Essay: On Community Theatre, and Why I Hate Welfare State International.

In June/ July of 83, a bunch of community arts organisations in the East End were invited, by the Welfare State International, to participate in a fairly grandiose project around the idea of putting on a show in Limehouse Basin, which had been decommissioned as a working dock in 1970 or so, and had been sitting derelict ever since. The Welfare State guys thought that raising the Titanic from out of the dock basin would not only be nifty theatre, but also symbolic of the indomitable spirit of the East End, metaphorically rising from the depths of industrial decline and urban squalor.

There were lots of arts organisations working in the East End. I was a member of the Tower Hamlets Arts Project (THAP) that was a collective engaged with running the only bookshop in Tower Hamlets, with running workshops in photography and pottery and screen-printing and drama and video, with publishing locally relevant books, with running writers groups and drama groups for all age groups in youth clubs and community centres across the borough. I was the bookshop manager and ran drama and video workshops (Sony reel-to-reel b&w video tape with a camera on a cable and a box that weighed – well, a tonne in my memory, but probably a bit less than that in fact) and a member of a workers-control, no-management, workers co-operative. Some of the groups in the area called themselves Community Artists, we called ourselves Community Arts workers.

What Welfare State proposed was a sort of community festival around the site, so the climax of the festivities would be the raising of a ship-shaped structure out of the basin, with music and fire-works and bonfires and stuff, but for an hour or so leading up to that, groups of performers from the East End would contribute their ideas of what the locale represented to them. What they thought about urban renewal. How they wanted to interact with a big project in their manor that was set up by an outside agency. The brief we were given was to devise work around the theme of 1) a festival & 2) the dereliction and renewal of the docklands. Some of us were really quite dubious about the development of the docklands. It all felt a bit like taking away thousands of workers’ jobs and replacing them with steel and glass office blocks and a bussed-in work force of City financial types. That’s what we thought was happening in the early 80s, that’s what happened in fact. I worked with 2 groups on the Isle of Dogs, a group of 40ish local women, and a group of local teenagers. Both groups were interested in the project, both groups started to devise (with my project’s assistance) responses in line with the Welfare State guidelines, both groups were told several weeks into the devising time-table just what the Welfare State thought their input should be. Which was to be part of a joyful procession of local people celebrating the re-birth of their community while wearing colourful hats. Neither of the groups I worked with thought much of being part of a colourful procession. Neither group thought that was what was happening to their community. Neither group wanted to play any more, so they went home. Another drama workshop, based in Hackney, also had a mass walk-out of the workshop members, so they were replaced in the performance by the community arts workers themselves, middle-class incomers with drama degrees representing the disenfranchised proleteriat. The community arts group that gets name-checked in the Welfare State blurb, the ‘A’ Team, based in Limehouse, with a long history of working with young people in the area, specialised in making costumes and hats and expressive, colourful dress-up things. They produced industrial quantities of shiny things for the people in the Local People’s Procession to wear, lots of people from the neighbourhood were happy to turn up, put on their hats, and join in a big dockside party leading up to the grand finale when a skeletal ship rose out of the inky water, and it was a fine and exciting show.

But not, to my mind, Community Theatre. Using local people for background colour isn’t allowing them an opportunity to express their ideas or their experience. A shiny theatrical event that attracts national attention is fun and exciting to be part of. Being a super on the stage of the Lyttleton during a run of ‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ is probably well up there in the bucket lists of many non-professional actors. But the question has to be asked: is the role of the ‘Community’ in “The Raising of the Titanic” or “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” at the National Theatre to be extras, to be a Local People beard for the Welfare State International or Rufus Norris, or is it to attempt to articulate and present the community’s notions of what the community represents or wants or thinks. And is my role to use my exemplary acting skills and my stellar writing, honed in the fires of a University drama course, to make a shiny show, or is it to put what skills I have at the disposal of members of the community I work to, but am not necessarily part of, to make their own statement. Even if that statement is a slightly ropey playlet in a cold venue with an audience of the cast’s relations. Or is the only valid expression of Community Theatre an event that has been developed by a community without any input or shaping or assistance or improving by any of the various flavours of Theatre Professional, however well intentioned?

The problem with ropey playlets is that not many people watch them, the problem with waiting for communities to spontaneously generate expressions of community feelings from the beating heart of that community is that some communities have a greater affinity for that sort of thing than others, so we might have to wait a very long time for a piece about the lives of agricultural workers in East Anglia made by East Anglian agricultural workers, and less long for a piece about the trans community and their quest for recognition made by a company of trans performers. The advantage of leaving it up to theatre professionals is that it increases the chances of getting a damn fine show at the end of the project, a show that people might talk about 30-odd years later. Which takes primacy, the process or the product? For what it’s worth, I think Community Theatre is entirely predicated on process. The Welfare State made a really good piece of theatre but their process was top-down, condescending, insulated from outside influence. A good show, but not Community Theatre.

Experimental theatre to spill into the mainstream

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