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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2 – A Fun Palace reimagined in Farnham

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Farnham is a handsome market town in Surrey, an ancient place with a castle, Roman roads and hill forts. It is 45 miles from Joan Littlewood’s East London, where she fought to build The Fun Palace, but it seems a world away. London changes continually – the Olympic Park has replaced the post-war wastelands where artists and local kids once explored other worlds – but Farnham is continuity England, evolution not revolution. It’s hard to imagine Littlewood liking it much – if she ever came here.

But appearances can be deceptive, though we forget it. After all, Farnham sided with Parliament in the Civil War, and it was the home of William Cobbett, the great radical writer and MP, who would surely have enjoyed arguing with Littlewood. It’s also a town with a long interest in arts and crafts. Farnham School of Art opened in 1866 and it continues as part of the University for the Creative Arts. And in 1961, just as Joan Littlewood was imagining her Fun Palace, Farnham opened a free museum in a fine Georgian house on West Street. With its emphasis on local history, the Museum of Farnham probably felt more palace than fun to its first visitors. Still, in common with Littlewood, the museum wanted to involve people more in culture. The question is how.

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Half a century later, these two strands of thinking about the place of art in people’s lives have come together: the Museum of Farnham is hosting a Fun Palace, one of almost 300 taking place this weekend across Britain and abroad. A group of volunteers has been given the run of the Garden Gallery, an attractive wood and glass building that is the museum’s education space, and everyone is welcome. When I get there, at lunchtime on a blustery Saturday afternoon in October, I can already hear happy voices.

There’s so much going on that it has spilled out onto the verandas, where children are busy making hand prints on paper. Round the corner, Bridget Floyer asks visitors to add themselves to a map of local creativity, as she develops her ideas about participatory art. Inside, Farnham Art and Design Education Group are hosting a Big Draw event; elsewhere people cluster round tables to make things with clay or from melted plastic. There are lots of families, and if the parents are often helping their kids, they’re having no less fun. Generous provision of refreshments makes a hospitable atmosphere as people move from one activity to another. Farnham’s radicalism is not forgotten either. I talk with members of the local Amnesty International group and sign petitions about refugees and political prisoners in distant lands.

Meanwhile, in the main building, Wendy Richardson is talking about Joan Littlewood with  Christine Jackson, who worked with her on Bubble City in 1968 and many other projects. Richardson has just completed a film, ‘In the Company of Joan’, which would have been shown too, but there are too many people having too much noisy fun to make that possible so, recognising what’s important today, that plan has been abandoned. Still, we get more time for conversation and it’s an inspiring reminder of the power of imaginative play and the creative freedom that can be found – paradoxically –when no one is interested in you. Christine Jackson evokes a world in which people do things because they want to, not to fulfil a carefully worked out strategy or meet a funder’s targets. And if that includes setting out to build a hovercraft, well – why not, if that’s what the young people are excited to do? At worst, you’ll discover that it’s beyond your resources, but you can have a fantastic time finding that out, and you might find what it is that you can do. This is art, science, creativity. This is fun.

And this is the heart of the Fun Palace idea: the spirit of saying ‘Yes!’.

That’s not naïve or careless. But it is the opposite of trying to persuade people to be interested in your ideas, a common trap for arts policy today. It’s knowing that good work begins with our desires – something that artists usually remember where their own work is concerned. We all have to adapt our desires to reality, but that’s the essence of learning: me in the world, exercising agency and discovering its limits and consequences.

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The photos I took at Farnham are pretty dull. Photography struggles to capture a creative workshop because what matters is invisible. What matters is the experience people get when they mould a piece of clay for the first time, or discover what oil pastel does, or see plastic cord soften with heat and become capable of making an expressive line, your line, that you drew. That experience cannot be shown. Six people sitting in a room, talking about long past events, make for a dull photograph. But being there, being part of the conversation – that was a great experience.

Art is only ever a route to experience of connecting minds. The object – painting, book, recording – is easily fetishized but it only matters because it has been charged by its maker(s) with the power to communicate, move, teach… Because the object is photogenic and tangible it is easily mistaken for what is happening, for art itself.

A Fun Palace is not in children’s drawings or happy faces: it is in discovering that you too can be an artist, and that no one else can be the artist you can be. That is an empowering experience, whatever you make of it.

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Part 3 tomorrow

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I’m very grateful to Carine, Alex and everyone I met at Farnham Fun Palace for their welcome, openness and encouraging me to have fun…

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.

Men & Girls Dance – Successful risk-taking in participatory art

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

‘That’s a bad idea.’ It was months ago and I don’t remember now who told me about a proposed dance project involving men and girls, but I do remember my reaction: it just seemed like a really bad idea. On Saturday, I got the last ticket for the matinée of Men & Girls Dance at Dance 4 and was blown away by one of the most beautiful, moving, funny and joyous hours I’ve spent in a theatre. A bad idea? More fool me.

Apparently, Fevered Sleep’s co-artistic directors, Sam Butler and David Harradine, were surprised by the resistance they met when they began research. Their initial impulse had been aesthetic – exploring how bodies of tall, trained adults might move with those of small children. People’s reactions to the idea of men dancing with girls quickly changed that. At a time of intense and well-founded questions about how some adults abuse their power over children, this really was a dangerous proposal.

But to courageous artists like Fevered Sleep, those anxieties – and their ambiguous reverberation in the media – were a reason to persevere, not to back away. The project, in development now for over three years, gained a clearly political strapline:

A new dance piece celebrating the rights of adults and children to be together, to play together and to dance together

It’s always good to see a rights-based approach to participatory art. And this work had to be participatory, since its very conception unites children and adults, those who dance for pleasure and those who do it as a profession, the untutored and the highly trained. So it has developed as a series of residencies: Folkestone, Huddersfield, Salford and now Nottingham. (The piece goes on to Brighton in October and London in April 2017.) Each town brings a new partnership. In Nottingham, it was the ever-inventive Dance 4, finally installed in premises with their own beautiful studios.

From an open call for participants, nine girls are chosen to work with the five male dancers. The choreography leaves space for improvisation and the piece developed by each new company during a two-week rehearsal period is always different. These children truly are co-creators.  Their ideas, movement and presence remakes the hour-long performance. The result, at least to judge from what I saw, is extraordinary. The presence of two groups is inescapable and not avoided: the men’s maleness is plain in their luxuriant beards. But they are not in charge. One of the piece’s successes is how control of what is happening, or might happen next, seems to dance continually from one group to the other, or from one person to another. Who leads and who follows shifts as in true relationship. Authority here is not only physical.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

It begins in doubt as the groups look at each other across a space in which there is only a carpet of newspaper. Hands extend invitations. Posture and movement is slowly imitated. Tentative connections are made. In this playground the men remember their own childhoods while the children play at being adults in professional roles. Somewhere in the middle, as their paths cross, they meet and begin to play.

For set, design and costume, there’s only newspaper. It’s an inspired choice. These people are in a space literally defined by the media. In the next hour, they take control of it. What begins as a blindfold or a minotaur’s head is tamed and eventually mocked. They strip newsprint off a man encased in its pages, lift it high as a magic carpet, roll about in its folds and finally have a snowball fight with it until it’s just waste paper. The laughter, innocence and joyful movement have chased other stories from the room.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

At the heart of the piece is our natural fascination with other people. It reclaims the wonder of watching, as girls and men describe what they see in a partner’s body and its movements: ‘He’s on his left tip-toe.’ ‘He’s leaning back and looking at the sky’. ‘I can see she’s holding her ankle in her left hand’. When, at the end, the performers line up one by one in front of the audience to look at us, as we have looked at them, we are made aware of our watching and yet made comfortable in seeing that this is what people do. We do find one another endlessly watchable, endlessly fascinating.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

Still, despite the smiles and laughter, we live in the world we live in and there’s plenty here to make you think. Waiting to go in, one man surrounded by families and couples, I felt uncomfortable, wondering if others would be looking at me. It’s an experience that David Harradine evokes in the newspaper that is another element of the project:

‘There was me, this solitary man, alone at the village bonfire, watching someone else’s children playing. A self-censorship: not letting myself watch for fear of being watched.’

The Men & Girls Dance newspaper is a rich artwork that brings together images from performance and rehearsal, critical reflection, personal memories, official documents, audience reactions and more. It acknowledges, in a lasting but approachable form, the project’s tensions and difficulties. But it also affirms the belief of those involved that the evil done by some must not be allowed to spread everywhere and poison the vital relationships of adults and children. Being aware is not the same as being wary.

The third element of this important project is the talking space, which is how I got drawn into it in the first place. Walking through the old Sneinton Market I passed a shop with its doors open and a neon sign: ‘come in we’re open’. So I did, and found myself talking with Luke Pell, whose task is to encourage conversations about men and girls dancing. Among blackboards, photographs and plates of posh biscuits, people can talk about their feelings, ideas and memories of their own childhoods. Some write in scrapbooks or – habit of the social media world – comment on what others have written. After each visit, Luke continues the discussion on the Men & Girls Dance blog.

No answers are sought or given: there’s just the aim of encouraging reflection. I specially liked the straightforward language used. Unlike so many works aspiring to be participatory, there was little sense of artworld language and preoccupations.

Why did I like this project so much? Partly, it’s true, because the show was delightful, thought contemporary dance isn’t always the most accessible form. It reminded me of when my own children were small and the joys of that closeness. It passes and is replaced with other kinds of closeness, but each stage of parenthood is unique and special. I never looked into my daughter’s eyes with the same intensity after she learned to talk: until then, all I had to understand what she wanted was the expression on her face. So yes, there is a personal dimension – but what is art good for if it doesn’t touch us personally?

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

But that feeling would not go far in this complex and risky project. There are so many traps  here that could have curdled my enthusiasm. Glibness, exploitation, grandstanding, incompetence: I’ve seen them all in participatory projects. Here, I saw care, method, bravery, openness and a consistent consciousness of the risks involved – especially for those outside the company. The decisive element was sensing that these artists were genuinely more interested in those they were working with than in their own ideas. That was evident in each dancer’s performance and in the project’s conception and execution. The different elements make a whole with beauty, political resonance and human integrity. That’s a rare trick to pull off.

Men & Girls Dance is a fine demonstration that participatory art can be as challenging as any other practice and that it can offer experiences that are second to none.

All performance photos by Benedict Johnson. Thanks to Fevered Sleep and Dance 4 for help with this case study.

ACTA Community Theatre Festival

2016 acta Festival 5

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.

2016 acta Festival 2

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.

2016 acta Festival 3

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.

2016 acta Festival 4

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.

2016 acta Festival 8

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.

2016 acta Festival 6

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.

2016 acta Festival 1

Murals, craft and community art in the 1980s

My early steps in community art

In 1982, I got a job as a community arts worker on a council estate in Newark-on-Trent. My only qualification was a year’s apprenticeship at Greenwich Mural Workshop (thank you, Gulbenkian Foundation, for that investment). At Greenwich, I’d been trained in running a community printshop and painting murals, as well as learning about community art. So, of course, I set up a community printshop and began work on some mural projects.

Screenprinting was fast and fun. With a little help, people who’d not made a picture since leaving school could produce a stack of colourful prints in a couple of sessions. But, even in the new community centre where I was based, there wasn’t the need for posters there had been in London, where they spread ideas and fashion as well as publicising  events. Most people enjoyed the experience once but didn’t want to make any more of it.

It was much harder to get people involved in the mural work. The first, in a primary school playground, was simple enough – two dragons facing off over a pile of gold. The image came from the idea that their scales could be applied by small children using sponges rather than paintbrushes. It worked all right, in the days before the SATs tests and the national curriculum, with teachers happy to send out four or five kids at a time to do some painting for an hour.

The next two murals were indoors, small and simple: I came up with a design that could be painted without much skill. A clown on the wall of a youth club was completed in a day by teenagers, a Fernand Léger-inspired work scene  was done in a training centre, but it was painting by numbers and without artistic merit.

The Appletongate Mural

The most ambitious project was begun in 1983, when I was asked for a mural on the gable wall of building on Appletongate, in the town centre. The work was far beyond my abilities as a painter, so I brought in two local artists. Nadia Nagual (who’d worked with me on the dragons) and Bill Ming. The next 18 months were a struggle to secure funds to pay them while we worked on designs and a public consultation, with the help of the local paper.

We applied to the Mural Funds administered by the Royal Academy with the confidence and naivety of youth, and a gentleman came up from London to meet us and view the site; the decision was negative. We did get some Arts Council funds but couldn’t pay for scaffolding. Then Heather, the brilliant local woman who worked with me part-time (nominally as a administrator but really as a fixer), persuaded a couple of local companies to install it for nothing. Finally the project could happen: Bill, Nadia and I spent most of that spring and summer with our faces to the wall.

And that’s what convinced me there were better ways of doing community art. In the project’s 1985 Annual Report, I wrote:

The work was a sort of hybrid between public art and community art: most of Bill and Nadia’s wages came from an ACGB Art in Public Places grant – more usually spent on shopping precincts sculpture. We did get a few of the more adventurous people climbing the scaffolding, braving both the height, and the wet, to paint; some ten children painted areas they could reach from the first stage of scaffolding.

It wasn’t just the scale of the mural, which took months of drawing and painting. It wasn’t even the challenge of having people working on boards fifty feet above the ground. The problem was the skill needed to paint the work. The design has been chosen from four alternatives printed in the local press, but it was our ideas. It was inevitably rather anodyne, given its position in a historic market town, though the inclusion of a non-white figure drew a certain amount of comment at the time. And when it came to the work itself, we were back to painting by numbers, asking the few people who were willing to take part to fill in flat colour. The final mural was indeed ‘much appreciated’ as I subsequently wrote in the Annual Report. It just wasn’t community art.

By then, however, my work on the estate had changed a lot. The screenprinting equipment had been mothballed and that same year we did two community plays, a Welfare State inspired fireshow, a video film with a primary school and shadow puppets with a disability group. We also published a monthly newsletter, ran a creative writing group and had Open Thursdays at the community centre for retired people – and there was more.

By working with other artists – theatre companies, photographers, puppeteers, musicians – the limits of my own skills ceased to matter and people could do whatever creative work they were interested in. Much later, I saw that I’d become a kind of creative producer. Appletongate was the last mural I worked on.

Visual art and community art

These memories – and the excavation of old photographs –  were prompted by seeing the Appletongate mural again, 30 years after it was completed. It’s partly hidden by trees now, and a big section was lost when roadworks caused the render to fall. But there is not a mark on it, and it’s not much faded, which says a lot for the acrylic paint we used.

Visual art has travelled far since 1985. New technology has enabled artists to respond to profound socio-political change with equally novel methods. The performative and interactive possibilities of visual art have become central to many artists’ practice – often with the label ‘participatory’. The theories that made printmaking and murals attractive to early community artists – including their supposed resistance to commodification – have become less relevant as the same technologies have widened access to the means of artistic production and distribution. They’ve also become less credible, at least to many artists, with the rise of the creative industries and the market culture. Nowadays, people will chip a Banksy off the wall to get it in an auction.

Some of these changes have made it easier to use visual art in participatory, if not quite community arts, practice. But the underlying challenge remains: it takes knowledge, time, skill and experience to create good visual art. Those qualities, which might be summed up as ‘craft’, may now be undervalued but that’s a mistake. They confer power, even if technology can bring visual expression closer to our reach.

One of community art’s best strategies for overcoming a weakness in craft is collective creation. A group of people can produce extraordinary work because they each bring something to the process, especially if they include some trained and experienced artists. It was perhaps always easier to do that in the performing arts, which are naturally collective encounters, and many visual artists – like John Fox and Sue Gill of Welfare State – gravitated in that direction.

But the visual is fundamental to human experience and communication. We need imaginative artists to reinvigorate it in community and participatory art practice, especially at a time when our eyes are saturated with the imagery produced by merely commercial interests.

This is what we look like after 30 years. To see Bill’s recent work, click here: Against The Tide.

Thank you, Kwikfit and Henderson’s scaffolders, and Dacrylate,Johnstone’s, Earnshaws and Mebon, paint-makers, wherever you are now, and ACGB for £1400.

1984 Murals discussion - 2
My flyer for an evening discussion about the problems of painting murals

Older artists working with older people

The Baring Foundation (of which I’m a trustee) has prioritised arts work with older people since 2009, supporting the a huge range of work in the UK and Northern Ireland. It has all been participatory, though that word has covered an equally broad range of practice, much of described in a rich library of free publications.

The latest project that is now coming to fruition is a series of commissions for older artists – not necessarily people with an established practice in participatory work. I’ve just seen these two contrasting films in which Ron Haselden (commissioned by Fabrica in Brighton) and Robert Race (commissioned by New Brewery Arts in Cirencester) talk about their very different work. They’re short but fascinating insights into ways of working with people – and the artworks are beautiful.