Community, Engagement, Theatre
By Nikki Shaffeeullah
Community-engaged theatre. Community-based creation. Community arts. Artists in communities. If I had a nickel for every time I said, read, or wrote the word “community,” I could fund a community-engaged research project to develop an apt synonym. As someone who moves between artistic, activist and academic circles, I have as matter of professional necessity learned to differentiate the different buzzes of this term: community.
A friend and fellow Christopher Guest fan jokes that my work comes to mind when he watches the comedic film Waiting for Guffman. Guest’s mockumentaries invite the viewer to gape at people who are heavily invested in niche interest circles, where emotions run high though real-world stakes remain low: dog groomers in competition, folk bands reuniting, and community theatre entourages in rehearsal. Waiting for Guffman is about an amateur theatre troupe that mounts a rather parochial musical about the history of their tiny town. My friend jokes, “That’s what Nikki does, right? Community theatre.”
We laugh; it’s a joke, after all. He’s an educator working adjacent to drama-in-education projects and I’m a theatre artist working with community-engaged methods, so we’re “in the know.” Community theatre and community-based theatre are discreet categories, and it’s a joke because he’s deliberately conflating them. Community theatre is a group of amateurs putting on a show, while community-engaged theatre is professional artists facilitating (non-professional) communities in artistic projects toward some kind of social goal, presumably a progressive one. The language around community-engaged theatre was brought into being by facilitators of community arts who came before me and who worked to create institutionally supported spaces where artists could collaborate with communities and bring participatory, activist methods into the work. This contemporary history of community-engaged artistic practice means that artists like myself can apply for arts funding dedicated to community-engaged work, can explore the intersections of their craft through formalized academic programs and advanced degrees, and can explain at dinner parties what they do with only minimal confusion in response.
As I have been told, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, when professional theatre in this land called Canada was still itself an emergent phenomenon, it was important for artists to make the practical, theoretical, and political distinctions between models of (amateur) community theatre, community-engaged theatre, and conventional professional theatre. But for myself, as a still-emerging artist lucky enough to be working in a professional climate where the category of community-engaged arts has been (almost?) normalized, the need for these distinctions does not seem urgent. It often feels limiting.
Theatre is community. Other forms of art are not necessarily, but theatre is bodies together in a room. Theatre is live. Theatre is ephemeral. Theatre is collaborative. Is the contemporary Western enthusiasm for “community-engaged theatre” not a recently popularized stream of practice but in fact a return to the roots of the craft? Victor Ukaegbu notes that what is currently called community-engaged or “applied” theatre in the West was in fact a part of the earliest performance rituals in Africa. He argues, “What is needed is not a new concept or definition but the reintroduction of production strategies and collective concerns that created the traditional practices that audiences attended as participants instead of as detached spectators” (Ukaegbu in Ackroyd, 6).
Might the field of community-engaged art evolve to a point of comfort that we don’t feel the knee-jerk need to distance ourselves from the Waiting for Guffmans of the world? I have time and again heard colleagues, classmates, and myself quickly correct a naïve outsider about what makes what we do different from the Guest-esque folly of amateur houses. But what is community theatre but a group of geographically connected people coming together to create performance, simply for their own joy and as a creative offering to family, friends, and neighbours? Is that not collective community development, capacity building, and many of the other things that community-engaged theatre strive to be?
Similarly, is there not a wealth of potential in blurring the boundaries between community-engaged theatre creation and “conventional” theatre? I have reflected on this many times over the past months while facilitating a community-engaged theatre project with Undercurrent Theatre. This group is an outgrowth of my MFA thesis work, which was an experiment in creating theatre with women of colour using performance methodologies rooted in decolonial and anti-racist feminist theory. That project culminated in a devised one-act play entitled (un)earthed, and the community response to the project, along with the collaborators’ own experiences, prompted us to continue. For this, our second undertaking, I have been facilitating last year’s participants and others in an arts-based analysis of gender-based violence in culturally diverse communities. The fruits of this project have become a week-long performing arts festival entitled Escape Velocity, featuring a headline collective creation of the same name; a series of performance shorts; installation art; and public workshops. The project has involved many participants: people whose expertise lies in their lived experiences and energy to affect social change; performers with many years experience fusing artistic creation and activism; activists with strong backgrounds in creative popular education; and others looking to access ways of meaning-making that are relevant to their identities. Most of the participants are women-identified people of colour, and thus are part of the implicated “community.” Very few of the participants are full-time artists or arts workers, though some have varying degrees of training and experience. I am the project’s lead artist, but am not external to the community, as I am also a woman of colour with an urge to create work about the particular ways in which racism, misogyny, and violence intersect. As is the case in many “community-engaged theatre projects,” it is difficult to cleanly delineate who is “artist” and who is “community,” though the language of grant applications and other industry spaces recommends we make these distinctions. The Escape Velocity festival and the work leading up to it is community-engaged art, but it’s also simply art. To echo Ukaegbu’s call, how can community-engaged methods inform and enrich other modes of creation, performance, and production?
Theatre is community. Other forms of art are not necessarily, but theatre is bodies together in a room. Theatre is live. Theatre is ephemeral. Theatre is collaborative.
Is the contemporary Western enthusiasm for “community-engaged theatre” not a recently popularized stream of practice but in fact a return to the roots of the craft?
I see tremendous potential in community-engaged dramaturgy. Throughout the Escape Velocity process, the Undercurrent Theatre ensemble held community forums and open rehearsals: we actively outreached to our own cultural communities, as well as to organizations and individuals working against racism and gender-based violence. These open sessions were devised as a measure by which we could hold our creation process accountable to people affected by gender-based violence and racism who were interested in the process but not regularly in the room. The result was a kind of community-engaged dramaturgy. Our guests did not have to be trained writers or experienced dramaturges for their feedback to be valuable: their personal and professional insights into the themes, tropes, stereotypes, and archetypes brought a plurality of perspectives into the rehearsal room and deepened our analysis.
The Escape Velocity project has also been an experiment in community-engaged program development. When crafting a collectively devised theatre creation, it is inevitable that some ideas, themes, characters, and storylines will not make it into the final show. This is sufficiently difficult in solo creation: writers use that crude turn of phrase “killing your babies” to describe the painful task of cutting ideas from an in-development work. It becomes a markedly more complicated task when working on a collective creation, where the babies are not necessarily (just) your own. As a majority-rule democratic society must find ways to recognize the needs of minorities, a collective, community-engaged creation process should task itself to account for those ideas the group as a whole cannot navigate in a single project even though they are still valuable. From the onset of our process, I put aside resources and programmed blank spots in the festival for to-be-determined performance shorts. As the long and slow process of devising the headline show unfolded, I encouraged ensemble members to nurture those ideas that didn’t make it into the headline show and turn them into an independent, smaller work. For these shorter pieces, they recruited, from outside the main ensemble, community collaborators with interest in and connection to the given themes. The result of this community-engaged programming process is a slow-cooked festival line-up with performance pieces of many forms, representing a variety of intersectional identities and exploring issues contiguous with the broader themes of gender-based violence and anti-racism.
At the front of every arts producer’s mind is audience development. Here, community-engaged methods are not merely tools but propose an altogether alternative framework to the conventional art-maker/art-consumer relationship. Doug Borwick compares traditional audience development with community engagement: While audience development is a “short term marketing strategy to increase the number of people who visit your organization,” community engagement is instead about building “community ownership, participation, relationships, and support for your organization.” Community-engaged models of performance encourage us to reimagine audience development as something more comprehensive and longer-term. Through Escape Velocity’s open rehearsals, workshops, and forums, we have for months been developing for our ad-hoc festival an audience that is invested in our work and to whom we feel we are accountable.
This issue of alt.theatre sees artists across Canada and beyond exploring community-engaged methods for participants around the artistic round table. Daniel Brunet, Producing Artistic Director of English Theatre Berlin, recounts the process creating ECHTER BERLINER !!!! IHR NICHT FUCK YOU, a documentary theatre piece exploring the social rules that allow some to be called “real” Berliners, others “ex-pats,” and the rest “immigrants.” This conversation is most apt at English Theatre Berlin, a theatre whose name betrays its linguistic predilections and connection to non-German-born people residing in the capital. The theater’s regular audiences are necessarily connected to the show’s conversation: Brunet discusses how the performance design consciously strove to implicate audience members: “Upon purchasing a ticket, audience members were asked to identify the country that issued their passport’” and were subsequently given a colour-coded ticket and seating section that corresponded to the categories by which the Berlin Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Registration Office) regarded their country of citizenship. The performance structure mandated the audience to locate themselves, their communities, and any privilege carried by their nationality and ethnicity, within the shoe’s themes.
In Crystal Chan’s reflection on urban ink productions and Black Theatre Workshop’s co-production of Omair Newton’s Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of , she provides insight on how the playwright hoped to bridge connections between the communities implicated in the show’s hybrid hip-hop theatre form. She quotes Newton’s affirmation that that what he really wanted “was for this play to spark intergenerational dialogue”: “He describes two ideal audiences: one is older, mainstream—they’re being introduced to youth hip-hop culture; the second is teenaged, familiar with hip-hop culture—they’ll be introduced to theatre.” Newton’s show blurs artistic forms in an attempt to collapse barriers between audience communities.
In “Anthony Walsh and My Personal Journey of “Decolonization,” Matthew Gusul points to the fact that no matter how old community-engaged methods of artistic creation are, they still possess transformative potential for present participants: “All the projects I worked on felt ground-breaking, as if I were the first non-Indigenous man in Canada to admit to being racist and to work to ‘unlearn’ my racism through encountering First Nations people. Of course, I realize this was not the case, but with each project there was a feeling that I was engaging in a unique endeavour.” Gusul compares Walsh’s work with the beginnings of his own relationship with arts and activism, serving as a reminder that the histories of community-engaged theatre are ones well worth repeating.
Community (engaged) art is as old as art itself. The process of finding ways to transform society and shift the status quo requires imagination, passion, and emotional energy: indeed, activist art is simply art because activism is itself an art. “Community-engaged theatre” is simply theatre because theatre is community.