The Hidden Participants

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Somehow, on a rainy Monday afternoon, I find myself crawling around on the floor of a primary school classroom, pretending to be a lion. I’m taking part in Speech Bubbles, London Bubble Theatre Company’s Key Stage 1 schools programme. I came along with the intention of watching quietly from the sidelines, but the only real way to get a feel for this kind of work is to get stuck in. So over the course of an hour I’m a tree, an adventurer, a monkey, a dragon and, yes, a lion.

It might not sound all that different from games usually found in the playground, but the silliness and role-play is part of a structure that is all about storytelling and, crucially, theatre. From an educational perspective, Speech Bubbles has a proven track record of improving communication skills, helping children to listen to others and to express themselves. But at the same time, this is theatre on the most small-scale, everyday of levels, happening quietly and without fuss at schools across the city.

As arts funding continues to be threatened, the argument is regularly put forward that theatres need to embed themselves at the heart of their communities. If those buildings and companies really mean something to local people, then their audiences will fight for them. It’s an argument I agree with. But I wonder whether theatre is already built into more people’s lives than the theatre community itself recognises. Theatre isn’t just what’s on in the West End or at the Royal Court or even in tiny, alternative venues like Camden People’s Theatre. It’s happening in village halls and community centres, in parks and in schools. So why aren’t we claiming all of this work?

A while back, playwright and campaigner Fin Kennedy suggested an idea that he dubbed “I Am British Theatre”. As a way of tackling the public perception that everyone who works in theatre is a privileged, air-kissing luvvie, he proposed that ordinary theatre-makers talk about the reality of the industry in a series of blog posts or short films, stripping away the gloss of showbiz glamour. The message was to be that it’s not all champagne and red carpets.

It was a great idea in lots of ways, but it cut out a whole swathe of British theatre practice. If we’re talking numbers, the people who really represent British theatre are probably those participating in amateur dramatics groups, those watching their kids in the school show, those going along to a weekly drama class, and those crawling around pretending to be lions at 2pm on a Monday. This is how theatre really enters and animates people’s lives. It’s less showy, less exciting, less overtly theatrical, but it’s completely embedded in the rhythms of life.

To return to Speech Bubbles, this simple process of sharing, telling and acting out stories offers children the opportunity to engage in theatre as author, performer and audience member – sometimes all three at once. It also positions these roles as fluid, creating a relationship with theatre that is active and curious from the beginning. Perhaps most importantly, it tells its participants that they have stories that are worth listening to, something they might not be used to hearing in a world in which, as theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin puts it, capitalism has stolen our stories and sold them back to us.

This is just one example, but it points towards a huge, largely invisible section of this country’s complex theatre ecology. While it’s not often talked or written about, and in many cases doesn’t even carry the label “theatre” for its participants, it’s a vital entry point to the art form. And often it goes on to feed the system that it’s an unobtrusive part of, igniting the first spark that inspires those kids in primary school classrooms to continue making theatre in one form or another. The important thing to recognise is that it is all theatre.

Theatre isn’t necessarily for everyone, in the same way that football or knitting or heavy metal music isn’t necessarily for everyone. It can be easy to forget that in the zeal that surrounds audience development initiatives. Not everyone wants to be an audience member, and that’s OK. But plenty of the people who are supposedly so difficult to reach are already engaged in theatre, whether they recognise it as theatre or not. And maybe those of us so invested in doing the reaching out could try a little harder to see those hidden participants.

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Arts and Older Audiences

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Originally written for The Stage.

When attempting to improve engagement with theatre, focus often falls on the young. It is of course vital for the survival and reinvigoration of the art form that new generations come into our theatres, both as artists and audiences, and are inspired to keep coming back. But what are theatres doing at the other end of the scale?

Over the last few years, the problems raised by an ageing population have been firmly on the political agenda, raising questions about how this growing group of older people can be catered for in society. In a report commissioned for Parliament in 2010, it was found that over 10 million people in the UK were over 65 years old, a figure that was expected to have nearly doubled by the middle of the century.

This age shift is reflected in cultural attendance. According to the latest statistical release from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, there has been a significant increase in arts engagement among adults aged 65 and over since 2005/06, but adults aged 75 and over still have lower engagement rates than other age groups – arguably due to barriers that limit their access.

In recognition of this demographic movement, the Arts Council has now begun implementing strategic measures to boost engagement among older people, in line with its promise of “great art for everyone”. Last year, it launched a £1 million grant jointly funded with the Baring Foundation, intended to widen access to the arts for older people in residential care.

One of the successful recipients of funds from this initiative was The Courtyard Centre for the Arts in Hereford, which in recent years has been firmly committed to working with older people and those with dementia. Penny Allen, the Arts and Older People project manager at The Courtyard, explains that their programme involves a mixture of long and short term projects, ranging from a poetry project for people with dementia to a regular over 60s choir. The arts centre is also committed to becoming a “dementia friendly” venue and is the first organisation of its type to join the Dementia Action Alliance.

“Art has the power to reach people who may no longer be able to communicate as they once did,” says Allen. “By making arts accessible to all older people, be it in our venue, or in community venues or even residential settings, we are helping improve the quality of people’s lives and that is a powerful, wonderful thing.”

Inspired by the work being done at the Courtyard, Farnham Maltings in Surrey is taking similar steps to make its building welcoming for people with dementia, as well as offering events such as relaxed cinema screenings and tea dances aimed at older audiences. Director Gavin Stride insists that “if we are serious about audience development then we need to respond to the changing shape of our communities”. He hopes that in time “it will be an everyday occurrence to have elders and those with dementia accessing and contributing to our building and programme”.

Annabel Turpin, chief executive of ARC in Stockton, similarly sees the venue’s work with older people as part of its aim to connect with the whole community. “That’s the key thing,” Turpin stresses, “we want to connect people.” ARC’s Silver programme now regularly welcomes around 160 older people, who get involved with everything from ukulele lessons to iPad workshops. Crucially, the programme has been shaped in response to what its participants want.

The Albany in South London has equally built its Meet Me at the Albany programme around the older people it hopes to reach, as well as in collaboration with its resident artists, such as participatory arts company Entelechy. Activities in the programme range from poetry to circus skills, interspersed with board games and refreshments. Artistic director Gavin Barlow hopes that the work they are doing can pose “a real challenge to the way we think of things like social care for the elderly”, as well as creating a long-term programme that involves true artistic risk.

Both ARC and The Albany are involved in a new collaboration with Entelechy and Freedom Studios in Bradford, culminating in a joint touring show. Home Sweet Home, written by Emma Adams, draws on the experiences of over 200 older people from Bradford, London and Stockton, and explores the transition that many experience from home to care home. It demonstrates just one way in which this participatory work intersects creatively with the work of professional artists.

As well as connecting artists and participants, many of those working with older people emphasise the importance of intergenerational engagement. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Heydays programme, which has been running for 24 years, is currently the largest regularly run project of its kind. Community development officer Nicky Taylor says that the work they do with older people “feeds back into the fabric of Playhouse, ensuring it’s a diverse, multi-generational creative space where people feel valued”.

Intergenerational work has also been an integral component of the work done by London Bubble Theatre Company, based in South London. Elders are often central to the process of gathering and shaping material for London Bubble’s intergenerational shows, working closely with participants of all ages. More recently, the Creative Homes project has taken London Bubble’s workshops to those who might not otherwise be able to attend, running groups in local sheltered housing schemes.

Creative Homes, like many of these projects, is still at a relatively early stage in its development. What it does, however, is pave the way for others. Taylor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has the message that “you can make real and significant change in your venues with only a few small steps”. Barlow, meanwhile, claims that Meet Me at the Albany has demonstrated “massive potential” for work of this kind.

For all of these projects, the aim is ultimately about opening out the arts to the whole community – young and old. As London Bubble’s creative director Jonathan Petherbridge puts it, “Our aim is to open up the joys of theatre making to all-comers. We want to weave it into the every day – a creative action, like whistling and doodling.”

Photo: West Yorkshire Playhouse.

From Docks to Desktops

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What do you know about where you live? The people, the places, the history? My answer to that question would have to be, shamefully, very little. I know the local park where I like to take walks, the cafe that sells the best cakes, the places where you can get your art and your coffee in one revitalising shot. Beyond that, though, I’m fairly detached from any true sense of place, as I suspect many of us are today. In fluid urban landscapes, where home takes on a shifting and provisional character, it’s hard to form meaningful roots.

I open by asking this because it’s a question that implicitly underlies the intergenerational work of London Bubble Theatre Company. Their last show, Blackbirds, collected and told stories about how London Bubble’s local area was affected during the Blitz. Now From Docks to Desktops, which was itself born out of the Blackbirds project, reveals another facet of this community through an exploration of working life and how it has changed over the years. London Bubble’s home in Rotherhithe is at the heart of an area of the city that has seen some of the most dramatic changes to both its landscape and its structures of employment in the last few decades; where once thrived docks and factories is now the home of lucrative property developments and shopping centres. This is the transformation that From Docks to Desktops traces.

Director Jonathan Petherbridge has a particular language for discussing London Bubble’s intergenerational work and it’s a helpful one to adopt. In explaining the process of collecting and curating stories from the local community, he uses the vocabulary of food: ingredients are foraged through a long process of interviews and the findings are prepped by workshop groups before being passed over to professional artists to create a recipe, which will then in turn be tasted and tweaked by everyone involved. It all ends, of course, in a great feast. While this is neat as an analogy, it’s also particularly apt. Preparing and eating a meal together involves an unspoken act of community, one that is also present in this kind of work. It’s a community built on the telling of its own stories.

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I recently gave some thought to value judgements and how one goes about critiquing work like this. I should explain at this point that I have a desk in the London Bubble office and have been involved on and off with discussions about From Docks to Desktops since the workshop phase. I’ve attended a couple of rehearsals and a scratch performance, read various drafts of the script and had several conversations about the work. This all constitutes a fairly light and often quite distanced involvement with the show, but nonetheless I’ve been exposed to the process, which is so clearly a huge part of what this piece is doing. Lots of people might only enjoy the feast, but the preparation is just as important – if not more so. Which raises the question, voiced in that earlier piece, of whether it is possible to consider the work without also considering how it was made.

The beauty of From Docks to Desktops, though, is that its process is folded into its product – that’s if the two can even really be separated. The structure of the piece is such that it is framed with its own making, recreating on stage the interview process that yielded all its raw material. The show begins not, as one might expect, in the workplace, but in the home. More specifically, the home of the interviewees, whose words we also hear directly via audio recordings. It is their memories that form the vast majority of the show, but these are presented as a multi-stranded tapestry rather than a flat, straightforward landscape. At some moments we hear their voices, while at others their words come to us through the performers, then at others still their experiences are transformed into poetic abstractions. Unlike many verbatim shows, whose truth claims I nearly always find problematic, here those niggling questions of accuracy and artificiality feel almost irrelevant. Everything is lived experience, passed through more than one subjective filter and viewed through the film of memory. And that’s OK.

It’s in this way that the show recalls ancient oral storytelling traditions, in which the identical reproduction of a tale as it was passed from mouth to mouth was less important than its truthfulness in the moment of telling. There is, of course, a much broader picture also being painted of socio-economic shifts that completely transformed the nature of work in this area, but the piece is as much about the individual and entirely subjective stories it tells as it is about the community they collectively form; in fact, that in itself feels like a false statement, because that community is of course made up of individuals. The other individuals in question here are the performers, many of whom also conducted the interviews that uncovered these stories and whose own working lives are equally given room on stage, binding them in a close relationship with previous generations of workers.

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The overarching narrative that can be glimpsed behind the show’s swift succession of anecdotes and workplace scenes is one of change, for better and for worse. The closing of the docks is bitterly mourned in a moving funeral sequence, but we are also asked to witness the hardship of poor working conditions, pay disputes and inequality between men and women. There’s some biting political content (a personal favourite is a scene in which children wearing masks of world leaders play hopscotch, recalling a similar, brilliant moment with a Margaret Thatcher mask in Squally Showers), though this is never at the expense of the stories being told. No place of work is simple; whether dock, factory or office, each is a source of both freedom and confinement, possibility and restriction. It is through this multiplicity of views that the show gains its quiet power, always respecting the place of work in our lives even while questioning it.

The idea of labour is explored at every level of the show, whose stripped back staging makes visible the usually hidden work of making theatre. Scene changes, often involving the conspicuous dragging on and off of materials, are deliberately highlighted rather than concealed with embarrassment. The aesthetic, rather than attempting to polish away its rough edges, instead makes these part of the very fabric of the piece; yes, it can at times be messy or chaotic, but this feels oddly appropriate.

The old, vanished workplace, meanwhile, haunts the senses. London Bubble have not particularly attached From Docks to Desktops to the now fashionable “site-specific” label, but it can lay claim to the true meaning of that phrase more justifiably than many other productions that masquerade under its banner. The show is performed in the old Peek Freans factory, once a major employer in this area and now functioning as a series of offices and studios. Pip Nash’s simple design allows enough of this space to remain visible for audiences to appreciate the history of the site, while also bringing in traces of other workplaces, such as a shipping container that dominates one corner of the stage. The other simple but brilliant touch is to have biscuits baking next door throughout the performance, sending the smells mentioned in the stories wafting evocatively over the audience. (Plus, we’re invited to have a taste at the end of the show – what’s not to love?)

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There are, undoubtedly, some flaws. While the rhythm of labour is integral to the piece, this busy hum of activity occasionally threatens to obscure the stories being told, with simply too much happening on stage at once. The most successful moments are often the simplest; in one powerful image of female figures slowly walking into the shadows, for instance, the devastating loss of work and independence for married women is wordlessly conveyed. There is also at times a desire to impress certain messages too strongly upon the audience, demonstrated in particular by a chorus of sorts that threads its way through the piece with mixed success, which seems to be at odds with the subjective plurality and balance exhibited elsewhere.

Whether or not you approve of all the show’s artistic choices, however, it’s difficult to argue with the purpose it has found as both process and product. Through the journey it has taken on its way to the stage and the stories it now shares with its audiences, From Docks to Desktops forms a community that crosses barriers of age and embeds itself firmly within an often neglected sense of place. Petherbridge has coined the term “vernacular theatre” to describe this work; like vernacular architecture, it is “hewn from local material and shaped by local knowledge”. It serves a specific use for a specific community, and its very material is drawn from within that community. Which makes me wonder, as I turn my thoughts again to the question of value judgements: what might vernacular criticism look like?

Images all taken from the gallery on the project’s website.

Value Judgements

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Who decides what makes art good? This nagging, age-old question was recently posed once again in the first of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures and was met with a multitude of answers. While debates about the categories of “good” and “bad” are far too knotty for a single piece of writing to untangle, one thing we can agree on is that critics tend to fall within that circle of cultural arbiters. So how do we distribute our approval? And what do we take into consideration when making those value judgements?

Around the same time as Perry was delivering his Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival held an event asking ‘Are Audiences Killing Culture?’ No doubt the title was meant as a provocation rather than a serious suggestion, but the very fact that this question can even be posed says something about how our culture assigns value. If audiences become the enemy of culture, then who is that culture ultimately for? And without an audience, how will it survive?

If art as the beleaguered, exclusive realm of the few sits in one corner, then perhaps opposite it is art that embraces its audience not only as spectators but as co-creators. Increasingly, works of contemporary art and theatre are being made with audiences as well as for them, recruiting participants to actively shape the final artistic material. Here the process is just as important as the product – indeed, for those who take part, it might be more important than what they eventually produce. But this, of course, presents a problem for the critic.

In a controversial essay published in Art Forum in 2006, Claire Bishop challenged the assumed political efficacy of the relational and participatory practices that she saw gaining momentum in contemporary art. In this article, she suggests that these practices are “less interested in a relational aesthetic than in the creative rewards of collaborative activity”, resulting in value judgments that ignore artistic criteria in favour of praising the work’s social and political ambitions. In response to this work, Bishop witnesses a problematic “ethical turn in art criticism”, one that she would see replaced with a more critical and interrogative discourse.

While Bishop has brought such arguments to the fore of art criticism, participatory theatre has not been subject to quite the same level of discussion between critics. As an art form, it also deserves its own theory and vocabulary; the huge difference between visual art and theatre, of course, is that theatre is a live experience that is not so easily reduced to a pure commodity, bringing process and product closer together in that sense. Lyn Gardner, one of the few newspaper critics to meaningfully engage with what is variously labelled as community, applied or participatory theatre, argued that we should not patronise this work by focusing too heavily on its social efficacy. Asking whether a critic should take the process into consideration when reviewing work of this nature, she concluded that “if the project has a theatrical manifestation – if an audience is invited and critics too – then it has to be judged on the basis of the performance”.

But this penetrates deeper than relational art practices or community theatre. As critics, are we always judging a final product? Does the process even matter, or is that not our concern? And if we do focus our attention purely on a finished performance and its supposed fixity, are we in some way complicit in commodifying that performance in a way that runs counter to the social potential of the live moment?

These are questions that I find myself repeatedly returning to as I engage in conversations with London Bubble about their latest intergenerational show. From Docks to Desktops has been collaboratively created by its participants, who have gathered experiences of working life from their local communities over a number of months. The resulting show, stitched together from these various stories, reflects the socio-economic shifts in a specific area of London and its impact on the people living there; it is, essentially, a community discovering and telling its own stories.

While thinking about From Docks to Desktops, I was fascinated to see a conversation between critic Matt Trueman and theatremaker Rajni Shah about her project Glorious,which involved a different group of participants in every area it visited. Trueman initially had what he described as an “allergic reaction” to Glorious and decided not to write about it, but after being approached by Shah he entered into a lengthy dialogue about his problems with the show. Throughout this conversation, Trueman is remarkably honest about his own habits as a spectator, while Shah admits that initially her main focus for Glorious was the participants rather than the audience. As she recognises, the participants get a week with the show, whereas an audience’s time with the piece is strictly limited and therefore they need a way into it. They need, perhaps – just as Trueman arguably needed – an appreciation of the process.

The process of From Docks to Desktops is inscribed in its performance. It is performed by the same participants who helped to gather the material that forms the piece and it is framed by the act of interviewing. This strikes me as a canny choice, allowing audiences that way into the stories being told, while at the same time allowing an appreciation of the work simultaneously on the levels of process and product. It also builds space for the encounter with its audiences – many of whom, of course, will be from the area it is concerned with, and some of whom will have contributed their stories to its creation.

The question of assigning value to this performance, however, will still prove tricky. Is the success of its process alone and the community of people it has brought together enough to make it “good”? Does that little moment of magic glimpsed in a rehearsal or a scratch performance contribute towards a positive judgement? Or does everything rest on one, supposedly final iteration of this collective story? And, to look at it yet another way, should the critic’s role in assessing work like this even be to pronounce an authoritative “yay” or “nay”? Is there not another shape the critic could adopt, as the initiator of conversations around this work?

There are a few things I know. I know that I don’t want to think about theatre purely as product. I know that I’m interested in process and I want to think about how an understanding of process might inform my criticism. And I know that I’m excited by the potential of criticism to spark wider conversations about theatre and engage people in dialogue about the culture they engage with.

Talking about theatre rather than speaking theatre, as Maddy Costa so brilliantly puts it. As for all the other questions I’ve asked, I’m not sure that I have any answers yet. But it feels as though these are questions that we, like Perry, should be continuing to ask ourselves. What makes theatre good, who decides, and how do they decide?