A recent collaboration between Bristol’s New Tides Platform and the University of Malta, the Redefining Theatre Communities conference took place on the island of Gozo, Malta, between 14th and 16th September. An impressively international event, the conference brought together scholars and practitioners from around the world to ask what happens when theatre seeks to work within communities.
The main thing that struck me about this event was how open its speakers were to acknowledging the limitations of their work. There was a real sense of caution in defining what we mean by ‘community’ (which, as Miranda Joseph points out, always risks being an exclusionary process), and a shared hesitation to make major claims about the value of the arts within these disparate social groups.
Sue Mayo put it particularly neatly, speaking in her paper about the danger of ‘sentimentalising’ the work, and the need to consider the gap between aspiration and reality. Partly this is a question of how the work is documented: her intergenerational theatre projects are, she says, extremely photogenic. But when we retrospectively reduce these projects to a series of attractive snapshots, we risk erasing the cracks and tensions that working with others in close quarters is almost bound to produce. Even the name itself, ‘applied’ theatre, is problematic, as Emily Hunka pointed out: suggesting that theatre can be applied ‘like a sticking plaster’, professing to cure (while often simply hiding) the wound underneath. Meanwhile, Vahid Evazzadeh took issue with the term ‘theatre’ itself: because if on the one side you’ve got ancient Greek tragedy, he said, and on the other you have pole-dancing, at some point you’ve got to figure out which of the bits in between actually count as theatre. Indeed, communities themselves are not static – at some point, consciously or otherwise, we all have to work out to which community/ies we feel we belong. We therefore, as Hasibe Kalkan Kocabay made clear, have to be very careful when we talk about things like ‘bringing culture to people’, without considering what this means. Culture is everything. Communities are everyone. An important part of redefining theatre communities is therefore to start blurring the edges of these terms, by refiguring them as open, fluid, changing, and always in some way under strain.
#RedefTC hashtag on Twitter for more related discussions.