by Louise Owen, ex Marketing Officer, London Bubble Theatre Company

This article was published in Drama Magazine

How can theatre be made to work for the community? It is a question that South London-based arts organisations Entelechy Arts and London Bubble Theatre Company explore in all their work. A belief in the capacity of arts participation to dismantle the barriers between different cultures and communities of interest is sewn into their practice, and informs both the way their programmes of work are structured and the design of individual projects. Both companies are well-known and valued in the areas in which they work and although they have been delivering theatre projects which are socially inclusive for many years, it is only relatively recently that the potential they and other similar organisations represent to community regeneration initiatives has become more widely acknowledged.

In 2003 Entelechy Arts and London Bubble identified a way of working together on GEORGE, a project bringing younger and older participants together to create a performance. The social aims of the planned collaboration anticipated the objectives of Southwark Community Cohesion Pathfinder Programme, a regeneration initiative funded by the Government Office for London, and funding for the project was successfully drawn down. In this case there was a congruence of social aims between funders and artists that meant that non-arts funding could apply to an arts project. However, the main intention and function of the project was to create theatre. The question that arises is: can arts practitioners work successfully within a non-arts funding agenda, delivering both evidence of the social outcomes expected by the funder, and a satisfying project in theatrical terms?

The urban context in which Entelechy and London Bubble work can be creative and exciting, but for many it is also desperate, lonely and frightening. The diverse meeting-place of many different communities, the intense experience of living among lots of different people is part of London’s appeal. However, in an increasingly fragmented society, informal opportunities to meet, gather and get to know people outside of an immediate social circle are few; fewer still are opportunities for some people to share their feelings publicly about their communities to decisionmakers and to each other outside of the electoral process. Where differing cultural allegiances and behaviours are unknown or misunderstood people retreat from each other, seeking safety in what is familiar, and in the case of young and older people, social segregation is pronounced – points of positive contact are limited, and interpretations of visible behaviour can, and do, promote impersonal and negative stereotyping.  The consequences for how safe people feel living alongside each other, and in turn the health of communities can be very damaging.

GEORGE sought to challenge those preconceptions by gathering a highly mixed group of younger and older people together, whose ages ranged from 15 to around 75, to make a story that explored what it is to be British and to live in Southwark in 2004. These themes were prompted in the first instance by the demands of the funding. The project was supported by Community Cohesion to celebrate Southwark’s cultural diversity, and as a consequence it was expected that the content of the show would explore issues around identity. The cohesion agenda demands that a common vision be developed on the basis of a shared humanity and a sense of belonging, while embracing and celebrating cultural difference within communities. The brief for the project nonetheless was broad, and the specific themes and the narrative that unpacked them emerged entirely from the company. The story of GEORGE, about a tragic bereavement which sends shockwaves through a family, was driven by the participants in collaboration with the directors.  As Sylvan Baker, Community Projects Director of London Bubble observes, the project process and story “takes their ideas and places them at the centre of the performance” – empowering the participants through the focus on their life experience, thoughts and opinions.

While the primary intention of GEORGE was to bring the younger and older people together to make theatre, the show and its title were intended to resonate strongly with notions of national identity, cultural allegiance and knowledge. The assembled company chose to devise a story which tackled those questions with subtlety, but the scheduling of the first performance carried a stronger message – it took place at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell on the day after St. George’s Day, with the intention of making the link to national identity highly apparent. The performance at the Blue Elephant, which was free of charge, was fully booked – attended by a mixed audience including the performers’ family and friends, invited guests, representatives of Southwark Metropolitan Police and fellow arts practitioners. To celebrate the cultural diversity of the borough in print, the publication ‘A Sense of Belonging’ had been produced by Southwark Council as part of the same initiative and was launched at the performance. With the appropriation of St. George’s Day by organisationsand individuals intolerant of diversity, and the meanings which attach to the St George Cross flag, this was a bold stance which described the inclusive position of the whole project.

Both Entelechy and London Bubble are committed to challenging bigotry and prejudice through their work. The arts activities they facilitate offer people a safe opportunity to meet and develop relationships with one another, by creating work which engages with issues emerging in their daily lives. Their activities predominantly take place in Southwark, a borough whose high levels of crime and deprivation have attracted the Community Cohesion Pathfinder funding which enabled Entelechy and London Bubble to create GEORGE. In particular the incidence of violent crime against minority groups in the borough is high. Projects like GEORGE are targeted to address social dysfunction by gently opening up communication between groups of people who otherwise may not meet, for geographical or cultural reasons. They form part of a family of participatory projects delivered by London Bubble and Entelechy ranging from Youth Theatres to Advocacy schemes, which are accessible to people on a year round basis; both companies treat their projects equally as an important means of developing positive interaction and theatre-making skills. Offering disenfranchised community members a way to express themselves is regarded by both organisations as a means for those community members to feed in to the way their communities are built and maintained.

In 2002 and early 2003 Entelechy Arts and London Bubble had worked separately on two projects, with two different constituencies of people, but looking at very similar issues. Pain, Shame & Blame was the third in a series of London Bubble Peer Group Education shows inspecting young people’s relationship to law and order. Taking up the question of Hate Crime, three young people and an older company member gathered testimony from victims of crime, young offenders and various agencies in their research process for a Forum Theatre performance, which toured to Southwark secondary schools and youth clubs for performance to their peers. The show challenged spectators to consider anti-social behaviour in terms of its effects on individual people, and to offer solutions themselves to the scenarios that were played out in the post-show Forum replay. This challenge was also presented by the Entelechy Arts performance of The Tag , but offering an alternative generational perspective. Working for 12 weeks, a group of older people devised a performance around the potential relationships ofconflict between young and older people, and those from different communities. Audiences watched the show at the Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell and the Albany Theatre, Deptford.

Sylvan Baker comments that in the dialogue that was initiated coming out of these projects “it seemed very natural that the two organisations should work in partnership in creating a piece of intergenerational work”.   Having examined the often violent effects of people’s fear and ignorance of one another from their relative perspectives, the two groups were to come together in a rehearsal room and face their own thoughts and feelings about each other in an interesting, potentially risky, next step. David Slater, Director of Entelechy Arts is quick to underline that one of the project’s key strengths was the participants’ long-term relationships with their respective companies. The strong community links both organisations maintain and the projects that they consistently offer to their base of users provide the opportunity for such relationships to develop. As such, GEORGE was produced in “the collision of two groups of people who have considerable experience of making theatre”, and what can unfold within the rehearsal room. It was also much less likely to suffer the ‘petering out’ to which one-off projects can be subject.

Despite the participants’ skills and experience, the group was not immediately able to work comfortably. Initial questions arose around how the two constituent groups could develop a shared working practice that accommodated their cultural, and physical, difference. Practical issues, such as arranging a mutually agreeable time and place for the group to meet which would not tire the older performers, had to be resolved. Identifying the most active time of the day, and how older participants could factor in events like hospital appointments, illness, and family commitments were pivotal for the success of a project whose life extended more than a few weeks. The fact that refreshments were offered at sessions was sometimes a deciding factor in participation, the standard of refreshments for some an indication of the esteem given them by the project providers. Often points of actual coming together or understanding happened during the non-task times; the opinions shared over chicken and rice were as central to the work as the lines spoken in performance. Evaluating their experience one participant observed how “members of the cast spoke about their worries to each other”  regarding the process, citing this as a block to their making a greater contribution to the show. Whether or not this was a block in an interesting question, and depends on whether or not communicating informally with other group members and building relationships with them is considered more or less useful to a project than offering thoughts publicly to shape its progress.

In rehearsal, factors like differing levels of hearing, and the capacity to retain lines fundamentally affected the design of sessions, and the way in which participants expressed themselves to one another.

Nonetheless, once all the participants began meeting regularly a group dynamic gradually emerged in a traditional manner. Baker describes a formative moment in the initial stages in which the group was able to surmount their shyness and find common ground: “a young person asked the group generally, ‘do older people still, you know, do it?’ to which an older person said, ‘what, do you mean ‘have sex’?’ and they said ‘oh yes’, and suddenly the temperature of the room got warmer as the group found something they could all talk about”.  Such ‘soft outcomes’ were also a deciding factor in why individuals took part in the project: ‘I wanted to show my grandson that as a Grandma I still had useful things to say’. For the younger participants, working with talented and motivated older participants soon removed any of the ‘frail old women’ misconceptions they might have held before the project started.

Each performer consulted their own experiences to create the fictional scenes of the performance – connecting grief and loss to the experience of emigration; playing out how to behave around a bereaved schoolfriend; giving in to anger when faced with selfish and fussy companions. The comfortable, partially improvised performance, combined with the intensely personal testimony which had fed the story, made for a very relaxed but highly emotive experience as an audience member. One person described how “it reminded about myself when I first came as a teenager from North Africa. It was very moving for me”; another said how for them it was “true to life – I could connect with one of the characters”. Many people identified the story, which was packed with local reference, as a tale of present day England, not just Southwark; one audience member, the teacher of one of the young people in the company observed that “The show questioned identity and belonging – key question ‘Am I English?’, ‘What is English?’ I think perhaps the question of being English is something that should be considered!”. People spoke volubly of the pleasure which the performance gave to them, from the steel band that introduced the show with renditions of traditional English melodies, to the tea and cakes which the company shared with their audience in the post-show gatherings.

But did the project work? In the terms of community cohesion, did it achieve what it was funded to do? For individuals and their experience the benefits were clear, and measurable through their verbal and written evaluation of the project. The participants gained new skills, and met and interacted with new people in a mutually enriching way. As one GEORGE participant put it, the project “brought people together who would not normally cross their paths. And I think that’s very fruitful”.  For the wider community outside of the immediate company, what was the result? Certainly the company that played to audiences in the Southwark community venues and schools in which it was performed was diverse, both in terms of cultural background and age. Likewise the audiences that gathered around the performance, visible to one another in the full light of the spaces of performance, watching the story that had been devised by fellow Southwark residents. But as the project directors identified during a presentation at a recent Home Office seminar, there can be a tension between cultural diversity as expressed in terms of statistics, and cultural diversity as lived experience. The group of people that is gathered may be diverse, but is positive communication taking place between them? If so, will that communication outlive the duration of the event? Such outcomes are notoriously difficult to measure. In terms of a devised performance, the risk with any project targeted to address social issues is that the prescribed agenda may sit in tension with what the participants, as autonomous and creative individuals drawing on life experience, ultimately produce.

However, one of the strengths of theatre as a tool to foster a cohesive community is its capacity to engage people in respectful, healthy and productive discussion – to embrace conflict, and to channel it into the making of stories which provoke thought in spectators, both in terms of the narrative, if any, and the people who are showing the story to them. In this respect, as GEORGE demonstrates, all aspects of a project feed into the nurturing of people and the communities in which they move – from the sourcing of accessible rehearsal space for all at the beginning of the process, to the conversations between participants and audiences at the end of each performance and the memories that audience members took away with them. There are few group activities which require people, as an intrinsic part of that activity, to explore their thoughts and feelings about their experience of the world and exchange them with others. Plus, by developing lasting relationships between people, theatre projects have the potential to penetrate the informal and often invisible networks of contact within communities. To draw a somewhat fanciful analogy, this contact operates like ink dropped onto a wet piece of paper – the most concentrated benefits happening at the centre, but the links, and thus potential for interaction spreading outwards.

But live performance disappears, and once a project like GEORGE is over how are those benefits to be sustained? In the longer term, the continued availability to existing and potential participants of Entelechy Arts and London Bubble, community arts organisations embedded within the local area, is absolutely critical. For people to be able to return to make more work and meet more people via projects like this consolidates their positive effects, slowly feeding the communities in which they move. The effect of GEORGE on both companies has been transformative. The success and reaction to the project has prompted research and planning into a second phase, which could become a permanent project strand in its own right – a further step to enriched capacity building, and the community cohesion both companies have worked towards for years.

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