Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Monday, September 28, 2009
Peter Hussey is a theatre director and community arts educator. He founded Crooked House Theatre Company in 1994. He has contributed to course delivery and development at the Department of Adult and Community Education at NUI, Maynooth in a wide range of contexts for many years. He designed and delivers Directing for Theatre, Participatory Theatre, and Community Theatre programmes for a number of departments within the university.
I The Sacred Space
Sometimes I arrive early to a venue to work with a group that I’ve not met before, or a group that is forming for the first time, and I set up an experiment. I arrange the exact number of chairs as are needed in a circle in the middle of the space, one for each participant, and place one differently shaped or coloured chair slightly apart from the rest. I try to place beside it a table, desk, flipchart, or blackboard – whatever is at hand. Then I loosely arrange all the remaining chairs in random patterns around this central circle – usually against the walls or in corners – pointing in every direction and some stacked in piles. I remove all other evidence of my presence and go outside to mingle with the public.
As soon as the first participants begin to arrive I quietly observe them. Every time, without fail, the group assembles itself and moves to sit in the central chairs as arranged by me. They never use the chairs by the wall and they absolutely never sit in the chair that’s slightly different from the others. Occasionally, a group member comes in, engaged in talking to another member and absent-mindedly puts his/her coat and bag on the ‘different’ chair. They carry on their conversation and are about to sit down on it when suddenly they stop, quickly glance about the room and immediately remove their belongings, resume their conversation and sit in another chair. Soon enough the entire group is in the room and all seated in the circle of chairs. Some light conversation is rumbled but usually there will be a silence. I am by the wall. I speak from there, introduce myself as the facilitator or artist for the session, and everyone turns, puzzled as to why I’m sitting on the edge, out of the centre.
‘Who is the spare chair for?’ I ask.
They look at it, look back at me, and one will say ‘For you. No?’
‘Why?’ I ask.
‘Because it is. Because …. you’re the only one left without a chair?’
‘I have a chair,’ I say. ‘Why isn’t anyone sitting in any of the other chairs along the wall?’
‘Because … this is better. This is where we choose to sit,’ they reply.
And so on it goes for a few seconds until the point has been made. We use this moment to discover what a colonised learning space looks like. In this room there is a sacred space, defined by tradition, schooling, and by expectation. It is discernible by the fact that the instruments of production of information and the technology of distribution of information are placed around it. In schoolrooms of the past century this space was defined very physically by a podium, dais or raised platform. It was occupied by the teacher. Learners entered this small, occupied space usually for three reasons only:
(a) To be punished: a student was brought into the space where he/she had the least amount of freedom and power and there made an example of in front of the class.
(b) To be rewarded: a student was brought into the space to be held up as a positive example for the class to see.
(c) To rebel: in the absence of the teacher or other authority figure the space was often invaded, slogans and incitements graffitied on the board, instruments destabilised, and sanctuaries prised open. Often when the teacher was in fact there missiles were launched into the space, like petrol bombs at tanks.
This invasion of the sacred space to vandalise the armature of colonisation is the energy that lies behind radical participatory arts practice. It is of course the same energy that inspires revolution. In Frierian terms, it is the energy of the teacher as revolutionary.
For many years I have been working in the areas of adult education and of theatre. It is the overlap of these two areas that interests me. In theatre I have divided my time between community-based participatory practice and artist-led projects. I have always viewed theatre as learning space, in which people co-create meaning and generate models of being human. In the theatre space, practitioners and audience are imaginers – each group is engaged in the exercise of their imagination and in the discovery of what it means to be free. Similarly, in the classroom or community hall, groups of individuals come together to create meaning, using a different set of tools perhaps, but also aiming to understand themselves and their world better so that they can be liberated within it. For me, imagination and its use is the key creative tool in both of these learning environments. It is the faculty that responds to curiosity and the one that encourages us to take risks. In this chapter I hope to elucidate the ways in which imagination works in the theatre, and by implication, how it works in educational and community development settings. Because of the nature of my work I have begun to think of each arena as the same: the learning space of theatre is the same as that of education. The same gaps exist between the margins and the centre, and the act of traversing the gaps is carried out by the same type of people. They are influenced by an ideology of radical liberation that views their work as adapting social systems to suit the needs of communities rather than moulding communities to serve the systems’ needs. Within this framework I will look closely at the characteristics of a domesticating theatre practice and those of a liberating theatre practice - and posit the idea that these characteristics are also symptoms of radical and domesticating education.
These are ‘notes for imaginers’. They are notes, firstly, in the sense that they are incitements to act; secondly, in that they ask people to take notice; and thirdly, in the sense that they comprise reference material. The ‘imaginers’ are a group of people who are not merely consumers of art and education, but who are agents in creating meaning. They are using the facility of imagination to explore what it means to be human. In this way, they are free.
II The Market Place
There have been decades of silent but effective instruction and conditioning about the sacred space. When a facilitator or an artist comes to work with a new group the first thing they must do is open up the space. If this does not happen then the group is in danger of working out of its default mode of being - passive consumers of information.
In this default mode a group settles into its safe spaces, the cosy comfortable spaces, where it sits behind desks, in rows perhaps, behind pens and paper, blanketed in the knowledge that it has a purpose and that purpose is to receive information and to record whatever bits of it are relevant. Why are we recording? Because it gives a sense of purpose to the exercise. Because it offers the appearance of freedom. We are in channel-hop mode, deluded into thinking we are making choices and exercising power, deluded into thinking that we are free. This is of course the great delusion of the Market Place. A capitalist, consumer-orientated culture will teach itself only one thing really well – how to consume. We may be offered a bewildering array of items to choose from but they are valued not by their uniqueness and individuality but only by their consumability. A thing does not have status in this system unless it has a sell-by-date. Even ideas. Especially ideas. And every system colludes in promoting the skills needed to buy and sell. None more so that the education system. It is a great crime that the majority of our secondary school classrooms are merely spaces in which teenagers are taught how to consume information and not spaces in which they are taught how to create and generate meaning.
Having explored the idea of the colonised space with my group I look around the room. There has never been a workshop yet where every one of the participants has not sat with something crossed – arms, legs, ankles, hands – between them and me. Or poised with pen, pad and desk. Their bodies are in the default consumer mode of being: ‘Amuse me. Teach me. Entertain me. Stimulate me. Tell me something I don’t know. Make me feel like I’m watching TV.’ We have become so conditioned to expect that the ideal learning environment is one in which we consume information that our bodies immediately adopt the positions of passive receivers when we settle into a room – any room, even our ‘living’ rooms. Where information is produced and distributed then this is indeed one of the ideal ways of consuming it. But not all learning is predicated upon the consumer-producer relationship. In fact, very little of it is. Most learning takes place in patterns of experience and reflection; testing and deliberating; investigating and presuming; doing and talking; imagining and inventing.
We are not consumers only during learning sessions such as the one described above but very often also during an engagement with art. Much art, for example, is structured to be presented in such a manner that the receiver is prevented from behaving in any way that would disturb the smooth flow of information from producer to consumer. In theatres we have to sit in the dark; we mustn’t move or rustle; we cannot eat or drink; we must above all not speak; we should not look at anything else except that which is placed in front of us to look at. In this context we are ‘audience’ – a term that describes us only in relation to our sense of hearing, one of the two senses most useful to us in consuming this kind of theatre. In many galleries we feel that we must behave as if we are in churches and sanctuaries, stopping short at leaving our shoes at the door. In this context we are ‘viewers’ – described only in terms of our eyes. Wherever we are described and defined as a segregated sense or body part we are being constructed as a consumer whose most precious aspect is the feature that most efficiently allows the consumption of that particular art to take place. This, despite the fact that we all know that we truly engage with art with all of our senses, our spirit, our imagination, our physicality, our emotion and our intellect. In real engagement we are co-creating meaning with the artist. We are not passive consumers but articulate inventors and imaginers. However, in the lexicon of art appreciation there is no word that satisfactorily describes this state of being. In fact, in most discourses about participants-in-art we rarely hear ourselves defined in active terms at all. Certainly there are a handful (reader, listener etc) but the majority of action-implicit nouns are used to describe the producers (actor, director, painter, composer, singer etc). The Brazilian director, Augusto Boal, drew attention to this anomaly in theatre practice in his pioneering work Theatre of the Oppressed in which he coined the term ‘spect-actor’ to describe one who watches but who also acts during the course of a performance. In his later, and arguably, more accessible work, Games for Actors and Non-Actors (2002) he describes methods of engagement with theatre that are specifically not passive.
Part of the difficulty in conceiving of oneself as an active, creative maker of meaning when engaging with art is that the public spaces for most art production militate against such a conception. These spaces are merely enlarged versions of the sacred space in the classroom with all its attendant rituals of exclusion and barriers to access. It is the same space in which offerings are made to the gods; in which the histories of the forefathers are recounted and learned; in which judgements are handed down and men and women are sentenced to death. It is the space in which barters and transactions are made and in which one small group of people sit in the centre producing, distributing and validating while the majority stand on the margins consuming.
The artist in this paradigm has the same status as the teacher in traditional educational systems and the judge in typical judicial systems. They are conceived of as genius/producer/priest whose training or gift is sacred and whose output requires sanctified spaces in which to be consumed.
III The Domesticated Space
Generally speaking, the art produced in such a context and by such artists is meant to be ‘good’ for us. Like educational programmes of the same nature it aims to domesticate all who come into contact with it, so that we may be better placed to consume uncritically what is produced for us thereby maintaining the systems that occupy the centre. Current theatre reviewing by the established press often enforces this viewpoint. “Theatre is about giving reality to imaginings, and about conjuring up the images for people whose imagination is limited” says Emer O’ Kelly (theatre reviewer with The Sunday Independent) in a review of a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 2003. What is being promoted is a form of domesticating theatre that can be easily consumed by the dull.
Domesticating art can be identified easily enough as having eight fundamental characteristics that set it apart from and identify it in opposition to liberating arts. These characteristics can also be applied to domesticating educational practices and anti-learning environments. Most are readily understandable when considered in relation to theatre and drama.
Firstly, it is cathartic. It promotes an emotional release in the subject; it aims to free repressed emotion by association with the cause and it eliminates by abreaction. In order to achieve catharsis, the theatre piece must present the subject with a recognisable condition or behaviour and provide a space in which the subject can release feelings that are perceived to be negative or anti-social. Arguably the most successful exponents of cathartic art are soap operas and films with their emphasis on naturalistic acting and credible settings, emotionally led dialogue and terse, often stereotypical, character development. The objective of catharsis, a condition first described by Aristotle, is usually to purge the audience of anti-social feeling so that they will be better able to adapt to society. To this end, it encourages changes in one’s personal value systems. This is arguably still the objective of most cathartic theatre. A production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth might, for example, aim to move the audience into feeling that they had better curb their anti-establishment tendencies because the result would be political chaos and personal tragedy. It may go so far as to assert that greed and ambition are deeply anti-social personal characteristics and that it would be better for the audience member to purge him or her self of them. The production might conceivably do this by emphasising the emotional content of the play, generating sympathy for the principal protagonists and resentment for the principal antagonists.
Secondly, domesticating art is consumerist. It protects and promotes the consumers’ interest in relation to the product. This means, for example, that producers might go to great lengths to provide car parking facilities, wine licences, programmes, and a paraphernalia of consumable items that have nothing whatsoever to do with the ideas being expressed in the theatre but that have everything to do with making the consumption of those ideas as comfortable as possible. Much debate in recent times, for example, has centred around the ideal location of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre but relatively little public discussion has focused on what way it produces its art and even less on the kind of art it produces.
Domesticating art is, thirdly, solution-oriented. That is, its thematic drive is towards closure, categorization, cure, solution. It usually constructs itself in terms of cause and effect, setting up situations that bring about problems which, in time, will be solved to a reasonable degree of satisfaction. Most of our popular film, TV drama and fiction are, arguably, elaborate versions of the medieval morality plays with recognisable and neat conclusions. However, the morality expressed in almost all of this art is based on the simple premise that the onus for change and transformation is on the individual and not on the system. Solution-oriented, domesticating art sees the problem as one in which the individual needs to adapt him/herself to the requirements of social systems, and not one where social systems need to adapt to the needs of individuals.
A fourth feature of domesticating art is that it is perceived as being sacred. Apart from the issues discussed earlier, there also exists the idea that this art needs to be mediated in a certain, often esoteric, manner to the public. Like religion, it promotes the idea that it depends upon critical interpretation for it to be understood. It is certainly true that much artistic expression uses languages that we are not readily familiar with, and they are often translated for us by critics who have sufficiently versed themselves in the discourse to become experts. It is, however, equally true, that we are not taught these languages as a matter of course in our schools and public environments. There is little, if any, exploration of artistic processes in our secondary school curriculum and certainly none in terms of dramatic creation, interpretation and invention. Most exploration of the languages of creativity is left to the discretion of the teachers themselves and is not a principal feature of subject syllabi.
Domesticating art is primarily signature art. This term is used in this context by Declan Mc Gonagle, former (New Vision) Director of the Civil Arts Inquiry at Dublin’s City Arts Centre (2002). Signature art promotes the ‘artist-as-genius’ or auteur model of artistic creation. Mc Gonagle understands the idea as having emerged from 20th century modernism and that it is the opposite to participatory arts practice or collective creation.
In such art the aesthetic is almost exclusively expressed in the final product and so we can say that domesticating art is product-focused. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you went through to create the play, or painting, or music; it doesn’t matter how many people you consulted or how many people assisted in the creation of it; it doesn’t matter whether it took you ten days or ten years; the real beauty lies only in the product itself and usually not in the creative process. In theatre this is expressed in terms of the production only having meaning on opening night and during its run before an audience. The long rehearsal period is disguised, hidden from the audience and never referred to. The production might as well have been conjured into existence - often only judged successful if it appears to have arrived on stage at opening night fully formed with all evidence of rehearsal carefully disguised. Paradoxically, those weeks of curiosity, investigation, discovery, application, invention and crafting are validated only in terms of their invisibility in the performance at the end of it – that is, if the production is good then we will assume that the process was excellent and that’s all we need to know about it. This is not simply undervaluing the creative process – it is close to negating it. Of course, there is no real space in domesticating art practices to look at the aesthetics of artistic creation. If there were, audiences would be encouraged to buy tickets for the rehearsals. As it is in Ireland, they are almost universally banned from them.
Domesticating art is almost exclusively emotion-led. Its quality or value is determined often by its ability to ‘move people’ emotionally. Much of this art favours sentimentality – it offers the traditional, so-called Hollywood ending in favour of one that is more puzzling or complex. Emotion-led art aims to feed the consumers’ apparent need for instant gratification - it offers cheap thrills and calls them an ‘experience’.
Finally, domesticating art is usually state supported. It is easier for the state to support an art that encourages people to change themselves rather than support an art that encourages people to change society. It seems it is incumbent upon the state to support art that reflects the principles upon which the state operates. Mc Gonagle expresses this support comprehensively as follows:
The values of what I describe as signature culture, in short, artist as genius/producer and the public as consumer, as opposed to participatory culture flow through a powerful armature, has been buttressed by hierarchical memory and conservatism for generations, if not centuries. An imaginative and material conservatism which is characterised by a dislike of change but curiously also a dislike of the present. Nostalgia is a reflection of that conservatism and should play no part in thinking about future civil culture. All of our inheritances – social, political, economic and cultural have to be transformed
It should be noted at this point that in many cases, signature art does not always domesticate. A painting, song or novel can directly connect with the imagination of the participant in such a way that exposes colonising paradigms, behaviours, and situations and so help generate emancipation. However, emancipatory art practice is more commonly found on the fringes and margins of contemporary, urban art production. It is usually happening outside arts centres and auditoria, and very often in spaces not designed as theatres at all. This type of art practice can be termed ‘liberating.’
IV The Liberated Space
Liberating systems value inclusion and participation as central principles and often define themselves in opposition to the system from which they have been liberated. In the discourse around theatre we often find liberating theatre practices described as ‘community theatre’ to distinguish them from formal theatre practices. However, the term is not the most useful one to use when discussing liberating theatre because it disguises the notion that all theatre is, in fact, made and performed by and with a community. In this context therefore I choose to use the term participatory theatre, to indicate that the spect-actors are also co-creators of the art and its meaning.
Liberating practices can usefully be examined using the same eight characteristics (or their corollaries) as were used above in looking at domesticating arts. Again it is helpful to focus on one art-form, theatre, and to bear in mind that the same paradigms operate in education and community development.
Liberating theatre is anti-cathartic in that it doesn’t aim to purge the spect-actor of anti-social or negative feelings. Instead it values the idea that a person may retain feelings generated by the performance and leave the theatre very angry, upset, often enlightened, perturbed etc. Its aim is often to conscientize (Friere, 1972) the spect-actor, so that he or she will be motivated sufficiently to enact change within the system explored in the performance. Theatre that focuses exclusively on this aim is usually agit-prop (agitation / propaganda) and strongly ideologically motivated. Also known as guerrilla theatre, it is theatre that is used to make a political point, to stimulate debate or protest; performed in non-theatre spaces, without warning, engaging the audience in a political dialogue. Agit prop theatre traces its origins to popular political theatre in the 1920s and 30s, emerging in the former Soviet Union and spreading throughout the West, usually connected to local communist parties. Today, most practitioners of agit prop theatre are located in Asia and Africa. Known as theatre of liberation in the southern hemisphere, this form of art is most famously practised by PETA, a Filipino radical theatre company who have established a nationwide network of community theatre groups run by industrial workers, fisher people, peasants and students. This group were significantly active in the anti-Marcos protests in the 80s, helping to mobilise popular masses against the regime in Manila and elsewhere (Riley, 1996). Similarly, large collectives of theatre practitioners who fuse their political commitment with their artistic sensibilities are active in India (aligned to the Communist Party of India) and Tanzania (Riley, 1996).
Liberating theatre is creative rather than consumerist, in that it promotes the participatory model of audience as co-creator of meaning in performance. This can mean that the performance is enacted in such a manner that no spectacle, special effect, or deliberate directorial distraction is used to prevent the spect-actor from engaging as comprehensively as possible with the meaning of the piece. Often, special lighting or sound effects can subtly draw the audience’s attention away from the moment of engagement and prevent them from creating with the performers.
Theatre that promotes creativity promotes curiosity. It can be a form of participatory theatre where audience members ask questions; stop the performance to elucidate meaning; suggest alternatives; and offer their own stories as material for creating performance. Such a theatre is Augusto Boal’s ‘Forum Theatre’ method, in which the spect-actor strongly influences the development of the drama – to the extent that a performance may last for a whole day or longer (Boal. 1992:38). In this method the spect-actor is the audience member who steps on stage to intervene in the drama – usually to clarify a perception, rectify a character portrayal, or elucidate a meaning that is closer to their truth than the one being portrayed by the actor. The actor stands aside for the duration of the spect-actor’s intervention because he or she knows that something more profound is happening than the actor’s portrayal, however truthful, of the situation:
When an actor carries out an act of liberation, he or she does it in place of the spectator, and thus is, for the latter, a catharsis. But when a spect-actor carries out the same act on stage, he or she does it in the name of all the other spectators, and is thus for them not a catharsis but a dynamisation. It is not enough for a theatre to avoid catharsis – what is needed is theatre which produces dynamisation (Boal, 1992:35).
In Forum Theatre the desired dynamisation is the promotion of change in the social systems that oppress those not in the centres of power. It is the actions taken in order to achieve social justice.
Forum theatre methods are used more and more often in adult education and community development because they lend themselves especially well to generating debate about the learners’ identity. In almost all of my workshops with community groups we move to situations where we enact a piece of performance based loosely on the forum method. Obviously, there are a number of significant differences between this type of acting and what professionally trained actors do. However, the most significant difference is not one of quality or skill or technique. It is of artifice. A trained actor will go to considerable lengths to portray a father in a family drama and often the results will be impressive. The success of the portrayal will depend upon the level of suspension of disbelief of the spectator – we accept he is an actor and not in fact the father but we will be complicit with the actor in denying the truth of this situation. The actor will attempt to occlude this truth wherever possible (various rituals conspire to aid him in this – for example, he should not be seen in costume by the audience off the stage or prior to the performance; he should never forget his lines and visibly become an actor struggling to remember them, etc). With community groups of non-actors, a participant will stand up and, often unaware that there are traditions associated with this type of portrayal, will say ’Right. I’m the father.’ And he will turn and speak to the woman playing the daughter. He may turn back to us and say ‘Now I am not here.’ Or ‘And now I’m in the pub.’ By telling these ‘lies’ the participant is in fact achieving a rare honesty of presentation, and one that does not deploy the subtext of pretence associated with the professional theatre. In addition, there is such a boldness and frankness in the elucidation and portrayal of issues like depression, poverty, homelessness, joy, salvation etc that the audience is truly catapulted into a place where they can freely use their imaginations to consider the issues raised. They are not distracted by the knowledge that something else, something hidden, elusive and unspoken is going on. They know that no-one is trying to disguise the process from them and so they can focus exclusively on the content.
This method of presentation was developed by Berthold Brecht in the middle of the last century in his theatre – the characteristic he used that most closely resembles the one described above became known as ‘the alienation effect’ in which an audience was alienated from the pretence of what was going on. An audience was shown the lighting, the behind-the-scenes operation, the magicians at work, so that the mystery of its creation was removed and they could be free to use their intellects to engage with the issues presented.
Augusto Boal and British playwright, Edward Bond move the process to a further stage and encourage the audience to become involved in the imaginative creation of the meaning inspired by the performance. For them liberating theatre is imaginative in a way that domesticating theatre is not. American playwright John Guare has argued lucidly that in our culture imagination has become a byword for style. In his play, Six Degrees of Separation, he has his character Paul deliver the following speech:
The imagination has been so debased that imagination, being imaginative, rather than being the lynchpin of our existence now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops. 'What an imaginative summer recipe!' And Star Wars? 'So imaginative!' And Star Trek? 'So imaginative.' And Lord of the Rings, all those dwarfs? 'So imaginative...’ The imagination has moved out of the realm of being our link, our most personal link with our inner lives and the world outside that world, this world we share. What is schizophrenia but a horrifying state where what's in here doesn't match up with what's out there? Why has imagination become a synonym for style? I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us. Jung says, 'The greatest sin is to be unconscious.' [ … ] And it is the worst kind of yellowness to be so scared of yourself that you put blindfolds on rather than deal with yourself. To face ourselves - that's the hard thing. The imagination - that's God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable (Guare, 1994:42)
Edward Bond has also strongly championed the role of imagination in theatre, asserting that it is through the use of this faculty that we negotiate what it means to be human. Bond claims that we cannot ‘think’ our way into being (in the manner encouraged by Brecht), nor can we simply ‘feel’ our way – we must imagine it. This process of imagining is central to becoming human:
A child's world is meaningless, is presented to it without meaning. The child asks of its world all the basic questions such as why there is anything rather than nothing; how it is that we can act; why there are good and bad. Questions to which there are no answers, only the ramblings of sages (Stuart, 1998:25).
He goes on to argue that it is theatre, alone of all the arts, that has the power to create a site in which a person can understand, or come to terms with, his or her relationship to the world.
Drama involves the audience’s imagination and reason in story. It can make the story objective for the audience, give them unavoidable responsibility and choice. But now the institutions of drama are corrupt. The market almost monopolises drama. It saturates daily life with the brutality of common sense and the metaphysics of corruption […] It is not the creator’s –the writer’s – job to compromise: that is the job of manufacturers. We must be more radical. When manufacturers compromise they change our dreams; when creators do not compromise they change reality (Bond, 2000:160-1).
In this context ‘creators’ refers to audience, actors, writers, and all who helped make the performance. Each has a role in constructing meaning from the paradox presented in the drama. Each one ensures that the performance presents us with a dilemma, a situation in which traditional ideological formulae are no longer useful and cannot be applied to the resolution of the paradox. A play like Mark Ravenhill’s Handbag is an example of such a work. The central character, a young addict who wants to be a good father to his new born baby, needs to get money to feed his habit. All he has of value is his baby. All he wants is heroin. He has a terrible dilemma to face at the end of the play and he does not know how to resolve it. He is caught between extremities. We do not know how to resolve his situation either. He can only howl alone on stage as the lights go down, and let the audience carry the problem out of the theatre with them. In this context we are forced to imagine an altogether different set of possibilities: what would it have been like if oppressive social systems had not forced this character into a place from which he has no clear means of escape? What would it be like if he were to change the situation he found himself in by breaking the law? What would it be like if we did not attach so much importance to rewarding the behaviour patterns this character exhibited for society’s approval? In this imagining we are beginning to re-create alternative constructs of reality and of what it means to be human.
In drama imagination seeks the extreme situations which will take us to the limits of meaning which is where humanness is defined. It takes us into the extremity of the self. It seeks to show how people must finally come to the extreme situations in which they lose every illusion about themselves yet hold onto their humanness or suffer what follows when they know they have lost it because that is the only way they can hold on to it. The characters in the play – the actors and the audience – define themselves in their reactions to these extreme situations. It is only in this extremity that the radical need to be human is found and humanness created (Bond, 2000: 190-1).
This would indicate that liberating theatre is revolution orientated. The thematic drive is to open out, to connect and make networks, to explore and to take risks. In workshops with non-actors I have found that the group’s consumerist mentality and mode of being slowly gives way to a process characterised by a willingness to take risks. The risks may begin small and should be encouraged (indeed they should be built into the programme), starting perhaps with the risk of entering the space a second time with fresh eyes and choosing to invade the sacred space of the tutor, sit where one wishes, and make lots of noise. Children do this all the time – generally when they come to a big, open space indoors they run like calves into it and let their voices lift the roof. Adults, on the other hand, whisper and sometimes even lose their voices and they cagily creep about the edges fearful of trespassing. By ‘opening’ the space with a group, a facilitator or artist encourages the group to become child-like in using the space. Only then does it truly belong to the group and can they feel free to work in it. One of the simplest exercises that can reap great benefits is a vocal release one – encouraging the group to exercise vocal chords, use words and phrases at random, speak gibberish, shout and exclaim, in short, revolt against conditioned adult use of the voice. Mapping the development of how we use our voices from childhood to adulthood can reveal a lot about how we change from being active creators using all of our faculties and resources to becoming passive consumers using segregated senses and limited resources. For instance, one of the most common ways that those on a participatory drama project express their learning is by reference to their voice, as in “I found my voice again” or “I’ve never heard so-and-so speak until now.” Speaking up and speaking out are phrases associated with revolution, with challenging the authority of the centre.
That liberating art is participatory almost goes without saying. Participatory art involves the community in the creation of it, as creators of meaning (as described above) but also as creators of the product.
The core processes are, arguably, production, distribution, validation and participation. These processes we know, are not weighted equally within our society or indeed within western society as a whole. But it is participation which is most often minimised to the level of consumption in hierarchical, signature culture (McGonagle, 2002:19).
Many community art practices are erroneously considered to be participatory (in the liberating sense) simply because they occur in the community. Such practices are ones, for example, where an artist or group of artists come to a community with a blueprint for a project and a well honed set of skills. They recruit the schools, youth organisations and other community groups to assist in the manufacturing of the product, often during a series of unconnected workshops in which participants learn to produce an aspect of the overall project. All are brought together for the final showcase, the design and conception of which has been the prerogative of the artists since the project began. If handled very badly this process could in fact reproduce a highly capitalist version of art production with the artists as owner of the product and the participants as cheap labour. It must be noted that very often there are other, beneficial outcomes for a community in participating in such a project (networking; visible community pride; acquisition of art skills, etc) and these are to be encouraged. However, for the project to be truly liberating it should involve the community in every aspect of the conception, design, decision-making and creating.
Involving the community in this way is what is meant by process-led projects. Liberating theatre values process enormously. At one stage in his Polish Theatre Laboratory the famous director, Jerzy Grotowski, spent years working on rehearsal with no intention of performing the finished piece. For him, the journey of creating was immeasurably more valuable than the product created. In Ireland today many innovators of arts projects have a well-developed community development ethos and are happy to see a drama project last for several weeks without there ever having to be a performance at the end of it. Unfortunately, many funding agencies still require a terminal public production in order to validate the work that went on during the weeks before it.
Liberating art is often unfunded and rarely state supported – it must seek to find resources elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why participatory theatre is closely allied to community development and education. It is through community development agencies that a community theatre project receives whatever funding it might get, especially if it states that its aim is to enhance, develop and motivate the lives of its participants – particularly if its participants are from marginalized or disadvantaged backgrounds. The major outcome of this reliance on community development organisations for funding is that participatory theatre is in danger of becoming an adjunct of community development and seen only in this regard. There are, for example, many agencies who expect participatory theatre artists to also have the skills of counselling, care working, resource teaching and personal development motivation. I have been asked to develop drama projects with groups where the aim of the project is to distil some of the methods used in theatre creation for use in assertiveness training, conflict resolution courses, corporate teamwork development, and so on. The danger of complying with requests like these is that the art will be used as a kind of panacea in a structural-functionalist way to plaster over the political and civil unrest caused by domesticating systems. That is, that the domesticating centre will blunt the edges of the liberating methods and use them to bolster the centre’s oppression. There are several theatre organisations in Ireland who submit application forms for funding to ADMs, VECs, Youth Support Organisations, and regional partnership bodies because they know it is the only source of possible funding open them.
Art, like education, needs to be funded as substantially as we fund infrastructure, housing and health. It is through art, and most especially through theatre, that we can reclaim the spaces that have been colonised. To develop strategies for imagining, so that we can be free, is as important to the work of adult education and community development as it is to participatory arts practice.
Over the past ten years, the theatre company of which I am Artistic Director - Crooked House Theatre Company in Newbridge, Kildare - has facilitated several participatory theatre projects. Broadly speaking there have been four types of projects that fall into this category. The first is one where the aim of the project is to express and celebrate identity. That is, the participants wish to use theatre arts to express to the wider community who they are. An example would be a group taking part in a pageant or parade; or a group who stage a short performance that articulates the group’s raison detre or aim. The second type of project, often developing out of the first one, is where a group wishes to promote its concerns to a wider audience. It uses theatre to create situations in which the needs of the group are clearly seen. An example of this would be a project we facilitated with the Irish Wheelchair Association, in which the group made a drama that showed how they were prevented from using footpaths by careless drivers, how shop counters were too high, etc. A third project has been where a group begins, through its drama, to challenge civil society and the systems of power that support it. Usually the drama proposes alternative systems or radical change in the existing ones. An example of this was a project we developed with a group of health care workers who imagined and described a more just and accessible health system. Finally, a group may make and stage a theatre piece that explores aspects of humanity, articulates concerns about our construction of identity, and offers insights into possibilities of liberation. Most theatre of this kind is written and work-shopped over a long period of time, and then performed in a formal theatre setting before being toured. It is important to point out here that, in all these projects and workshops, emphasis is placed on the artform and on the acquisition by participants of the skills necessary to create the art.
Very often in our work we have assisted the same group through the four stages of this process and continue to do so. Many companies do this (Smashing Times in Dublin; Quare Hawks in Monaghan; Barnstorm in Kilkenny) and almost all youth theatres develop through the same stages. For example, Kildare Youth Theatre @ Crooked House in Newbridge is in its fourth year and is now touring, in Ireland and abroad, large scale plays that challenge notions of identity, gender and colonisation. The space in which this young company developed has been charged with learning. Not only do participants learn art skills, communication, leadership and teamwork skills, but more significantly, they learn how to use their imaginations in constructing meaning. They also learn how to negotiate their identity in partnership with the systems they are about to enter as young adults. For many of them they are eager to challenge and perhaps change the systems that they see as oppressive and to support the ones that they see as useful. They understand how they learn, what methods are useful in learning, and what the differences are between the acquisition of information and the generation of knowledge. This process is identical to the one that characterises liberating adult and community education practices, where a group manages its own learning and is an independent, learning organism as opposed to a dependent, information storage system.
Such groups – in education and in theatre – have successfully traversed the gap between the margins and the centre in such a manner that they are able to use the centre’s resources to shape their own humanity and without doing damage to those still on the periphery. This is the ultimate value to a society of investing in liberating practices. Instead of declaring and preserving a small space as sacred we aim to make all space sacred.
Artists are witnesses of their times: they should not impose on their public their own view of society, their own understanding of human beings, or their own way to make decisions, but, after speaking their speech, having their say, giving their testimony, delivering to us the product of their art and their craft, they should help others to stimulate inside themselves the artists that lie within, underdeveloped and timid as they may be, shy thoughts still unborn and fragmented, the delicate sensibility that has been blunted (Boal:2002:17)
V A Commotion in the Kitchen
Finally, a true story. As I wrote the lines above last night there was a group of ten women rehearsing a play downstairs in the staff kitchen of an urban arts centre. There was, then as most nights, no other space available to them in the centre and they considered themselves lucky to be within the building at all. They were all nervous because next week most of them will be performing on the studio stage for the first time. They were allocated a slot on a Sunday (when the building is not used) and at lunchtime (traditionally not a theatre time in Ireland). Their play is about how they deal with grief. It is also about what it would be like if they were in control of some of the resources they see around them in their community. The actor-director working with them is attempting to explore what would happen if they were allowed into the sacred space of the studio theatre. Last week she brought them in there to rehearse. They were uncomfortable. And excited. They thought they were in the building on their own, and soon they began to test out the nature of the space by sitting in the audience, by declaiming from the stage, and by investigating the materials around them. At length they began to rehearse their play on the stage. A short while into the rehearsal the door opened and someone looked in, checking to see if the space was being used. The group of women froze. After the person left, they became restless and unsettled. They expected to be thrown out at any minute. They said that for years they had not been allowed into sacred spaces like this and that it would take them a long while before they’d pluck up the courage to darken the doors of it voluntarily. At some level they expressed the idea that they had no right to be there, because they were conditioned for years to think of themselves as consumers (i.e. only as passive audience members). So they returned to the kitchen where they released their feelings of anxiety in laughter, made tea, joked and carried on their rehearsal. Their newfound sense of safety generated an increased output of energy within the group, and soon their voices were raised and active, busily inventing. They made such a noise that resident staff (management having a late evening meeting) in the upstairs offices were reluctant to go down into the kitchen. Vaguely aware of having been displaced by odd noises from the basement kitchen but not sure what they were, the staff finished their meeting a little earlier than was normal, left their cups and biscuits where they were instead of bringing them downstairs, and said their goodbyes to each other. And without giving it a second thought they locked the door, absent-mindedly switched off all the lights and took the short cut home. They left behind them ten women from the margins making art. Unaware that the domesticating centre was more afraid of them than they were of it. In a cubicle space of an office kitchen. Locked in. In the dark. Imagining.
(1) Mc Gonagle, Declan: ‘The City Arts Centre: It hasn’t gone away, you
know’ in Contexts: Arts and Practice in Ireland, Vol 1 (CAFE; Dublin; 2002)
(2) Ditto, pg 19
(3) Boal, Augusto: Games for Actors and Non-Actors, 2nd ed (Routledge:
London: 2002) pg 17
(4) Friere, Paulo: Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin)
(5) Riley, Dave: ‘The Politics of Performance’ in Green Left Weekly (1996:
online journal at www.greenleft.org.au/1996/246/246p28.htm)
(7) Boal, Augusto: Games for Actors and Non-Actors (Routledge: London:
1992) pg 38
(8) Ditto, pg 35.
(9) Guare, John: Six Degrees of Separation (Vintage: New York: 1994) pg 42
(10) Edward Bond: Letters 4
(11) Bond, Edward: The Hidden Plot: Notes on Theatre and the State
(Methuen: London: 2000) pp 160-61
(12) Ditto, pg 190-91
(13) Mc Gonagle, Declan: ‘The City Arts Centre: It hasn’t gone away,
you know’ in Contexts: Arts and Practice in Ireland, Vol 1 (CAFE; Dublin; 2002)
Ravenhill, Mark: Handbag (Methuen: London: 1998)
Heathcote, Dorothy and Bolton, Gavin: Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert Approach to Education (Heinemann: Portsmouth: 1995)
Boal, Augusto: Legislative Theatre – Using Performance to Make Politics (Routledge: London: 1998)
Grotowski, Jerzy: Towards a Poor Theatre (Methuen: London: 1968)
Brook, Peter: The Empty Space (Penguin: London: 1968)
The last five years in Ireland [1995 - 2000] has seen a phenomenal growth in community arts practice and also in the number of adult and community educators working in the country. In addition, on any given week-end there will be at least two job vacancies for project leaders, project co-ordinators and community education or arts workers in the Sunday papers. It looks as if this area is the fastest growing sector in Irish industry, helped in no small way by the influx of European capital funding to the country, and especially to the regions, over the past six years.
Taken together with the facts that there are now in excess of thirty (mostly new) arts centres in the country, and that training programmes in facilitation, community work and community arts are more numerous, it all paints a picture of a vibrant, socially-conscious and dynamic network of community development. This implies that there is a growing, equally dynamic and socially-conscious network of animateurs and facilitators at work in the field. This there is. And it is now more relevant than ever to stop and ask ourselves what exactly we are doing.
In workshops given since the early nineties to trainers in the adult and community education field, and to trainers in the community arts sector, I have asked participants to describe how they see themselves at work and to move towards a depiction of their vision of their role. The depiction is done visually by sculpting another participant into an image representing how they see themselves. By far the most popular image sculpted is that of a person standing, feet firmly grounded, head held high, with warm smile and wide, outstretched, inviting arms. It is an image full of energy, depicting the animated joy of working in what is perceived to be a loving and giving capacity. It reminds one of the Jesus of Rio, high over the city, arms inviting the populace to come and to be saved.
That such striking similarities occur between an essentially secular image and an overtly religious one, I feel, is not a co-incidence. It points to perhaps the greatest danger facing community artists and educators in our sector. Underpinning the philosophy behind the religious image is the notion that an individual has to make the great leap of faith and trust, and thereby place his or her possibility of redemption in the hands of a greater force than themselves, specifically a divine one. In adult education and in community arts there is much the same notion abroad, though it is not often articulated in such clear-cut terms, nor is it indeed even consciously felt. The self-image most commonly expressed by trainers is one inherent in which is the idea that they can empower, offer a form of salvation, redeem, or even cure and solve. And this vision is not limited to trainers alone. Funding agencies, project evaluators and project commissioning boards regularly judge a person's suitability for community development work by the extent to which the artist/trainer has managed to solve or cure a problem, or by their track record of empowering others in the past. The project is most usually deemed successful if the aims and objectives of the project organisers have been met. And in most cases that usually means evidence that a group has moved from one way of looking at themselves (their own) to another way (the project organisers'). Rarely do we stop and ask such fundamental questions as:
· How can I empower anyone other than myself?
· What does it mean to usher in a new concept of living and of self evaluation to a group who have not used this way of seeing before?
· What am I doing in the name of personal development? Is there implicit in my practice of personal development the idea that the person needs to be fixed or cured and that they are stuck in a bad or wrong place to begin with?
· How much of my work is designed to encourage the person to adapt themselves to society? (Solution: closed / product focused).
· Should my work be designed to encourage the person to adapt society to themselves? (Revolution: open-ended / process centred).
There is a real danger in community arts and in adult and community education that we, the practitioners, will end up the agents of a subtle colonising regime, working with love and compassion to mould Irish society into one model of Irishness - a liberal, middle-class, well schooled, dependent culture with values drawn from the well of ownership and property, and norms based solely on the idea of progression and success. That we follow models of practice which give importance to one form of behaviour over another is evidence of this. Drug related crime is only drug related crime from one particular point of view. From another point of view it is generating income. Unemployment can be seen as simply another phrase for not paying taxes. It doesn't necessarily mean not working, paid or otherwise.
There is no doubt, however, that there are marginalized communities and individuals in Irish society. There is no doubt that personal and community empowerment is a worthy ideal. It becomes a suspect and altogether different matter, however, when that empowerment is defined only in terms of removing the status of marginalisation by means of adapting to the wider community, and accepting the wider community's norms and values. I don't think there are many adult educators or community artists who would actually subscribe consciously to this philosophy. There are many though who unwittingly put it into practice. It becomes a problem when the educator/artist/ trainer imagines that they are 'empowering' when in fact they are not. And to be fair to ourselves, most of us do this in ignorance, operating with the best will and intentions in the world.
By giving so much of the self to work, by acting from what is thought to be love, the educator can become locked into the trap of creating a paralytic dependence in the heart of the learner, and so assist the forces, attitudes, systems and institutions which have already oppressed them. This is the least of the damage. It can be further compounded by the educator or artist forcibly leading the learner into a system which will instantly reject them once the educator/artist leaves and returns to 'save' another client. Such an instance occurred to me in my practice. I fuelled in unemployed adults the desire to go to college, filled out their forms, helped them through copious mock interviews, didn't listen and assured them they'd be fine when they said they wouldn't be. I even went so far as to promote a graduate lifestyle at the expense of other ones (explaining that doors would open, opportunities would flock, money could be made etc if you attained an academic qualification). The reason I did this was (a) it had happened to me, and (b) I thought I wanted for the best for them, and since this had been the best for me, it would surely benefit them. In other words, I became the Jesus of Rio, saying place your faith in me and the kingdom of third level shall be thine. They did. It wasn't. Most of them left after three months. Only those who could cope with the lifestyle and knew the language in which to operate came anywhere close to succeeding.
Reflecting upon this I realised I had encouraged enormous dependency amongst my students. By doing this I had neglected to stimulate independence. Encouraging independence can be frustrating for an artist/educator, especially if you come from a different background to the people with whom you work. They might want to remove you. Challenge you. Revolt against you and yours. It is almost always 'safer' to absorb them into your own world and let them make the best of it. And some of them will succeed brilliantly, thereby justifying your practice, methods, function and sense of self worth. Is it morally acceptable to use groups or individuals from backgrounds different to yours in order to make you feel good about yourself? Perhaps it is, if that's what your morality is. At the end of the day, one must always be honest.
The clearest example of empowerment gone wrong is often shown in the least remarkable acts and attitudes of group work. Take for example the various methods of introduction. Most projects start with the artist/educator arriving at the venue, hall or room in advance of the group. There they set it up according to what they think will best suit the particular activity planned. Most of us have long since moved away - in righteous horror - from the 'rows of desks and chairs pattern' of seating. We prefer today, in our enlightened ways, to form circles and remove barriers such as desks and tables. (I am regularly staggered by how Friere's complex notion of the culture circle has been sadly reduced to simply meaning the way one arranges one's chairs). We may even stimulate comfort by providing scented candles, cushions and background music. (If this sounds wildly exaggerated, I can vouch for the fact that not only have I experienced it but, sadly, I often used to practise it) All of this is an effort to make the group feel like they can relax and belong comfortably to this place, where in sessions from now they will begin to exercise their own empowerment. When the group arrives, they will almost always sit where seating is indicated and so, apparently, justify our arrangement.
However, in this activity, can be seen the actions of subtle and perhaps unintentional colonisation. We are arranging the geography of a place to suit our own vision and have not consulted firstly with those whom we seek to help. Often, a group arriving at a pre-ordered scene like this will move on automatic pilot into a role of subservient dependence. Implicit in the ordering of the place by the facilitator, no matter how enlightened, is the notion that they know best, thus reinforcing the Banking Model image of trainer/educator from which we are usually at pains to distance ourselves. It is better - and harder - by far, not to go near the room or venue and all arrive together. All enter together and all shape the environment together. If this means that the desks and chairs are aligned in force and that there is no sign at all of a circle well then so be it. This is the group's statement of where it sees itself. It can be challenged, of course. But it might remain.
In examples like this it is clear that colonisation is hardly ever obvious. If it were it would be easier to react to. Kevin Collins, in his remarkable analysis of cultural colonisation (The Cultural Conquest of Ireland) identifies five stages of colonisation. It is helpful to briefly describe them, because they become hugely pertinent when applied to education and community arts work. In talking about nations, Collins identifies the five stages as follows:
1. Physical Conquest: where the colonising nation subdues the native in a short and forceful campaign;
2. Inhibition: where the coloniser prohibits the native from expressing her/himself via their own customs, language and laws;
3. Dualism: where there is eventually a two tier society composed of a superior class (the coloniser) and an inferior class (the native);
4. Mimicry: where the native realises that the only way to survive in the new order is to adapt to it and so begins to mimic the codes and conventions of the coloniser, and
5. Alienation: where the native has become so far removed from his/her own culture and at the same time is never fully accepted into the coloniser's one that he/she is in a state of alienation.
I have found it useful to add another stage to this called Revival, where the native tries (at first in vain) to revive her own culture. They have usually come so far away from it that initial attempts are false and meaningless, being almost always defined in negative terms against the coloniser (e.g., not English). It is only when they incorporate their own present culture with that of the coloniser's that they can hope for some form of meaningful identity. It is tempting to view Ireland in the 1990's as arriving at a strong post colonial identity - whether this is the case or not remains to be seen.
The model outlined above is a very convenient framework for discussing any form of oppression. It can include material ranging from the concerns of feminism, to something as intimate as our own personal relationships - we have all been 'swept off our feet', have 'fallen' in love with someone forceful and vibrant. And we have all adapted ourselves, at some stage, to become more like the person who 'swept us off our feet'.
In an educational environment, the model draws attention to the ways in which we can colonise our students, groups, participants.
1. Physical Conquest: We might sail into a community or group full of enthusiasm and energy, brooking no objections to the difficulty of the project ahead, and effectively overpower the learner or group with our energy.
2. Inhibition: We could then inhibit the learner's expression by putting down their methods of seeing themselves and their ways of regulating their lives. Nothing, for instance, colonises quite as effectively as grammar, accent and speech. Rules and regulations regarding correct group procedure can often be used to inhibit. Favouring one person's ability, articulation etc over another's is also an effective method of inhibiting (in this case the person not being favoured).
3. Dualism: By promoting the lifestyle we lead, the attitude and moral values we hold, at the expense of those of the group we are putting into place a dualistic system. We often do this unconsciously. Working with offenders, people with addictions, the unemployed, etc. can place us into temptingly self righteous roles where we implicitly indicate that our value system and codes of behaviour are model ones and have kept us out of the kind of trouble they've found themselves in. This is particularly tempting for artists and educators who have never been offenders, addicts and unemployed (in the usual sense of the terms). Again, this kind of thinking is rooted in the philosophy that the people with whom we work have a problem which needs to be cured or fixed. If that is where we are coming from as educators, then naturally we will want to offer solutions.
4. Mimicry: Rewarding those who respond to our methods and promoting them as examples of model behaviour can often serve to instil mimicry.
5. Alienation: Leaving the learner/participant to cope on their own, in an area which we have assured them is safe to do so (but which isn't) can result in the learner feeling abandoned, and lost between two barely recognisable systems. A good example of this from the theatre is Willy Russell's play Educating Rita where Rita is not fully accepted into academia because she's the wrong age and at the same time she is viewed as a freak in the world she came from.
In arts work as in education, a long project can provide the moratorium for the participant to undergo enormous change. It is fairly critical that we facilitate independence of thought and action here so that the change, if it arises, is managed and developed within boundaries which the participant has established for themselves, and not ones which we have led them to believe are there. Most of us will not be around when the project is over and there is no use planning to be. This serves only to further encourage dependence.
Many arts workers and educators are well aware of the dangers outlined above. They have several years of practice where they learned the hard way to work from the bottom up, putting Friere's ideals into motion in a variety of astonishing work. One of the most interesting methods of combating the potential pitfalls of the Jesus of Rio Syndrome is the personalised learning systems, developed in France and being piloted in Ireland. Under the banner of Leonardo, the EU fund for training and development, the department of Education liased with Kildare VEC to pilot the personalised learning system in two Irish VTOS programmes. It is called the Made to Measure project and briefly, it focuses on (a) Finding Work in the Theatre: a personalised guide (Newbridge) and (b) Becoming Computer Literate and IT Fluent (Abbeyleix). Its partners are located in Finland, France and Italy.
A Personalised Learning System is one which provides materials for the students use in such a way that the learner can choose the method of learning best suited to their needs and advance at their own pace and their own level through it. Crucially, the tutor / community artist here is seen as another resource, albeit the most important resource (among others such as information technology, manuals, databases, other learners, etc). The educator's role is not a leading one, in the sense as depicted above. They are available to the learner as a resource when the learner feels that they need the tutor, and not the other way around. This does not imply that the educator / artist is as the learner's beck and call, however. In much the same way that many resources are not immediately available (the library may be closed, another user may be on the computer with the internet, etc) so neither is the tutor always immediately available. He or she works to a given timetable and is available during those period for consultation whenever the need arises. Artists and workers in less structured environments have being doing this for years, moving, for example, from painter to painter when the need arises. So too, after a fashion, have Montessori teachers and community development workers. There is a certain amount of intervention required, especially when the educator or artist senses a learner is having difficulty attending programmes, workshops or projects. In these cases the question asked by the personalised learning system is 'How can we change the programme or project to personalise it to your needs?' rather than 'why can't you try a little harder to be active on this programme?'.
The programme of work is agreed with the learner before the project commences and reviewed periodically by both. The system is used in education to encourage the development of equality of relationship between all those involved and to encourage independence at all stages of the work. The greatest difficulty facing the artist or educator is accepting the fact that they will not be needed in the same capacity as they are needed in other systems. And ultimately, realising that they have succeeded when they are not needed at all. It is a form of educational anarchy (the system which teaches best is the system which teaches least).
If we are to deal adequately with the challenges facing us in the growth of the community arts, community development and adult education sectors today, we have to begin to put into place systems of learning and of working which are focused not on solving problems but on assisting revolution. Realising that we can not empower others, whether we are using arts or training, is critical to our development of the sector. For years, the community arts movement has been stating the primacy of process over product, and emphasising the importance of individual growth according to individual's own yard-stick. Getting in the way of this is the promotion of the model that we are here primarily to redress societal ills, shorten the dole queues, rehabilitate offenders and addicts, and make our society a better place in which to live by the fixing the wrong-doers. Personalised Learning Systems ask us to focus instead on changing the system and leaving the learner alone, pretty much as they are, to learn, within the new system.
However, assisting revolution is always difficult. The place where it will get the least amount of support is from the State. Experience the way state funding is divided between community arts practice and professional arts practice in Ireland to see how strongly the balance is weighed against revolution. It is refreshing therefore to see state support for Personalised Learning systems such as the Made to Measure project. Jesus of Rio is, for a change, taking a leap of faith into the arms of the people.
Peter Hussey is Artistic Director of Crooked House Theatre Company. He is also an adult and community educator, working with NUI Maynooth, Kildare VEC and freelance around the country. He specialises in community theatre and creative methods of facilitation.
Collins, Kevin: The Cultural Conquest of Ireland Mercier Press: Cork: 1990
Boal, Augusto: Games for Actors and Non-actors Routldge: London: 1992
Brook, Peter: There Are No Secrets: thoughts on acting and theatre Methuen: London; 1993
Cairns, David and Richards, Shaun: Writing Ireland: colonialism, nationalism and
Manchester University Press: 1988
An Chomhairle Ealaíon Views of Theatre in Ireland 1995: report of the Arts Council Theatre Review
CAFÉ 'Café News' Vol ii No 7: December 1998
Thursday, April 30, 2009
The kind of theatre that we practice with our young performers in Kildare Youth Theatre, and with our young groups as part of Crooked House’s Outreach programme, is sometimes known as ‘process drama’. In it we explore participants' attitudes, experiences and senses of self through the rehearsal and devising process. Instead of simply getting lines to learn for a part in a play, a young person must create the whole part themselves (with our help and guidance). They draw on their experiences, personality traits, knowledge of themselves and of society, and their attitude and observations in order to create the part. This is done through discussion and through various rehearsal techniques. It takes time but is invariably worth it as the young person has complete creative control and owns the ‘part’ as a valid, imaginative expression of their own.
Nothing about this process is unfamiliar to the acting profession - this is generally what we do for a living. However, the process may be unfamiliar to non-actors and this is why I am attempting to detail it a little here.
We have found that this type of drama practice combats depression particularly well. It also assists hugely in alleviating feelings of isolation and estrangement, and it builds high self esteem. In our practice over the past 15 years we have discovered that it also effectively acts as a measure for suicide prevention. It does this by developing key skills and aptitudes in the participants that contribute to positive mental well-being. Some of these skills and abilities are regarded as key deficiencies in young people with suicidal tendencies. The particular ones developed by theatre are:
- The ability to channel impulsive behaviour. Many suicide attempts result from, among other factors, a strong impulsive action taken by the young person often under the influence of drink or drugs. These impulsive actions regularly come about because feelings have been bottled up or repressed for years. In our drama practice we encourage the expression and channelling of impulsive reactions and behaviour. We show how to harness and use spontaneity and instant expression. Young people are encouraged to use their feelings and impulses to create improvised and devised performances in safe and encouraging surroundings. They become accustomed to channelling sudden feelings, strong reactions, responses to external stimuli, etc in a way that is healthy and non-aggressive.
- Taking control over ones’ life. Our research has shown that young people today generally don’t feel that they have a lot of control over their daily routines and lives (they are collected and dropped off by parents, school is very structured, their evenings are set and established etc). In theatre they have to make their own characters, performances, and expressions – all from scratch. They must be in control of the process themselves. For many this is difficult – they will constantly ask “What do you want me to do?” or they will regularly seek permission to do some action or reaction on stage. Eventually they learn to be independent and to gain control and ownership over the process of making something. This sense of control spills over into their lives and assists them in taking charge of other processes like career choice, life choices and emotional responses.
- Collaboration and teamwork. Young people learn almost immediately how to give and take, collaborate, compromise and grow, and work together. Often it is in the drama workshop environment that they first encounter this life-skill, as much of their unregulated time is spent alone with video games, in their bedroom, or silently receptive to TV and cinema. The collaboration in youth theatre builds very strong friendships and opportunities for engagement with others.
- Creating, not consuming. The key skill in process drama is teaching the young people how to be active creators (of meaning, of identity, and of viewpoint) as opposed to being passive consumers of opinion, of culture and of commodities. Instead of listening and watching the opinions of others (in the media, in the schoolbooks, in the video games) they have to create meaning from a blank canvas – there are no models to follow, no guidelines other than you must get up and create a situation, a character, an opinion, a point-of-view. The dramas we create are all expressions of their concerns, their attitudes, and their points-of-view. This facility helps them have a critical engagement with the world around them; to name their concerns, joys and interests; and to formulate their own opinions.
- Active Citizenship. This drama encourages the young people to look twice at everything. They need to be sharp and observant when creating realistic scenarios and realistic character types. This stimulates an interest in their surroundings, which is then channelled into making a drama about their concerns and issues. Many young people then go on to become involved in organisations and work that help create a more just and equal society. Their political engagement is stronger and they take a very active interest in political issues.
- Accessing the Imagination. Nothing beats theatre when it comes to opening up people’s imagination. It is the principal quality of drama. Young people are natural creators – but they need a safe and stimulating environment in which to be imaginative. We help them use their imaginations to solve problems, to imagine different sides to a complex argument, to imagine alternatives to set ideologies. An imaginative young person is someone who will not become trapped in a problem or find something too heavy a burden to bear.
- Using information. The drama we practice with young people helps them to access and use information – as opposed to simply ignore it, or be overwhelmed by it. Many young people ask for permission to do something rather than find out for themselves if it would be a good or bad thing to do. Process drama requires them to gather all kinds of information in every moment, and to act on the information they gathered. The information is usually about the other person acting with them, the environment they are in, the context of their situation and scenario, the likely outcomes of saying or doing something. This is an essential skill in problem solving, and in dealing with unwelcome situations in life.
There are many other qualities in process drama that assist in suicide prevention (eg leadership skills, having fun and being stimulated etc).
In many of our other projects with young people the idea of suicide prevention is to the fore of the project – that is, we address issues like depression and help people identify resources that can help them. An example is a project we are currently working on called Life Force with Blue Drum in Dublin. But with Kildare Youth Theatre we do not explicitly state that this is a suicide prevention project. Instead we trust that the processes described above will work in such a way that a young person in KYT will benefit from it and be able to see their lives differently, and in a more positive light.
It irritaes me becasue the art addresses the interests of no-one except the artist; it cosnsists of the expression of small and inconsequential ideas - usually those that any half-rate, amateur psychology student would consider banal: eg "I'm interested to see what happens when you decompose things. Gosh! Maybe even relationships decompose!" or "Let's invite people to write down what they fear and stick it in yellow post-its on a door maked Room 101" or "Let's make a performance using the way people rush to work in the morning" etc. In theatre this trend is manifested in the production of pieces comprised of empty, [often] site-specific installation-cum-performance efforts, which are to be applauded merely for the fact that they got off the ground in the first place, and for the novelty in their creation, rather than their ambition, ideas or aesthetics.
I do feel that this art is the product of a settled, spoilt, mentality; one that was brought up in comfort and ease; a mentality that has never had to encounter spirit-stimulating experiences or engage in life-challenging ideas. Sadly, the artists in question are very often the generation aged between 18 and 35 - the very generation that one hopes will produce challenging, fascinating, rebellious, intelligent and provocative agents of change. We have done a disservice to this generation is not allowing them to solve problems on their own; not encouraging them to experiment and to fail; preventing them from taking risks; and disinclining them to be independent thinkers and actors. Their 'art' is often a product of this safe, complacent mentality that cannot engage with anything or anyone outside of their own immediate world. It is almost always confessional (not a bad thing if there are interesting ideas to 'confess' but dreadfully dull if your confessions are banal); derivitive (compelling if you use the original as an inspiration for further critique, but wasteful if you do no more than shift the context); facetious (scintillating in the hands of a satirist but annoying otherwise); and repetitive.
Urban arts centres and fringe theatre festivals seem to condone nothing but this practice. It would be astonishing if the art housed and produced in the country’s arts centres were meaningul and engaging. But for that to happen it would need to be curated by people who possess two essential skills - imagination and intelligence. Imaginative people will make something exciting happen. Intelligent people will make sure everyone is involved. The absence of these qulities in an arts administrator usually results in policies that say nothing; practices that arise from a fear of difference; actions that are inspired by an over-riding desire to control; and an attidude of arrogance and contempt. All of which is compunded by cliquish thinking, exclusionist ideas, and an unwillingness to learn from the artists who are supported by the administrators.