Community is such a complicated word because it points towards a profound yet contested aspect of human experience. Most people recognise and value community in some way, and that can bring out the best in us, as seen in the humanitarian responses to natural disasters. But communities, by definition, are exclusive too. In defining itself, a group cannot avoid simultaneously defining others, non-members. And our desire to belong can be exploited, for instance by politicians and corporations: rarely have the word’s positive associations been more oddly used than in the job title ‘Community Enforcement Officer’.
The idea and practice of community has always been central in art, especially in the collective rituals of performing arts. The term ‘community arts’ did not emerge without reason, nor did the turn against it in Britain (if not necessarily elsewhere). Community remains central to much participatory art, albeit sometimes implicitly. This week, in two very different place I observed theatre’s capacity to identify a community and enable its members to talk together about key aspects of their lives – including the identification of community itself.
The first was a forum theatre performance in a district of Porto called Lordelo de Ouro. It is one of several neighbourhoods in which Hugo Cruz, Maria João Mota and their colleagues in Pele, have been working in theatre with local residents. The latest piece was performed on a basketball court between the blocks of flats on a warm September evening. It was also set within the broader frame of Mexe, a community art festival that Pele has organised for several years, so there were people not from Lordelo or even Porto there too. They were a lively crowd with all the seats taken and people standing or leaning on the rails: more watched from windows of nearby flats. The actors ranged from teenagers to pensioners and they presented a sharp, funny look at how tourists were changing life in the city, in the housing market but also in supporting a taxi driver’s livelihood. After the performance, the audience got stuck into an animated discussion with the actors, stepping up to try out how situations could be worked out differently in the classic forum theatre process. It was not about reaching conclusions or even making change, but an opportunity to hear different points of view about what kind of city – or community – people wanted.
A few days later, I was in at the restored Barrow Hill Round House to see Down the Line, a community play about the long industrial history of the Derbyshire community around Staveley. This was community theatre in the British tradition, its roots in pageant, with ensemble casting, music and spectacle. It involved six professional and many more non-professional actors, a primary school choir and a brass band. The action took place in and around the old railway turning shed, now saved by community action as a living heritage site, and featured moving locomotives, including the much-loved Flying Scotsman, brought for the occasion from its home at the National Railway Museum in York. Although its perspective was historical, the play dealt with divisive political issues, including the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, avoidable deaths in war and mining, and the question of how a community shaped by industry can adapt to its loss. The performers sang ‘the promises they made us ring hollow and shrill’ and a powerful speech about liberty delivered from a locomotive footplate was met by spontaneous applause. There was pride not nostalgia and a confidence in how this community was continuing to renew itself today. In the gaps and intervals, I found myself talking with my neighbour about what we each value in the past, how farming is changing and Britain’s recent wars. Without sentimentality, the evening honoured a community and its unique story.
In style, content and resources, these two plays span a spectrum of community theatre practice but each saw a community come together to share – and question – what mattered to its members. The identity or stability of the community is not the point. It needed only to be enough to unite people in a shared belief that they had things in common that were worth making visible, talking about – dramatising. As a result, community itself was strengthened. Whether it is understood as being based on place, interest or identity, community can only exist in people and their actions. Theatre experiences, such as those I saw this week in Porto and Staveley, can be valuable ways both of enacting and of questioning our assumptions about identity, belonging and shared experience.