Who is changed by participatory art?

‘I think people with learning difficulties have had quite a bad deal in life and I think this is finally turning the page, and making a big change in that, so I think it’s very important that people in these professions learn from us to know what we’re about and then they go into those professions and they have a much better working life because of it.’

Andrew McLeod, Lawnmowers Artist

The social outcomes of participatory art can be important for the people involved, but they can be just as profound for the people who experience the art they make. That is particularly true where the work happens within a context of cultural democracy, which works towards a society in which everyone can use art to communicate what matters to them.  The Lawnmowers are an independent theatre company based in Gateshead, in the north east of England. Run by and for people with learning difficulties, the company has grown since its foundation in 1986 through a series of self-devised theatre productions about things that matter to its members – everything from health care or benefits to hip hop, sex and Elvis.  They have also developed a youth theatre project, regular club nights and other activities,

I first visited the Lawnmowers in 1996, for the research that became Use or Ornament?, and this is part of what I wrote about them then:

In 1995, the Lawnmowers produced a video to fill a gap in existing sex education re- sources. The Big Sex Show is a 30 minute video which tackles relationships, feelings and safe sex in a straightforward and accessible manner. It tells the story of two learning disabled people who fall in love, and the personal and social hurdles they have to cross as a result. It includes plenty of information about sex, contraception, HIV/AIDS, but also offers insights into coping with feelings, and the expectations of others. It involved much detailed research, and close co-operation with health workers. The Lawnmowers have performed The Big Sex Show all over Britain, from Brighton to the Edinburgh Festival, and have toured in Poland. The video, accompanied by booklets aimed at non-readers, has been sold and hired to many groups of people with learning disabilities and others. The company’s new show, The Right Wrong, explores the issue of disabled people’s political rights, as one member explains: ‘This play is about asking Parliament to change things and how different people look at people with disabilities. I play the part of someone who wants to be an MP. I would in my real life like to be an MP. The shows prove to people that we can work like anyone else in the theatre.’ (Matarasso 1997: 45-46)

We’ve stayed in touch since then, and at the end of last year the Lawnmowers invited me to join them in a new project about living well as an older person with learning difficulties.

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On Saturday, when we gathered for our third session together, Andy, George, Nick and Andrew told me about the busy week they’d just had, teaching through forum theatre at Teeside University. On the first day, they’d worked with 78 OT and radiography undergraduates and on the second with 40 students doing a Masters Degree in social work. Lawnmowers’ Creative Health Awareness Training, which has been developed over several years in partnership with Northumbria University, introduces health and care professionals to some of the needs that people with learning difficulties may have. It’s intended to reduce the misunderstandings that can lead to poor care and more serious consequences for disabled people accessing services. The students’ response is often powerful and sometimes life-changing – one person attending this week said that the course had made her decide to change her specialism. This short film gives a sense of how the Lawnmowers use theatre to help others understand their perspective.

As the Lawnmowers told me me about their work at Teeside University, it struck me how rarely discussion of participatory art recognises its social impact on the powerful – the ‘potential oppressors’ was the forum theatre term they used. And yet, if the Lawnmowers artists have benefited through their involvement with the group (as they are the first to say), the wider impact of their art for non-disabled people has been no less important. Thousands of care professionals have experienced something of the creativity and imagination of learning-disabled artists, and their understanding of other lives has permanently changed as a result.  That is also the rationale of cultural democracy, which the Lawnmowers have made a living reality for over 30 years.

Lanterns on the Cabbage Field

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 2

Ed Carroll and Vita Gelūnienė live in Kaunas (Lithuania) where they have been exploring ways of creating community art for several years. When Ed sent me some photos of their latest event I asked if I might share them on this blog, partly because they give a glimpse of what’s happening in a part of Europe that isn’t widely known in the landscape of participatory art, and partly because the images offer such a resonant feel of midwinter celebration, ancient and contemporary, elemental and human. I also sense Welfare State’s ideas and aesthetics, spreading unseen like rhizomes, relevant still because their own roots are in ancient, anarchic popular visions the need of which people are starting to feel again.

Ed and Vita have written this brief account of this evening, which is the latest in a series of – what, happenings? – they’ve helped create in their community.

 

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 1

In the centre of Šančiai is a wasteland called the ‘Cabbage Field’, the final fragment of a vast area used as a military territory from the mid-19th century until 1993. Over the last four years a group of community artists and leaders who formed the Lower Sanciai Community Association worked to reclaim this land.  In December 2017, the Association joined the Council of Europe Faro Convention Network, a solidarity platform working with local cultural heritage and making it a resource for citizens to create commons, narratives and cooperation.  This is the second year the group organized a festive community gathering called the Balsamic Poplar, which takes its name from the oldest tree.

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 3

In the process of preparing for this event, local leaders and community artists organized more than 20 open art workshops. The result of these workshops became a two-hour coproduction led by children, people with disabilities, the local circus and library as well as community members. Over 200 people came and were met by resident Field Fairies who drew people to the shadow theatre on the specially adapted ‘Dream Bus’. The shadow theatre used the local library for rehearsal involving children and parents. After the performance, creative workshops in shadow making attracted some; others preferred to watch the newly placed crib into the belly of the Balsamic poplar, while others were engaged in making and sharing waffles and doughnuts from an open fire oven. People brought in new books to donate to the library!

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 6'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 4

A band of samba drummers led the crowd on a journey around five specially constructed circular screens to watch a unique performative light animation produced produced by artists from Psilicon Theatre and the local Baltic circus.   Finally, the night ended with a fire sculpture created by a local resident of the Cabbage Field.

“The animators of the Cabbage Field have worked for a few years to mobilize community and to create this festive tale.  Many had criticized them for what they were doing in this wasteland. But in spite of it, the community kept on working and is going to make more events attended by children, neighbours and even those who never heard about the space.  People were happy and joyous and this mood was made by the magic of the faith in community and Christmas spirit.” Kauno Diena newspaper 2017-12-18

 'The Cabbage Field' (photo Regina Sabuliene)

Thanks to Ed and Vita for sharing this work, and to the photographers Darius Petrulis and Regina Sabuliene. I hope to be able to visit the project next year and learn more about their experience at first hand.

  • PS Ed Carroll has long been involved with Blue Drum, working for cultural rights in Ireland and the Legacy Papers, an project to document the origins and development of community art, including interviews with people like Mary Jane Jacob, Arlene Goldbard and many others.

'The Cabbage Field' (Photo Darius Petrulis) 5

 

Talking about community

Down the Line (Barrow Hill) - 2

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, the avoidable death’s 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.

Anyone can do it

hazte banquero3

This guest post was written by Julia Rone, a Bulgarian friend who has been researching social activism in the wake of the financial crisis. She describes how the Spanish activist group, XNET, are prosecuting fraudulent bankers and politicians in the courts and in the theatre. While the legal proceedings continue, ‘Become a Banker’, has been seen by almost 10,000 people in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, A Coruña, Girona and Tàrrega, helping ensure that the truth is understood and remembered.  (It’s also available online, in a version with English subtitles.) The story is not over, but through this citizens theatre, XNET are keeping attention on the true causes of the hardship undergone by Spanish people. 

Banking, creative activism and theatre: the Hazte Banquero story

Imagine being one of the most powerful bankers of Spain. Imagine experiencing the financial crisis, witnessing millions of people going to the streets after losing their savings, their mortgages, their future. See them shouting, marching, occupying.  And then imagine someone leaking to the public all your professional emails with details of lavish spending and misdeeds. Imagine a court trial and someone brave enough (artistically and politically) to make a data-based theatre play out of all this.

The play Hazte Banquero (Become a Banker)is ‘a true story and, as such, it is dramatic but, most of all, it is absurd and atrociously comical’, as the producers from X-net describe it. XNET is an activist collective that deals with topics such as free culture, technopolitics, network democracy, and citizen journalism. They have been very active ever since the Indignados protests in Spain, and this is how I got to know their work. But when I entered Teatre El Musical in Valencia to watch their play I had my doubts about what I was going to see. Would it be one of the many naive and moralistic tales of bankers that flooded Hollywood screens after the crisis? Would I have to like it just because I agree with the political message? As a social movements researcher, I’m used to exploring citizen action on the streets and on squares, on mail lists and Facebook pages – but theatre and social movements? The combination made me uncomfortable.

 

And yet, from the very first moment, the play engaged me, dispersed my doubts and filled the empty space with data. Director Simona Levi and the XNET team read thousands of leaked emails to choose the most striking ones and set them as drama. With the help of a big screen, interactive graphics, and several great actors representing the key figures in Caja Madrid  – all male, of course – XNET guided us through a complex scheme of corruption, self-enrichment, and revolving doors between politics and finance.

In Greek tragedy, the characters suffer irrational divine curses and cannot escape their fate. In contrast, Hazte Banquero tells the story of a modern, man-made crisis that could have been avoided – had the protagonists shown any moral constraints. The plot is so gripping because all the events described really took place, although, the more details emerge, the more unbelievable it all seems. Yes, bank supervisors and top employees of Caja Madrid did have ‘black’ credit cards for unlimited spending. Yes, the bank did transfer money to ‘charitable’ foundations of all political parties in Spain, including the far left. Yes, Caja Madrid did sell floating rate stocks to thousands of inexperienced customers, making them believe they were fixed-rate. All this really happened. All theatre audiences have to suspend disbelief, to accept the ‘reality’ of the play. Watching Hazte Banquero, you had to suspend disbelief to accept reality itself as real.

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In fact, unlike most foreigners, the general public in Spain is familiar with many of the facts around Caja Madrid and its successor Bankia, presided by Rodrigo Rato. But one of truth’s weaknesses is that it’s easily forgotten, set aside while we deal with more urgent everyday duties. Hazte Banquero reveals the truth in the data  – and it helps prevent it from being forgotten. The play reenacts truth in front of us, makes us laugh, feel shocked and outraged, and this emotional connection is what guarantees that truth will not be forgotten any more.

Hazte Banquero has a double goal. First, it shows what happened, so that it will not happen again. This is the awareness-raising task. Secondly, it seeks justice and exposes people who should assume responsibility for their actions. The members of the audience change from being passive witnesses of their personal crises to being active participants in a quest for justice. The play functions as a record and a warning sign, a forensic analysis and a protest march.

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Leaking data is a risky political act. Performing that data, turning numbers and words into feelings, is politically and artistically dangerous. Hazte Banquero manages to be a powerful, entertaining play with an serious message. It succeeds both in its artistic and political goals. But ultimately, the XNET artists do not distinguish between the two. As citizens we need to act in order to prevent corruption and irresponsibility. This is why XNET organized a crowd-funding campaign to finance  their continuing prosecution of bank executives. As citizens, we too must act, in the sense of perform, and reach out to others and make our causes known. Theatre becomes a form of political action, a way to bring together people and inspire them to act on their destiny.

By seeing the bankers as protagonists on stage, citizens understand better the real-life bankers who, in a famous ad campaign, encouraged them to “become bankers” – and then defrauded them. Stripped of their illusions and armed with information, citizens can identify with the bankers on stage. Stripped of their impunity, once-untouchable bankers identify with ordinary citizens in real life. They are put to trial and they face the consequences of their actions. This change of roles is not welcome to anyone involved. But it is necessary.

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The trial and the play are two faces of one process of citizen engagement initiated by XNET. On the 23rd February 2017, Miguel Blesa was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and Rodrigo Rato to four and a half, on charges related to the black credit cards scandal. They both appealed to the Supreme Court and are currently not in jail thanks to their ‘exemplary’ conduct during the trial. We still don’t know whether self-organized citizens will manage to change the end of this play of privilege and impunity we all know too well. But whatever happens, the premise of the play has changed. From secondary characters in our society, citizens have become protagonists and taken centre stage. Who could imagine this?

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Julia Rone is currently finishing her PhD at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute, Florence. Her research explores social mobilizations against free trade agreements, with a focus on framing and diffusion of ideas. In addition, she studies hacktivism, digital disobedience, and struggles in defense of Internet Freedom.

With thanks to Simona Levi and XNET for permission to include photographs from the production. 

hazte-banquero-sensibilidades

 

 

Rural touring and cultural democracy

Rosie Redzia 4

Rural touring is not a participatory art, but it is participatory culture. Why the distinction? Because in rural touring participation occurs not in the creation of art but in its management – and that, in its way, can be just as important to cultural democracy.

I first heard of rural touring 15 years ago, when Ralph Lister (of Take Art in Somerset) and Ian Scott (then running Artreach in Dorset) asked me if I’d be interested in undertaking some research for the National Rural Touring Forum. NRTF brings together independent arts organisations working across the UK to support live professional performances in rural areas. There are about 35 of them, some small, some large, working with communities from Cornwall to Scotland. In 2014, they helped 278,000 people see theatre, dance, music and other art in 2,400 different villages and rural towns.

Rosie Redzia 2

The shows, which happen in local halls, churches, pubs and schools, are always good, often powerful and sometimes extraordinary. That’s partly because the small scale suits certain kinds of performer – experienced companies making work specifically for rural audiences, young artists with fresh ideas and seasoned ones with their own following. There are also NRTF commissions (recently in contemporary dance) that extend that offer. But seeing a show in a village hall is also about community. The audience is small, and people tend to know one another, This intimacy can be risky – it’s painfully obvious if the show isn’t working. But the experience can also be very intense, and many performances that stay in my mind today I saw in these rural venues.

Rosie Redzia 1

What has this to do with cultural democracy or participation? It’s about how the shows are put on. The rural touring schemes have invented an approach to promoting that gives local communities real power over what they want to see. The shows are programmed by volunteers – often village hall committees, sometimes informal groups – who also choose the venue, publicise the performance, sell tickets and host the artists and audience on the night. They share the financial risk and keep any surplus to invest in the next event. Most promoters – and there are about 2,400 in the UK now – put on two to six shows a year. They choose what they think the community will enjoy from a menu selected by the touring scheme, which handles the contracts with the companies and other practicalities. The result is a local arts programme that is valued in the communities where it happens because they make the important decisions about it.

Between 2004 and 2014, rural touring audiences, promoters and performances all grew by about 45%, despite cuts in public funding. Today, rural touring managers, voluntary promoters and artists gather in Nottingham for their annual conference, which takes its theme from Robert Frost: ‘Freedom lies in being bold’. One mark of that boldness is the launch of the Rural Touring Awards, which recognise the dedication of just some of the thousands who make the arts part of everyday life in rural Britain.

Not participatory art then, but a genuinely participatory culture and one more strand in democratic social life.

To read my past work on rural touring, please click on the links below:

All the images on this page are by Rosie Redzia and taken from ‘A Wider Horizon’.

Rosie Redzia 3

Amateurs and professionals

 

This text and its photographs are taken from ‘Where We Dream: West Bromwich Operatic Society and the Fine Art of Musical Theatre (François Matarasso, Multistory 2012). The complete book can be downloaded as a PDF: print copies (£5), which include a DVD of Ben Wigley’s film, are available from Multistory

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The modern system of art is not an essence or a fate but something we have made.

Larry Shiner, 2001

Members of West Bromwich Operatic Society can be sensitive about being called amateurs, not because it is inaccurate, but because of the perception that amateur is a synonym for mediocre, self-regarding, even incompetent. And it is true that the word is sometimes used almost as an insult – and not least between artists.

It was not always like that. There was a time when to be an amateur was prestigious. It was someone who was seriously committed to the pursuit of knowledge in science, philosophy or art, someone motivated only by a love of learning. Since they were not paid, the amateurs were genuinely disinterested. In the past, that also meant that they were wealthy, probably aristocrats or landed gentry, because only those classes had leisure time to dedicate to something that was not edible, usable or tradable.

Some amateurs dedicated their lives and fortunes to knowledge in science, philosophy, history and the arts. Others, lacking artistic talent themselves, surrounded themselves with artists in need of a living, or amassed great collections that have become the heart of public museums today. In all these roles, amateurs were deeply influential in the development of art forms and in shaping public taste and ideas of art. Crucially, there was a close interactive relationship between amateur (unpaid) and professional (paid) artists: gentlemen and players.

Professional artists, by contrast, usually had low social status. Throughout most of European history, there was no reason to distinguish a painter or a potter from a builder: all useful trades, but anyone who worked with their hands could have no claim to high status. Performers were generally held in still lower esteem, perhaps because their art does not even produce anything useful. Their living was precarious and they often lived on the disreputable borderline between entertainer and beggar. The Border style of Morris dancing uses blackface as the traditional disguise of street performers.

There are always exceptions. It was possible to be a performer without forfeiting one’s social position if there was no payment involved. The people who performed in Classical Greek theatre or medieval mystery plays were amateurs playing a role at a designated season with religious meaning. People with a talent for song, story or a tune have always been appreciated in community celebrations, but again because they performed for pleasure and honour.

The status of professional artists in Europe began to change in the 18th century, when the ideological, social and economic changes of the Enlightenment took hold. A distinction began to be made between the ‘fine arts’ and something of lower value called ‘craft’. The relative power of patrons and artists was gradually reversed. In 1717, the Duke of Saxeweimar had Bach imprisoned for wanting to leave his service; by the 1791, Haydn could leave the Esterházy court to work in London where he made much more money from concerts and teaching. By the 1830s, statues of Beethoven were appearing all over Germany, where those of noblemen had stood. More importantly, he was being claimed as higher than anyone: for Bizet ‘He is not a human being, he is a god’.

Romanticism had elevated the artist to an unprecedented status. Freed from the ties of patronage by new consumer markets, artists began to describe their work as a vocation – a word that had previously meant being called by God to serve in the church. Art was establishing itself as an alternative religion with claims of transcendence and spiritual value, a position it retains today, partly because Christianity is a weak force in European society.

The professional artist became someone who had answered that higher call, sacrificing worldly advantages for a nobler purpose. Of course, artists have to eat like everybody else. Unless they have a private income – like aristocratic amateurs – or a wealthy patron, they must sell their work in the market. The independence claimed by artists in the 19th and 20th centuries was partly illusory because it had been achieved by trading a relationship with one or two wealthy individuals for a relationship with thousands or even hundreds of thousands. And a mass market can be as demanding, as deceptive and as dismissive as any aristocrat.

Before the industrial revolution an artist who failed to find a patron could have few illusions about their importance. They became an assistant to somebody more successful or they found another trade. Today, with the example of Vincent van Gogh always before them, an artist who fails to sell can see that failure as proof of their own genius. It can be quite a big consolation.

As the social status and economic power of artists has changed in the past two centuries, so has that of amateurs. The aristocracy has been pushed or retreated to the margins of more democratic societies, generally abandoning any claim to shape public discourse. The rich amateurs who make public taste now are more likely to be self-made men (and they still tend to be men) like Charles Saatchi.

At the same time, education and leisure extended to the growing populations of industrial cities. At school, in public libraries and working people’s educational associations, people learned new tastes and skills. Church and chapel supported choral singing and – in more liberal quarters – concert parties and amateur drama. A growing consumer market gave ready access to books, music hall and theatre – then film, pop music and television. Over the decades, the pleasures of the aristocracy became those of working people, albeit adapted to suit other lives and interests and mixed with other influences from folk and popular culture.

The number of amateurs grew and continues to grow as new creative tools become available to more people: cameras first and now computers and the Internet. Much of their work is informal, created by individuals or loose groups of friends and like-minded people. As a result, it is difficult to know how many people are seriously engaged in photography, music, dance or writing, but it is certainly in the millions.

Where things need to be more structured, as in theatre, it is easier to get a sense of the scale. The National Operatic and Dramatic Association, for example, has 2,549 member societies across the UK and Ireland. But this is only part of the amateur arts world. According to DCMS research there are almost 50,000 amateur arts groups in England. Between them, they have about 6 million members and a further 3.5 million volunteers – so about 15% of the population is active in amateur arts organisations. In a typical year, they promote 700,000 performances or exhibitions and get about 160 million attendances. Amateur arts organisations have a collective income of over half a billion pounds, almost all raised through ticket sales and their own fundraising.

A further difficulty with assessing the extent of amateur arts practice is that it does not have neat boundaries. Contrary to what some people would wish, and perhaps also to some of the tenor of the previous paragraphs, the arts are not divided into two separate and antagonist worlds: the amateurs and the professionals. it is better understood as a complex ecosystem in which people may play different roles at different times or in different aspects of their career.

Citizens are increasingly spending significant amounts of their leisure time engaged in serious creative pursuits. These pro-ams are people who have acquired high level skills at particular crafts, hobbies, sports or art forms; they are not professionals but are often good enough to present their work publicly or to contribute seriously to a community of like-minded artists or creators.

Stephen J. Tepper, 2008

There are members of WBOS who have worked professionally: singing with big bands, as dancers, or in fringe theatre. Others have had to choose between seizing a chance or continuing in the existing course of their life and staying amateur: even 50 years later, there can be a hint of regret at the path not taken. Nowadays, there are also young members who hope to go on to drama college or conservatoire and so into the professional theatre.

‘In a dream world, I would love to be an actor. But I’m not unrealistic – I’m not one of those that’s just got my head in the clouds about being a big Broadway star. I would carry on doing this for ever.’

On the other side, professionals are involved in WBOS productions, including the director, the musical director and the choreographer, who are all paid by the company. For the shows themselves, a stage manager and musicians are hired, along with the staff of the theatre itself. Finally, there is also the input of the professionals who created the original production, including set and costumes, which is to some degree a revival when staged by an amateur company.

The same intermingling exists in the professional world, many of whose stars discovered performance in amateur groups where they were growing up. Lionel Bart, in whose debt thousands of amateur groups will forever be for having given them Oliver!, wrote his first work as a member of amateur groups in London. Much choral music involves a professional orchestra working with an amateur choir. The Crouch End Festival Chorus, which sang in Mahler’s 10th Symphony at the opening of the 2010 BBC Proms is just one example of the excellence achieved by amateur choirs. In America’s different arts ecology, it is estimated that amateur musicians perform almost half of all live symphonic music.

New technology is further blurring the lines between amateurs and professionals as more people create, publish and distribute their work online. Wikipedia typifies a world where people with global expertise can work alongside people with local or specific knowledge to create something neither group could achieve alone.

 

In a cozy corner of the electric flame department of the infernal regions there stands a little silver gridiron. It is the private property of his Satanic majesty, and is reserved exclusively for the man who invented amateur theatricals. It is hard to see why the amateur actor has been allowed to work his will unchecked for so long. These performances of his are diametrically opposed to the true spirit of civilization, which insists that the good of the many should be considered as being of more importance than that of the few. In the case of amateur theatricals, a large number of inoffensive people are annoyed simply in order that a mere handful of acquaintances may amuse themselves.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Gem Collector, 1909

It is the humourist’s prerogative not to believe what he writes and, given Wodehouse’s love of musicals, it is tempting to believe he would have loved The Producers, watching from whichever balcony in the afterlife is reserved to those who make us laugh. Amateur theatre is an easy target because its enthusiasts have been known to take themselves very seriously, something English humour delights in mocking. But if some amateur actors do take themselves very seriously, so do some accountants, some plumbers and some arts managers: self-importance is a non-exclusive character trait.

Seriousness is essential to art. The question is what you are serious about. Good things start to happen in art when people are serious about something that is bigger than technique, bigger than audiences, bigger than them. The Canadian sociologist Robert Stebbins, one of a rather small number of academics to have taken an interest in amateur art practice, coined the phrase ‘serious leisure’ to distinguish the work of committed amateurs from those for whom their engagement with art is a casual entertainment. He describes serious leisure as ‘the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer core activity that is highly substantial, interesting, and fulfilling’. In conversation with amateurs, Stebbins found that people used the word ‘serious’ frequently, associating it with such qualities as ‘earnestness, sincerity, importance, and carefulness’.

Watching WBOS at work – or should that be at play? – one sees apparently contradictory things. There is happiness and seriousness but little sign of the self-importance Wodehouse mocks. These are no prima donnas elbowing their way centre stage (though they are hardly introverts either), but hard-working performers having fun. And that air of good humour is the lasting impression you get from spending time with the company – laughter, affection and mutual support.

‘That’s what it’s all about – it’s giving, it’s giving, not taking. That’s why it’s here. That’s why it’s successful.’

Some of that lightness is due to the advantages amateur performers have over their professional counterparts. The show is important, very important, but nobody’s career is riding on it. Deeply as they care about it, the amateurs have not invested their whole identities in this performance: they may be critiqued, but not damned. There is too much else in the rest of their lives, including work, since this is not it.

The other big difference for WBOS is that they are enacting a production created by others – by professionals. They do not have to invent how to stage a scene, or how to make the show come together. They know it works, because others have done it before. Amateurs are not usually looking for originality – itself a Romantic ideal – but for quality, which defined art before the Enlightenment. It’s a critical difference.

You have exactly ten seconds to change that disgusting look of pity into one of enormous respect.

Mel Brooks, The Producers (1968)

Wayne Booth, a professor of literature who spent 40 years playing the cello with fellow amateurs, has written about the joys and pitfalls of what he called ‘amateuring’. He knew that he would never be as good as the least of the professional players, but his effort and practising was the tribute he paid to music, because he valued it so much. He believed that ‘If anything is worth doing at all, it is worth doing badly’. Booth hated low standards and mediocrity. His argument is that since playing music is such a valuable experience, doing it at whatever level you can reach is always better than not doing it at all.

Booth is perfectly right. It is because the practice of art offers such unique and enriching rewards that everyone should be able to take part, in the ways and to the extent that they find congenial.

Art does not need protecting from untalented practitioners: it can look after itself. But untalented performers might need protecting from their more skilled peers who have an interest in controlling who is and who is not able to take part. There is a parallel with cooking. Preparing one’s own food, however basic or unappetising to someone with a more refined palate, offers satisfactions that the most expensive ready meal cannot give. It is doing, not watching others do. And by doing we can improve our taste and technique. But it is not always in the interests of processed food retailers or professional chefs to encourage people in that idea.

Participation is the hallmark of a vibrant cultural scene, not just participation for the trained and well healed but participation that’s available to just about everybody.

Bill Ivey, 2008

The serious amateurism recognised from different angles by Booth and Stebbins exactly describes how the members of WBOS approach their theatre work. It is a hobby but one that is undertaken seriously, both because of the respect they have for the art of musical theatre and because it is by investing themselves fully that people get most from taking part. Its value comes from doing, from understanding something from the inside, experientially, and its greatest prize is not the applause, joyous as that is, but nurturing skill, ability and understanding in community.

Members with demanding jobs and young families said that people asked them how they find time to do it. The consistent answer was that they could not imagine not doing it. They were prisoners of their love of theatre and of the families and friends with whom that love was shared.

‘From the heart, I’d say love. It’s a love for theatre but I also met my wife here so it encompasses everything. I wouldn’t have my family or my daughter without the Operatic Society.’

 

True to the art – Cardboard Citizens

 

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Cardboard Citizens

‘We simply want to say we’re all human beings, and we really mean it, when we think: This could be me. This isn’t somebody different from me. This could be me.’

Adrian Jackson

Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding theatre company, producing and touring new plays about homelessness.

Cardboard Citizens is an outstanding social service helping hundreds of homeless people rebuild their lives.

If these statements seem contradictory, it is only because rigid thinking divides artistic and social work into opposing categories of action. Art and social policy are abstract concepts. Homelessness is very concrete. It is also very complex, in both its causes and its effects. It is untidy and doesn’t respond well to tidy thinking. Cardboard Citizens has developed an approach to homelessness that is creative, robust and light-footed. It adapts equally to constant change in policy and services and to ups and downs in vulnerable people’s lives. It crosses conventional boundaries between art and social intervention because it must: the success of this work depends on elements of both.

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‘A gift for fiction’

Theatre changes people. Mostly, it does so in small ways by rearranging our mental furniture, hanging around for a bit and leaving odd things behind when it’s gone, with the result that we perceive things differently. Sometimes, its effect is much more dramatic, making us reassess our fears, desires, understanding, or our sense of others, at a fundamental level. That’s much rarer, but when it happens it can be literally life-changing.

It does all this through the licensed use of techniques which are in principle banned from normal life: deceit, manipulation, emotional pressure, pretence. Theatre lies constantly, deliberately and ingeniously and its only justification is that it does so to show a truth which otherwise could not be seen or, perhaps, faced. Then, as an unscrupulous film director says in David Mamet’s State and Main, ‘It’s not a lie; it’s a gift for fiction.’

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Moments of Joy

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Almost imperceptibly participatory art is becoming an ordinary dimension of social programmes. It has happened quietly over two or three decades, and it is not a done deal yet, but it is becoming more and more common for actors outside the arts world to integrate arts activities in their work.

Take the example of South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA), a social landlord with some 5,700 homes across the Sheffield City Region, let on average at 21% less than private sector rents in the area. A third of their properties also offer support of specialist care staff, while its LiveWell services help customers in different ways, from accessing mental health support to training or finding work.

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Two years ago, SYHA began to explore how the arts might add value to what they offer their customers. They also wanted to see if it would build relationships between staff, volunteers and customers and with the arts and cultural sector locally. Finally, they hoped that it would enhance their operating model. SYHA were prepared to invest their own resources into the work and they began talking with their customers and local arts organisations about what they might do.

The result was a pilot programme called Moments of Joy, which has just been completed and evaluated. It involved several projects in different parts of the region. Two were environmental art projects in which residents and staff worked with artists to create landscape markers. An Open Cinema project offered 30 events in two seasons in Sheffield. A theatre project with Cardboard Citizens and other partners, which involved about 70 customers and staff and culminated in three performances. A community journalists project to train volunteers to document the programme.

In themselves, these projects may not seem very ambitious or important. Some also worked better than others. But that is to miss the point. What is important is the commitment from a social housing provider to support the wellbeing of its customers and staff by investing its resources in arts activity. The individual projects will change individual lives – the evaluation has already shown that starting to happen. But it is the programme that has the capacity to change approaches to housing and social care. Already, this first experience has convinced SYHA to continue the approach. A new phase is now offering visual art, dance and music sessions, Yorkshire Artspace and darts (Doncaster Community Arts) with funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation supporting 50 of the Association’s most vulnerable customers to take part.  In Doncaster, SYHA is integrating the work is with its Social Prescribing service.

There are some who do not like the idea that art should be part of a social programme like this. They fear the instrumentalisation of art, although it is hard to see a time or a culture when art has not been used by a king or a pope or a banker to advance their interests. Personally, I’ve always thought art was stronger than that and what worries me is the instrumentalisation of people. What impresses me about the SYHA experience is that it is another step towards art being part of everyday life, bringing its creativity, its fun and its questions to places and situations which need them. I love that the housing association decided to call this programme ‘Moments of Joy’. It speaks of a clear-sighted confidence in what difference they are trying to make in people’s lives.

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3 – Nearly building a Fun Palace in West Bromwich

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders.

There has been at least one serious attempt to give physical reality to Joan Littlewood’s vision: The Public, in Sandwell. This huge, multi-disciplinary and interactive community arts centre was imagined by Jubilee Arts, who had been working in this part of the post-industrial West Midlands since 1974. The new building was conceived as an affirmation of community art as a cultural field that deserved equal respect with any other. It was to be a cornerstone for regeneration in West Bromwich town centre and a place for local people to develop and share their creativity. Like Joan Littlewood, Jubilee set out to say that this place and these people deserve the same as anyone else: the best.

Designed by Will Alsop, The Public opened in 2008, but by then problems had already forced changes of design, vision and operation. It struggled to gain the wholehearted backing of Arts Council England, which provided only project funding after 2009. But The Public did win strong local support – in a town with no other arts facilities, the centre attracted tens of thousands to exhibitions, theatre and comedy shows, tea dances, workshops and events. In 2013 Sandwell Council withdrew its funding and closure became inevitable; but, during its last 12 months, The Public had welcomed more than 450,000 visitors.

For many people – especially those who never visited it – The Public is just a symbol of how National Lottery funding can be wasted on useless cultural projects. It’s true that many mistakes were made during the project’s conception, construction and operation. Hubris, inexperience, fear and politics all played their part and the consequences should not be minimised. Many people were hurt by the project’s ultimate failure.

Does that mean it should not have been attempted? Does it mean that the vision was unachievable? The art world, usually so quick to defend its ‘right to fail’, said little about a project it neither understood nor liked. For me, and despite the mistakes and the failures, The Public was a brave attempt to make Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s vision real by creating  a permanent Fun Palace in one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. The idea of opening a first class arts space in such an area was already challenging: doing it in a way that valued all kinds of creativity was  too much. So, like Littlewood and Price before them, the Jubilee Arts team struggled to make their vision clear to the planners and funders. Graham Peet, who worked on the project from start to finish, writes on a legacy website:

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders. In the end that question stopped being asked. It had become obvious to hundreds of thousands of visitors what it was for. It was about making West Bromwich a better place to live.

The people of West Bromwich did not have the same difficulty. I visited the project several times during its troubled life and though the problems were plain enough, I thought that, with time and support, The Public could succeed. What always impressed me was seeing place full of local people discovering and enjoying art. These were very different visitors than those I might see in a conventional art gallery – local people, curious and open-minded, appreciative of what the strange pink building could offer them. They came not despite but because of the mix of art and activity that made The Public so incomprehensible to the art world. Work by Tracey Emin, Allan Ahlberg, Martin Parr, Shazia Mirza, Jeremy Deller, John Akomfrah, Jenny Eclair and countless others rubbed shoulders with that of young artists, amateur and craft groups, students and school children. And that made perfect sense to the people of West Bromwich.

‘My roots are in West Brom I just loved all of the photographs as they captured every aspect of the wonderful, warm hearted Black Country people. Thank you. I shall revisit the Public again and again’

(Comment left by a visitor to Martin Parr’s exhibition)

It didn’t quite work, yet – but it was on its way to working. Its closure was a sad moment for many people, including me. It also seemed to underline how difficult it is to do something actually different. We’re told nowadays to ‘Think outside the box’ – such a cliché – but try to think creatively, though, really leave existing assumptions, and you’ll soon find the boundaries.

Joan Littlewood would have understood The Public, I think. She would have recognised too the difficulty of getting the powerful to accept such a different idea. Was it worth the cost?

…Part 4 tomorrow

More information

  • The Public Story, a website by Graham Peet and Linda Saunders, with whose permission the second block of photographs is included.