This thing called Community Theatre

On Monday night I went to ‘Shouldn’t all theatre be community theatre’ an event organised through the Young Vic’s Directors program. The panel was chaired by director Charlotte Bennett and included Erica Whyman; Chief Executive of Northern Stage, Damian Cruden; Artistic Director of York Theatre Royal, David Jubb; Joint Artistic Director of BAC, and Joe Harmston; freelance director.

The e-invite suggested that the discussion would look at “why we create theatre and whether audiences should be considered as part of the artistic process. Should artists be considering how their work connects with its community or just how it connects with itself? Can great art only be created by artists who think selfishly or should world-class community theatre be something we should all be striving to make?”

Coming out of the event one thing was clear, 90 mins is not enough to debate the meaning of community theatre or to understand how we can move the debate on from simply accepting the virtues of community theatre in our lives without specifically articulating its place in the current theatre ecology. Perhaps that explains why I came out feeling more depressed, than I had hoped for on a Monday evening – after all there’s a whole week that could have fed on any enthusiasm I might have picked up that night.

But not all was gloom. The size of the group gathered was very exciting, most of them young theatre directors who came armed with experiences and questions, and clearly interested in what they could learn from the topic that would feed their artistic practice. But that in itself did not provide the challenge that was needed to move the discussion out of a predictable and polite zone, where everyone shared a personal experience/ understanding of community theatre and that it was all ‘lovely’.

So rather than go over what was said, I want to focus on what I felt was left unsaid. If, as Damian suggested and everyone agreed, all theatre is, or should be, community theatre, why doesn’t everyone use those words? Why is there a need for a separate definition of community theatre, one that seems to stand it outside of “proper” theatre. If we accept that there is some perceived difference, do we as theatre makers give community theatre the respect it needs, before we collectively blame the Arts Council for demonising it (oh yes, they were mentioned!) ? David Jubb used an example of a school play as a starting point of what community theatre should deliver and enable – most audiences have their first, usually very intense experience of theatre there – helping make it and then feeling exhilarated by the experience of seeing it performed. Why then do we lead our audiences to a point where, as asked by Teatro Vivo, “audiences feel strangely surprised by the quality of their community theatre experience”. What else did they expect? What do we expect of community theatre?

The entire panel that night represented venues – running them or creating work for them and their starting point on community theatre was their building. Having said that, Erica Whyman did mention itinerant theatre company Slung Low, whose work is inspired by and feeds the communities they adopt/ visit. It felt to me, it is very easy to frame a definition of community theatre around a building that serves as a venue for morning mum and toddlers club and an afternoon elders’ bingo session. That open invitation is necessary but how does that ethos reflect the art – is the theatre that the venue puts on in the evenings community theatre?

London Bubble is non building based community theatre company, and for us it is not about delivering a single community theatre project, but an ongoing organisational ethos that runs from our rehearsal room to a school’s community hall.  Our definition of community theatre is involving people of all ages in making, owning and sharing their theatre. What drives our art is the same thing that excites our community – the making of compelling, artful, relevant and connecting theatre.

Note: This is not an account of the event, and perhaps I have missed out on some discussions/ arguments that the others present might have found interesting/ challenging. I did not take any notes from the evening, choosing to immerse myself in what was being said and reflecting on it. If you were there that evening or would like to contribute to anything said here, please feel free to comment.

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