersection between theatre and community.
These are my reflections on the provocations. I don’t speak for anyone else in the group and certainly don’t speak for the group its self.
Types of communities.
The first thing that struck me was how easily we think of “community” as a singular thing loosely attached to the theatre. We think of them are theatre friendly folk who would talk part in “participation” pieces from the local geographic area . How ever the reality of the “community”, or rather “communities”, that interact with a theatre or arts institution are really varied. Community really means “people who have something in common”. Within these communities people bring ideas, skills, and experiences. So when we think of the communities around a theatre they are broad and diverse not singular. They may be all united by Geography but that doesn't mean that the geography alone defines them.
Expectations of communities without interrogation and it’s consequences
The shallow thinking is often singularly thinking about the Geographic and there are many pitfalls within that. The most dangerous of which is thinking that people that fall within a geographic community are singular and have definite characteristics. From an artistic perspective it’s patronising to assume that’s true as you’ll only ever produce parochial work that entrenches a stereotype and sociologically it’s dangerous because people might believe it to be true within that geographic community. What happens if you keep saying that Glaswegians, Scousers and Geordies are all big, loud, funny and take up space? What happens to the introverts? What happens to the secret and scared LGTBQ+ community? What happens to the depressed? Forcing an identity on a community is damaging to everyone. It is much better to see a community as something multi-faceted; something which is encumbussing of many different experiences, perspectives, ideas, struggles, and passions and asking all those people to reflect on big ideas that universal, local, and eternal which amplifying certain communities when they need to be amplified.
Too often has theatre defined these communities by what it expects of them. We need to ask them how they define themselves.
Too often we read the guardian and a few popular books and apply Helicopter politics in art. Helicopter politics is when you think you can solve problems without engaging with them - think turning libraries into day care centres when it might be the only quiet place someone has to work, read, fill in applications, or just… be. It’s the art of thinking you know better than to talk to people and it ends in communities not getting what they need and money being wasted.
Art as change
Society can only change when the status quo is held to account and asked to change. This is what art is for. By engaging with all communities and challenging injustice politically, socially, and culturally is how we make the world better. That only comes by listening and amplifying the injustice of different types of communities… Not by assuming you know loads. You are the expert in theatre. They are the expert in injustice. Because they live it. This is how art is more than transactional.
Form and communities
The same applies to form. Many communities have an exposure to types of story telling. Some geographic communities have a large revolement around sport; this doesn’t mean that we have to mimic that. We can challenge that, copy it… what ever.. We just have to be aware that all these small communities have a form they’ve learned to engage stories in. And we have a responsibility to be aware of all them in in our geographic community to chose how we tell stories with the most truth and innovation in them.
A part of communities
We also have to recognise that we are not separate from these communities. If we’re artists we interest with loads of these communities. We’re not out of them; writing “about them”, from our turrets. We’re a part of them. Every time we make something we’re working with them as part of them for the sake particular discussions happening within the wider community. We know that if we are of these communities we are putting the communities first and not ourselves. Anyone portending to be of a community but not being or not engaging with it for their sake should not be allowed to make work. It should be criminal to pretend to speak for people, to other people, for the sake of themselves. If we want to genuinely illicit change we have to get better at speaking and listening.
Length of engagement
It’s not good enough to engage with a community once for the sake of an ACE bid and then leave them. This has to be continuous and long term engagement. The communities have to be open to coming to see the work, engaging with projects at the institution, and made priority by the institution. When I was working a lot with the Young Vic the deal was that if you did a project with them as a community member you were put on a list and you could engage with other projects as a performer. You could also engage with creative practise workshops. You also could enter a ballot where a percentage of tickets every night went to a community member who had done a project for FREE. These are just some ideas.. I’m sure there are loads of amazing ones. But the organisation has to keep giving to the same people if it wants to be friends with them, wants to be supported, and wants to make sure that they are in service of the communities and not the self.
Of course all this work is worth nothing if all these communities can’t access the work financially or psychically. It’s not just through physical failings and high ticket prices we fail to let communities in it’s also embedding it as part of culture. If we fail to get schools in and to engage with schools generally we fail completely.
Of course all this is a fundamental reimagining of how we see theatres. Away from the ego, the celebration of genius, and towards a genuine service of all of the communities we can reach from our buildings. It’s for the many and not the you. This is hard to do. For many reasons it’s a big deal to think about serving communities and not servicing individuals. For this shift to happen there’s going to be a need for a new status quo and a reimagining of public service over service of the self.