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.

Continue reading “True to the art – Cardboard Citizens”

‘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.’

Continue reading “‘A gift for fiction’”

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.

Sharing control in participatory art

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Participatory art is normally spoken about in terms of how people are changed by being involved. There are problems (at least for me) with some of the assumptions behind that, but I’ll come back to them another time. Just now, I’m wondering why we don’t talk more about how the artists and organisations who want to do participatory work might change.

It’s a simple test. Does a theatre company or visual arts organisation developing a participatory project expect to be changed by doing it? Will the work itself be different – unpredictable even – because it has emerged from a participatory project? The answer varies, of course. Sometimes yes; sometimes no. Both can be good artistically and ethically – provided the terms of participation are clear and honest. But at the heart of the distinction is where control lies: is it held exclusively by the artist or can it be shared?

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Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull project seems to be a project that might change the people who take part but not the professionals who create it. Like all his work, it involves asking people to be photographed naked in a city’s public spaces. In the latest version, the people were painted different shades of greenish blue – hence ‘Sea of Hull’. The resulting photographs are odd and rather beautiful, if somewhat repetitive. Being naked among strangers gave participants different feelings and thoughts: it could be challenging, liberating, simple or even understood politically. What seems clear though is that their contribution was limited to being there and doing what they were told. It would have made no substantive difference to the art if 3,000 other people had turned up for the photographs.

The same might be said of Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris’ commemoration of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, ‘we’re here because we’re here’. Again, thousands of volunteers stood silently in public places, in the uniform of British soldiers, waiting. This time the photographers were passers-by who shared their impressions on social media. The results are impressive and moving: the experience will surely stay with both participants and spectators for years. But again, the participants’ contribution was essentially their presence.

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The work of National Theatre Wales is very different. From its very creation in 2009 the organisation was shaped around the ideal of reaching everyone, everywhere in Wales – at least in principle. So, like the National Theatre of Scotland before it, NTW chose not to base itself in a theatre building. Its offices are in a shopping arcade in the centre of Cardiff. As a result, its productions have to be made in partnership, if only because a site is needed for them to happen in.

Some are professional shows. Some involve both professional and non-professional performers. Some are wholly created with and by communities. In the case of the last two – from huge productions like The Passion to The People’s Platform Merthyr – the work comes into being through the active creative input of participants. Each production is what it is only because of who is there.

In developing an approach rooted in co-creation, NTW has become a different kind of theatre company – but arguably one  better able to respond to the complex interests, identities and desires of contemporary communities. It might sell tickets, but it is not selling a pre-packaged product. Because its theatre is made with and often by its audiences, and in many different ways, its evolving story is one of shared exploration. NTW’s distinctive value lies in the work’s essential unpredictability. What will happen in the next year, in the next production, in the next performative moment is uncertain because the company is willing to share control.

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Participatory work can happen without sharing control and, as Sea of Hull and we’re here because we’re here’ show, it can be beautiful, moving and affect those who take part and who see it. It can be equally successful when artists commit to co-creation, shared authorship and listening to unheard voices. But it’s important not to underestimate what is different in these approaches and the different meanings and results they produce.

For me the most interesting and transformative work happens when artists share their authority – for the artists as much as anyone else. After all, if you’re always in control, the best you can hope for is to achieve what you’ve planned.

ACTA Community Theatre Festival

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The acta community theatre festival was held in Bristol last week, and featured performances by acta’s own Malcolm X Elders, CANCollective Encounters, Entelechy Arts, Glasgow Citizens and London Bubble, among others, with workshops and discussions. I was asked to give some concluding thoughts; here is (more or less) what I said.

Thank you all for being here and thanks to acta for asking me to do these closing remarks. This has been a lovely festival, really friendly, relaxed, fantastic food – but it’s the theatre that matters. It’s been moving, funny, interesting, uplifting, but it’s also been extremely varied. You wonder what stories of Jamaican childhood, or migration, or bringing up an autistic child can have in common. How does this make something that can be described as a practice – which was what Neil and Helen asked me to reflect on today. Is there such a thing as community theatre? Does it have unity in this diversity? And is it a movement?

The term ‘community theatre’

In yesterday’s workshop there were people who liked the term ‘community theatre’ and others who didn’t. I can understand a reluctance to be boxed in, as if there is ‘theatre’, implicitly ‘proper’ theatre, and ‘community theatre’, which is in somehow not quite up to standard. So I see why people might not want to be branded ‘community theatre’. Theatre is just theatre – a great spectrum of practice. I get that and I think it’s right. On the other hand, like ‘community art’, the term may be useful in helping the people you want to reach to understand that you have particular values and ideas. What difference might it make to local people that this is acta community theatre?

It seems to me there is a value in that. I have doubts about how the term ‘participatory art’ has crept into discourse. There are differences of ideas and values, but my point is more practical: if you search online for ‘community arts’ you get millions of hits, but ‘participatory arts’ will get thousands. I think that says something about what people understand by the term ‘community’. I don’t mean that we understand the same things by it, but at least we’ve got the possibility of a conversation together about what it is we understand. So, if only for that reason I see some value in the term community theatre. What the rest of the art world makes of it I don’t honestly mind: I’m interested in what happens here.

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But what might the phrase ‘community theatre’ mean to the people who make it? In the welcome pack Neil gives acta’s definition of community theatre, and I partly agree with it and partly don’t. The problem is that I’ve seen lots of work that doesn’t fit the definition but which I would certainly call community theatre. And I’ve also seen work I have questions about but which does describe itself as community theatre and maybe, in some senses, also fits that definition.

That’s all right though – I don’t think it matters if we have different understandings of what we mean by community theatre if we stay true to our practice as artists and arts workers. What do I mean by that? I think staying true to our practice as artists means being self-critical, curious, open to others, and passionate about our own beliefs at the same time. Being self-critical, questioning and curious about what other people are doing might protect us from setting up defensive fences around our work: that leads to saying ‘Okay we know how to do this and this is good – and what people do that’s different is not good’.

That was an early lesson as I was working out my own practice and thinking in community arts in the 1980s – seeing that other people often worked in very different ways to me, with different ideas and values, but still did good work that was valued by the people they worked with. Someone spoke in the workshop about seeing people involved in participatory theatre, and having lots of questions about it, including the degree of authorship they had over the theatre they were making and whether they were just enacting somebody else’s stories. But she also recognised that they had a great time and were really enthusiastic about their experience. Respecting other people’s judgments about what’s good for them is fundamental to any good community practice. I don’t want anybody else to decide what’s good for me: it follows that I can’t decide what’s good for anybody else.

So it’s okay if we don’t agree about what community theatre is, so long as we stay true to that sense of being self-questioning, curious and open minded. That’s what has kept the practice of community theatre evolving over the last 50 years in the UK. The project I’m now working on is called ‘A Restless Art‘ partly to signal that restlessness can be a good thing. Not knowing what you’re doing, provided you’re trying to do it with integrity, and as Neil said to me this morning, ‘from the heart’, is what helps work to stay alive.

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Is there some unity in the diversity?

Now, let me move on to the next question that Neil raised. I’ve spoken of the diversity in the shows that have been presented here: is there nonetheless some unity in the diversity? Is there some common ground that means it makes sense to bring these people together? My sense is yes, of course, because I’ve experienced a strong atmosphere of unity here, as I’ve listened to people talking and working together. So I want to suggest some aspects of that unity – some of what brings community theatre together as a practice.

The first thing is that professionals working in community theatre – those I’ve met here but also elsewhere and in other countries – seem to care most about the people they’re working with. This is a humanist art. The people come first, second and last – before theatre, before plays, before audiences. That’s why some people I’ve spoken to aren’t even sure whether the performances matter. I believe they do because it’s the nature of the activity that you’re doing. If performances don’t matter then it’s an educational or developmental activity not an artistic one. Art is a particular and important thing that only exists when the work is shared with an audience – it is completed in that sharing of a creative work.

The second area of common ground – and it comes out of that sense that the people are the foundation of everything – is that their experience is the subject matter of community theatre. That is what it’s about. That underlying purpose links all the performances I’ve seen this week. Different as they are, each one aims to empower people to make art out of their own experience and to share it on a stage, a platform, a space with others. That’s important because community theatre prioritises work with those who don’t have that opportunity.

When Neil asked us all to say why we do this work I said the simplest answer for me is that I believe everybody should have the chances I’ve had. I was fortunate in my childhood, upbringing, education and creative opportunities and I see no reason why everybody shouldn’t have similar possibilities. So the core motivation is about enabling people who are often marginalised in our public and cultural life, including theatre spaces, to be heard. Community theatre aims to bring people on to this stage and perhaps – and we’ll come back to that – onto other stages.

The human rights case for diversity

One of the things that’s really striking as I watch community theatre is that I am looking at the society that I recognise. That’s not true when I sit in a mainstream theatre. I don’t see the people I see on the streets around me there. That’s really important. The performance by the Malcolm X Elders is the third or fourth by them that I’ve seen, and in some ways it was the most impressive from the richness of the stories to the way they were told. But I also watched eight older, African-Caribbean women on stage: no framing, no justifications necessary. Just people telling their stories – I don’t see that. And I should.

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The Arts Council speaks of the ‘creative case for diversity’, which I understand to mean that we should value diversity because it enhances creativity and the language of the arts. That’s true because, of course, if you bring new voices on to a stage, into theatre language, you naturally enrich the stories and the ways they are told. That’s true, and it’s a good thing, but I have always been primarily concerned about the human rights case for diversity. I don’t want to include everyone, on their own terms and with their own voice, because our creative life will be enhanced, though it will. I want to do it because Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which this country like all European Union countries has signed up to – gives everyone the right to participate in the cultural life of the community. It’s that simple. It’s the right of everybody to stand where I’m standing and perform and tell their stories – that’s what community theatre is about.

Positive narratives

Because these stories come from people who may be marginalised in our society, they are often stories of hardship, suffering and sometimes great pain. There are difficult ethical dilemmas if you’re inviting people to bear witness even to bare their souls. It must be done in ways that are as safe as they can be. Though nothing is really safe in life, we can try to make things safer, we help people understand the risks involved in sharing their stories. All that has a profound effect on the theatrical language of the work we’ve seen this week. Because of its material and the risks it entails, community theatre, seems to be always in search of a positive narrative. It is in search of a story of acceptance, or overcoming, or resolution and that’s both important and understandable.

In fact the process of making theatre – of articulating and giving form to your story – can itself be part of that process of overcoming, resolution, reconciliation, acceptance. Form, content and process, if not exactly the same, are intertwined in community theatre. That’s what I heard yesterday when one performer spoke so movingly about her experiences in the Falklands War and the courage she has taken from her work with Collective Encounters. That’s what John from the Citizens has spoken about this morning and through last night’s performance; many others have said as much in different ways during the festival.

Imaginative engagement

During the morning after discussion, someone asked ‘Why use theatre to tell these stories?’. A member of CAN in Manchester offered a profound answer when she said ‘it’s because on the stage we’re inviting the audience to make the imaginative connection with what we do; we might sketch a doorway but you have to imagine it’s a doorway to an office, or a prison cell, or whatever else it is’.  Theatre – and all art – is so important because as a creator, as an artist, as a performer I can only play my part. I can offer something, but it stays incomplete, unfulfilled until somebody else responds to it. That’s true of my words now. I’m trying to communicate something but each of you will take something different from what I’m saying because you’re filtering it through your own experience, imagination, understanding. That’s far more true of art and theatre. So part of what I feel when I sit in the audience and watch community theatre is a sense of affirmation from the audience to the performers. I feel that the audience is willing to reach forward to the performers, to make that connection, to be that imaginative other half.

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Affirmation

In the back of my mind over these days at the festival has been an echo of film I’ve seen of black churches in the South of the United States – the call and response of choir, preacher, and congregation. It is a very conscious, active exchange – and it’s unlike quite a lot of theatre, where the audience is sitting back to be entertained, or being told something and quietly taking it in. But in the shows we’ve seen this week I’m touched by the laughter, the engagement, the affirmation, the applause during a performance like there was at the end of the salsa in the show last night. That is a real closing of a circle that is full of energy and affirmation.

Thinking about those churches and their importance in the Civil Rights Movement I see the solidarity they built among people who were disenfranchised, marginalised. If you’re going to take on a Civil Rights struggle, as black people did in the Southern states in the 1950s and the 1960s, you need to do it from some sense of strength, because it takes great courage. I think that part of what you see in those films is a community reminding itself of its values, of its importance to itself of the truth and validity of its experience and reaffirming its courage. And that is one of the important things community theatre can do.

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Reaching out

There is a risk that the circle becomes closed and the self-affirmation doesn’t then go out and take that courage and strength into other places, and other communities that are harder, less responsive, but are precisely the ones with which it’s really important to build bridges. As we’ve been here, I’ve also been aware of the unprecedentedly hostile political debate that is happening about what our country is and what direction it should take. And what I fear, among other things about the future, is that it is increasing divisions that have been carelessly stoked up for many years.

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If community theatre is going to live up to its values and its rhetoric, its hopes and its ideals it must be part of a movement that reaches out to people and builds bridges, just as putting a bed on a High Street enables an unexpected meeting between people. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. Use the strength that you get from the self-affirmation, from the sense of being a group with shared values and beliefs to say, ‘Right, now we need to bring these stories onto a wider platform; we need to be heard by other people, by people who may not be keen to hear the story of refugees, or the story of a Somali woman trying to bring up an autistic child, or the story of what it’s like to be lonely and old, or the story of what it’s like to have lived for 50 years in a different world to the one that you grew up…’.

All of those stories and many, many others… It seem now more urgent than ever to bring those stories out to the wider community, to the people who know nothing of them, about you about others. And to say here is my story, what is yours? On in the words of Aneurin Bevan, ‘This is my truth, now tell me yours’. That’s a vital mission for community theatre today and you have the stories and abilities and resources to do that – and I wish you every strength in taking that forward.

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Hands across the dangerous sea

Lampedusa Mirrors 2One of the best things about a restless art has been seeing just how much great community art is happening across and beyond Europe. I’d no idea of the quality and variety of work in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Egypt and it’s not hard to see a link between this energy and the multiple challenges people now face there. That sense of discovery was reaffirmed by conversations I had last week with cultural activists from Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Serbia and elsewhere. They were meeting in Casablanca for a cultural collaboration programme called Tandem Shaml, sharing ideas among themselves and with local artists. Among other projects, I learned about:

  • ADAM – an alternative media project for young people in rural Tunisia, now working with Bokra Sawa in Marseille, orange farmers and academics to explore the impact of climate change in the Mediterranean region;
  • Agora – an Egyptian organisation set up in the early days of the 2011 revolution that organises community festivals and women’s micro-enterprises in jewellery-making; its project with Tillt in Sweden  is using social media to highlight the sexual harassment of women.
  • L’Boulevard – a Moroccan music organisation that has created studios and concert spaces on an industrial site and promotes the country’s leading rock and alternative festival, giving a platform to thousands of young musicians from the region.
  • El Madina – an Alexandria-based community theatre and training organisation involved in street carnival, festivals and development projects, currently working with people in the Karmouz district of the city.

It’s hard to give much sense of this work in a few lines, particularly since the projects are still under way. You can talk about the risks involved, the artists’ imagination or the commitment of people whose principal resource is their time, but those are just part of what’s involved and it’s all rather abstract. Some of this work will appear as case studies here or in the project book next year.

For now, here is a short documentary about one of last year’s Tandem Shaml projects, a collaboration between Eclosion d’artistes (Tunis) and Teatro dell’Argine (Bologna).

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Involving people who have experienced migration across the Mediterranean, Lampedusa Mirrors is community theatre at its most serious and moving. The problems of migration are complex and difficult. But art of this quality cuts through rhetoric, self-interest and deceit to affirm the common humanity that requires us to solve them. The film takes 25 minutes to watch, but anyone with an interest in community art or the realities of migration will find their time amply rewarded.

 

Inspiring change – the arts and older people in Ireland

Artist Francis Bailey at VOLTage, glór, Ennis, Co.Clare. (Photo: Eamon Ward)
Artist Francis Bailey at VOLTage, glór, Ennis, Co.Clare. (Photo: Eamon Ward)

Bealtaine must be one of the happiest arts festivals I know. Founded in 1995, it involves thousands of older people from all over Ireland in arts workshops, performances and events. It’s organised by Age & Opportunity, with some Arts Council funding, a network of hundreds of local groups and an incalculable amount of volunteer effort and goodwill – most activities are organised independently by people in their own communities. There’s a special focus this year on County Clare, which has an admirable record of art work with older people, but there are events from Donegal to Cork and everywhere between. Concerts, theatre performances, workshops, exhibitions, visits, readings – there really is something for everyone. In all this, professional artists have a leading role but never at the expense of other participants: the festival celebrates the creativity and imagination of every person.

Like all good artistic projects Bealtaine also thinks hard about its work. This year there was a seminar exploring creative approaches to residential care. This is not my beautiful house allowed artists, architects and campaigners to share ideas and hear about existing and planned projects. I was impressed to meet three older ladies who had come from different parts of Ireland simply because they had read about the event in the Festival brochure. Arts conferences do not always feel so open to those whose experiences they discuss.

There were several examples of new ideas in residential care. Rodd Bond talked about the Great Northern Haven in Dundalk, Rosie Lynch presented the Callan Workhouse Union project and, from NE England, Susan Jones and Esther Salamon spoke about their ideas for independent creative living. I was glad to learn about McAuley Place, in Naas, Co. Kildare, an inspiring combination of residence, arts centre, community hub and tea room, which makes a place for older people at the heart of the town and art at the heart of the project.

This Is Not My Beautiful House Seminar, Dublin May 2016
This Is Not My Beautiful House Seminar, Dublin May 2016

A development like this shows what is possible when people shape their own services, but I also wondered how such exceptional places could change the far less happy conditions of residential care as a whole. It takes such energy, cash and commitment to bring a single one of these initiatives to life – how could that be replicated for the tens of thousands of people living in ordinary old people’s homes? One of Rodd’s slides was a photo of São Paulo showing a smart housing development next to a slum: how can we avoid creating such inequalities in residential services for older people? And I was moved by Rionach Ni Neill’s account of her Irish language dance work with dementia sufferers in rural Connemara. It is frequently an uphill struggle to get the gatekeepers and managers to understand how deeply the opportunity to dance can affect someone’s quality of life – particularly when their feelings cannot be heard, but only seen in their faces or the energy of their movement.

Part of the answer is in that important (if sometimes over-used) word, ‘inspiring’.

Projects like McAuley Place and the Callan Workhouse Union show what can be done. They raise expectations and challenge us all – not just those responsible for policy and services – to think again and do better. They don’t just put an argument for the arts in making old age a time of learning, happiness and creativity – they enact it as a reality. Every town needs its McAuley Place, but each one of them should be different because it reflects the ideas and dreams of its community.

Dawn Chorus, Bealtaine Festival
Dawn Chorus, Bealtaine Festival

That’s the model of Bealtaine – a festival that encourages creative participation by inviting people to join in, not laying on some activities for them. Each year Bealtaine inspires new people to do for themselves what they have witnessed elsewhere. That’s how a festival has become a movement: this May some 120,000 people will participate – something like 20% of everyone over 65 years old in Ireland.* It has also inspired the creation of Luminate, Scotland’s own creative ageing festival, which marks its fifth anniversary in October.

In 2009, the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology published an evaluation of Bealtaine, which concluded that:

‘Bealtaine has had a profound and very visible impact on arts practice in Ireland at national and local level, despite having very limited resources. The festival provides opportunities for meaningful engagement in the arts among older people, both as artists and participants. […] There is compelling evidence that participation is empowering and transformative and that self-reported physical and psychological well-being is enhanced at an individual level. Bealtaine has proven itself to be a major positive force for the well- being of older people in Ireland.’

One person quoted in the report says: ‘The existence of the festival creates expectations and these expectations increase every year’. We don’t make change alone but good work inspires others to run away with the idea and make something more for themselves. We inspire change by raising expectations – our own and everyone else’s too.

PS The West Yorkshire Playhouse has just published a guide to Dementia Friendly Performances,which you can download here: another way of inspiring change.

* The 2011 census recorded 535,393 people aged over 65 living in Ireland: not all the Bealtaine participants are over 65 but it still reaches a remarkable proportion of Ireland’s older population.

La creatividad y coraje: community art in Spain

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ver más abajo para leer este texto en español…

A performance about bodies and long lives opened Spain’s annual conference on social inclusion and the performing arts in A Coruña’s Teatro Rosalía Castro this week. Created by Mariantònia Oliver, with older women in Mallorca, including her own mother, ‘Las Muchas’ was moving and joyful. Oliver integrated her own solo performance with video of those who’d inspired the work and performances by nine local women who made the piece for this performance. Like all good participatory art, it was a shared creation that could only exist because of what each person contributed to it. A gifted choreographer might make a work on this subject without involving non-professional dancers in their 70s and 80s – but not this one.

It was a great start to this event, which has grown from a one day conference in 2009 to three days of talks, workshops and performances involving people active in participatory and community arts from across Spain. A glimpse of this a couple of years ago, in Seville, alerted me to the artistic energy of Southern Europe. In Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere, artists are working with vulnerable and marginalised people: migrants, the unemployed, prisoners, people with disabilities and others. Perhaps it was chance that the first Jornada happened at the height of the financial crisis, but it doesn’t feel like it. Unemployment haunted the second evening’s performance, ‘Vida Laboral‘ (Working Life), developed by Claudia Faci with three local men who gave extraordinary performances drawing on their lived experience.

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If this creativity has a new energy, it also has long roots. In Barcelona, Xamfra has been making inclusive music in Raval for 15 years, while TransFORMAS has been making theatre with communities in the city for almost as long. Here in Galicia, Grupo Chevère was founded in1988 and has been evolving a practice that has moved steadily towards  ever stronger community ownership, as in their recent production, by, with and about shopkeepers. Among the newer organisations is Teatro de Consciencia, which uses theatre as a space to develop empathy and reconciliation.

There are many similar experiences, from institutions to small companies, among the 250 conference participants. I kept meeting people who were thrilled to discover that they were part of a community – even a movement. They share a passion for community art, a creativity in approaching it and a readiness to imagine afresh how it is done and why. No one should underestimate Spain’s economic crisis, nor its impact of every aspect of life here. But these artists are responding with imagination, courage and hope. In doing that, they are helping renew participatory arts practice for European societies also in need of renewal.

With great thanks to Eva Garcia and all the organizers who welcomed me with such generosity, helped open doors and interpret what I couldn’t understand.

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En español…

Una actuación sobre los cuerpos y las largas vidas abrió la conferencia anual de España sobre la inclusión social y las artes escénicas en el Teatro Rosalía de Castro en  A Coruña esta semana. Creado por Mariantònia Oliver, con mujeres de edad en Mallorca, incluyendo a su propia madre, ‘Las Muchas‘ se movían contentas. Oliver integra su propia actuación en solitario con vídeos que inspiraron su trabajo y actuaciones con nueve mujeres locales que hicieron la pieza para esta actuación. Como todo buen arte participativo, era una creación compartida que sólo podía existir debido a lo que cada persona contribuyó a ella. Un coreógrafo dotado podría hacer un trabajo sobre este tema sin la participación de bailarines no profesionales con 70 y 80 años – pero no lo conocemos.

Fue un gran comienzo para este evento, que ha pasado de un día de conferencias en 2009 a tres días de charlas, talleres y actuaciones que asocien a profesionales de las artes participativas y comunitarias de todo España. En un vistazo que dí hace un par de años, en Sevilla, me alertó de la energía artística del sur de Europa. En España, Portugal, Grecia y en otros lugares, los artistas están trabajando con las personas vulnerables y marginadas: los inmigrantes, los parados, los presos, las personas con discapacidad y otras personas. Tal vez fue casualidad que la primera Jornada ocurriera coincidiendo con la crisis financiera, pero no se siente como del mismo modos. El desempleo rondaba la propuesta de la segunda noche, ‘Vida Laboral‘ , desarrollado por Claudia Faci con tres hombres locales que presentaron una actuación extraordinaria basándose en su experiencia vivida.

Esta creatividad no solo tiene una nueva energía, sino que también tiene raíces largas. En Barcelona, Xamfra ha estado haciendo música desde el Raval durante 15 años, mientras que TransFORMAS ha estado haciendo teatro con las comunidades en la ciudad por casi el mismo tiempo. Aquí en Galicia, Grupo Chevère fue fundada en 1988 y ha ido evolucionando de una práctica que se ha movido constantemente una identificación cada vez más fuerte con la comunidad, como en su producción reciente, por, con y sobre los comerciantes. Entre las organizaciones más nuevas está Teatro de Consciencia, que utiliza el teatro como un espacio para desarrollar la empatía y la reconciliación.

Hay muchas experiencias similares, de las instituciones a las pequeñas empresas, entre los 250 participantes de la conferencia. Seguí el cumplimiento de las personas que estaban encantados de descubrir que eran parte de una comunidad – incluso un movimiento. Comparten la pasión por el arte comunitario, la creatividad para acercarse a esta y la disposición para imaginar de nuevo cómo se hace y por qué. Nadie debe subestimar la crisis económica de España, ni su impacto en todos los aspectos de la vida. Pero estos artistas están respondiendo con imaginación, coraje y esperanza. Al hacer esto, están ayudando a renovar la práctica de artes participativas para las sociedades europeas también en necesidad de renovación.

Con un excelente agradecimiento a Eva García y todos los organizadores que me han acogido con tanta generosidad, ayudado a abrirme las puertas e interpretar lo que no podía “entender”.