The meaning of risk in community art

Three days ago, anticipating the first performance of the Leiria prison opera, I wrote that I didn’t expect to see anything better, more valuable or more important. It was a small, calculated risk, the kind I make all the time. It really wouldn’t matter if I was wrong, but I was confident in my judgement. I’ve followed this project’s journey for several years, and listened to many of those involved during that time. As I watched the final rehearsals, I’d no doubt that they’d created something exceptional. Insofar as there was any risk in saying so before the Friday’s première, it was only that the promise I saw then would not be fulfilled.

Why might that have happened? It was certainly possible because of the many real and serious risks being taken by the people involved in the project, including:

  • The risk taken by the prison director and her staff in allowing the project to go ahead, with inevitable disruption to routines, pressure on staffing and security, and potential for destabilisation of relations between groups, all in the very real uncertainty about what value might come from this upheaval. 
  • The risk taken by the Gulbenkian Orchestra, agreeing to play a still-unwritten score in a disused prison workshop, alongside thirty young inmates with no experience of performing classical music.
  • The risk taken by Vicomtech’s computer scientists who needed to make their software meet the demands of a live performance from different locations with inadequate internet bandwidth and a hard deadline.
  • The risk taken by the creative team of composers, librettist, stage director and designer who had to discover how to co-create meaningful art with young men living in prison, facing enormous pressures and no reason to care about opera or them.  
  • And the risk taken by SAMP’s team of community musicians and artists, who began working in this prison 18 years ago, as volunteers, and have never failed in their commitment to the people whose lives are entangled with this institution—inmates, families, guards and management—despite the broken roads they have travelled, and who cheerfully accepted the challenge of co-creating a new opera within a European research project with huge new demands and complexities.

Big risks, then, for all the organisations involved in this project during two and a half years made still more difficult by successive waves of the Covid-19 storm, and their readiness to take them on deserves great credit. Still, despite all that might have gone wrong, these risks were containable. After all, coping with risk is a central function of organisations and it is part of their strength to carry a lot on broad shoulders. 

The unhappy reality is that the biggest risks in this project fell, as they do in almost all community art projects, on those with the fewest resources to carry them—the inmates and their family members who chose to take part. The risks they face are as varied as the people themselves, though they’re mostly about the vulnerability and pain that comes with change, stepping into the unknown, trusting that something better could be possible, exposing intimacy to the judgement of others. Such human challenges and griefs come to us all, but rarely as intensely or dangerously as when your life is governed by the criminal justice system. 

One example can serve for many. 

There is a moment in the opera where a young inmate reads a letter he has written to his mother. He is alone, in another part of the prison. She is in the space where the main performance happens. His image, larger than life is projected onto the white backdrop of the white stage where she stands, listening. There was important artistic and dramaturgical purpose behind this staging, but they faded into irrelevance in the truth of the moment. Art and reality were indistinguishable and mutually reinforcing. It was heart-breaking, unforgettable.

It was also an immense risk for both the son and the mother concerned. The young man, just twenty, spoke of wanting to be a baby in his mother’s arms again in front of 100 fellow detainees. He decided to do it only that morning—one of the artistic risks this project demands is never being sure who will perform on the day—and on Friday, he read too fast, rarely looking at his mother, whom he could see on screen. It felt like a struggle, a race against his courage. 

On Saturday, perhaps because he had proven to himself that he could rise to this moment, his performance was transformed. He read as if he was thinking about his words, he looked up and met his mother’s eyes. It was electric, not because it was drama, but because it was real. This is the separation and the cost of the separation that prison entails. It was the meaning of the opera, made universal through the myth of the long journey of Ulysses home to Penelope, and brought to life in words and music, performance and design. 

And because separation is the dominant reality of too many lives, it is of fundamental importance that we can express that experience through art and find, perhaps, some meaning in it, even a sense of reconciliation with what we cannot change, and must endure.

Talking about such things, enacting them for those you love, live with or must tolerate, takes great courage because it brings vulnerability, even within the defences of music, costume and art. I’ve worked with thousands of people who have been ready to take such risks to make art, to be seen, to be heard, to overcome their own fears and crises, to change their lives, to create something better. Mostly, I have only a small idea of what they go through to do that. Over the past few days, it has been in plain sight and I have never been more impressed, or more humbled, by what people do in and for community art.

For reasons of security and privacy, I can’t include photos of the rehearsals or performance, but a documentary film of the project is being made and when there is material that I can share, I will add it to this site. In the meantime, here’s a picture I took last evening, of a small celebration, among the creative team after the second performance, of Bruno Homem, David Ramy and Paulo Lameiro, performing among SAMP and Traction friends. (You can watch a short video of their music on Saturday afternoon at the end of the post here.)