Feeling at home in your own city

Community theatre performances in Catalunya

During a recent visit to Barcelona I was able to meet people involved with two remarkable theatre performances.

1 – Vulnus

Vulnus

Vulnus (TransFORMAS) - 5

Towards the end of the 30 minute performance, four or five people were slowly, ritually tied to chairs with white rope. As each ligature was added, sometimes over their mouths, I felt a stillness descend in this Barcelona square. Most of the people watching hadn’t expected street theatre as they chatted and drank coffee on a Sunday afternoon. And as street theatre goes, this piece about vulnerability was some way from the music and acrobatics being offered to tourists and locals a few streets away.

Vulnus (TransFORMAS) - 6For a minute or two, nothing happened. The binders stood on one side, their heads covered in black cloths. The bound, including one wheelchair user, sat immobilised. The rest of us struggled to understand what we’d seen and, what was more disturbing, to decide how to respond to it. It was the children who broke the spell, reacting in the most natural way possible. Reacting as we all should. A couple of ten year olds simply walked over to the nearest performer and began to untie her. Soon others had followed: the piece had come to an end with the audience freeing the actors.

Vulnus (TransFORMAS) - 9

Vulnus’ was created by non-professional artists, supported by TransFORMAS, a pioneering socially engaged arts organisation founded in 2004 by Eva García. It was a deeply personal piece that drew on the participants’ own experiences of disability, mental ill-health and social exclusion. It was brave to perform it in public, without the technical or symbolic support offered by a theatre space. But part of what people can gain, when they are supported in creative development in a serious and informed way, is the confidence to express their feelings in a public space.

Vulnus (TransFORMAS)  - 1

2 – Li Diuen Mar

The previous evening, I’d been in a theatre to watch a very different piece by non-professional performers. This was equally ambitious, but in a different ways. During the hour-long performance, 50 people told a story about the sea, hope and danger, escape, intimacy and discovery. They used all the visual resources available in the theatre of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona and created together an extraordinary musical support for dance, theatre and storytelling. The performers included several different groups – school pupils from the inner city neighbourhood of Raval, retired local residents, an amateur choir and members of a local youth centre.

I heard something which was very beautiful yesterday, because afterwards people were saying that the play gave them hope for the new generations…

‘Li diuen mar’ was the creation of PI(E)CE, a project developed over the past five years by Teatre Tantanrantana to renew its connection with local people in Raval. Since then, the creative team of Julio Álvarez (producer and artistic director of Teatre Tantarantana, Constanza Brncic (stage director and choreographer), Albert Tola (dramaturg and writer), Nuno Rebelo (musical director) have built steadily more complex and ambitious work as the people they work with have grown in capacity and confidence. To be invited to perform at the prestigious CCCB as part of the city’s annual cultural festival was a symbolic breakthrough, as Albert Tola explained to me:

Politically, for me it’s important to show another landscape of the city. Since the ’92 Olympics there has been a redesign of the city and I became very nervous with that.  And so I want to feel at home again in my home and I do feel more home again since I’m doing this project.

For all their difference in origins, context and style, both performances shared a common purpose of reclaiming the city as a space for everyone. Beyond the commercial city or the tourist city are other Barcelonas, where elderly people and teenagers, and refugees and people with disabling conditions live. That city is equally important, equally real. And through theatre performances like these they become visible and take their place in the mosaic of Barcelona.

‘Li diuen mar’ PI(E)CE - 1

Openings

Poulenc Concert - 1

In a French country church, a few dozen people are gathered for a concert on a warm Saturday night. The programme is dedicated to Francis Poulenc’s sacred music, some of it composed during the composer’s visits here in the 1930s. The singers have travelled far to perform. All are amateurs, gifted singers in this highly participatory art form. As their pure sound – imagined for just this kind of acoustic – fills the church, I’m struck again by art’s indifference to the complicated and unstable beliefs of its creators.

There are services here about once a month now – the parish includes 14 churches – so Poulenc’s Mass in G is sung tonight as a secular not a religious ritual. But from a sociological or an anthropological perspective, there are more similarities than differences between our faiths. Most of us need to believe in something greater than our selves, if not god, then art, or love, science, country, democracy, family… Art can accommodate all these and many other ways of making sense of life. It does so by offering pathways for exploration – openings, not answers. Answers are for politics and art is always diminished when it is tied down to such temporal ideas. It needs to be untethered, able to drift free from the control of both its creators and its audiences. With no certainties of its own, art helps us live in an uncertain world.