Anything is possible

By Chris Creighton Kelly, September 2013

Some of the most innovative theatre involves an interactive collaboration between artist and community.

What am I doing? Here is a clue. I am in a mall. I am walking in a labyrinth with eight strangers. We encounter some people sitting at a large table with a generous portion of cherry tomatoes on it. Before we have a chance to taste one, a man with a mask starts to eat them all for himself.

We continue into the labyrinth. We meet a woman on a bench with a shadow image behind her. She is talking about the loss of Aboriginal women who have disappeared, many of whom have been murdered. The shadow image moves slowly, poignantly. She tries to touch the person creating the shadow. She reaches out her arm: the screen bulges a little bit but still blocks her, yet somehow their bodies seem to touch. Two realities, two world views make a tentative gesture towards a respectful connection.  A delicate, visually arresting moment.

We carry on. We come upon three women sitting. In hushed tones, in groups of two or three, they tell us stories. They are not speaking English, but somehow, through vocal tonalities, gestures and a bare minimum of props, they communicate meaning. In Arabic. In what I think is Portuguese. In Korean. We smile at the end of each telling.

What am I doing? Here is another clue. Before we move on from each tableau, we have been asked to wait for a specific sound, a sonic cue, created by tiny pebbles in a tube. The tube kutcha-katchas slowly, resonating a bit like falling rain. It is our signal to walk to the next vignette.

All in all, there are 30-plus folks “performing”—not on a stage, but rather in short, successive scenes. Audience members have to move from one spot to another, deeper into the labyrinth, in order to experience the piece.

What am I doing? I am at a performance of From the Heart—Enter Into the Journey of Reconciliation. It is a piece of community theatre, directed by Will Weigler. He was inspired by Paulette Regan’s book, Unsettling the Settler Within. Regan urges non-Aboriginals to examine the accepted history of Canada and challenge what she calls “the cherished national myth” of Europeans as benevolent peacemakers. Weigler has taken on the tough challenge of adapting these “examinations” into theatre.

From the Heart was a summer time hit in a huge empty space (vacated by Best Buy) at the Uptown mall in Saanich. Hundreds of shows, starting at the beginning of the labyrinth, every 20 minutes, eventually resulting in sold-out houses. 

Weigler worked with over a hundred volunteers, some with theatre experience, most without. Together they delved into the issues that became important to them as they grappled with their individual complicity in Canada’s fraught Aboriginal/settler relationship. From their readings, from their understandings, from their listening to Aboriginal leaders, slowly the basis for a theatre work emerged.

Weigler sees this work not as an appropriation, but rather as “an investment in a particular community.” He states, “I am hoping that the impact will be to open up dialogue in multiple layers among people who live in Victoria and ultimately...create a model that can be done across Canada in other communities.”

On one hand, an ad hoc volunteer community with their knowledge; on the other hand, a skilled, experienced theatre practitioner—each bringing something to the creative table. “No!” says Weigler. “That is a common conception of how community theatre is constructed. But I find that this formula is too reduced, too clichéd. Community members need to feel like equal partners—they need a common language.”

He prefers to strive for this common language—rather than a complementary skill set—so that each participant is equipped with the same methodology, working to create the piece together. Weigler has developed a series of cards, each with a different staging strategy, that aggregates into his overall technique for building community theatre.

Oh yeah, community theatre. What exactly is that? Well, how much time do you have? 

And I do not want to be too prescriptive. To decide that there is only one definitive answer to “what is community theatre?” would be disrespectful to the global network of theatre practitioners—many of whom are Canadians. They strive themselves to distill the varied methodologies and definitions into something both potent and productive, something that they can find useful. 

I will start with taking certain perspectives off the table, reducing the definition cacophony. Certain activities are not constructively described as community theatre. Let’s imagine a dialectical line. On one end, we have the position, “Well, all theatre, even Shakespeare, is made by a community—a writer, actors, a director, set designers, a production manager, all theatre people—so theatre is always made by a community.”

This kind of argument reminds me of folks who tell me there is no racism because there is only one human race, therefore racism cannot technically exist. A kind of perverse tautology. I do not find a definition of community theatre as “all theatre that is created” to be very illuminating.

At the other end of the line, I have heard “Well, community theatre is when a community creates without any hierarchy, without theatre experience, without any involvement of professional artists.” Of course, this does happen. For example, I immediately think of activities that surround political demonstrations. Sometimes creative; sometimes propaganda; sometimes even creative propaganda. A kind of neo-agitprop? Maybe.

Community theatre? No, not really.

Then there are the dedicated—usually unpaid—folks who (re)produce The Pirates of Penzance or Death of a Salesman or Les Misérables in school auditoriums, community centres and church basements when there is no professional theatre company in town. The impulse to make theatre does come from a community; the content does not.

I want to be clear that I do not disparage any of these activities. Obviously, mainstream theatre productions, whether professional or not, are a critical part of the theatre ecology. Likewise agitprop—nothing is more boring than a protest with just speeches!

So, these are a few notions of what community theatre is not. But what is it? 

Do professional artists need to be involved? Laurie McGauley, activist and community arts consultant emphasizes the notion of collaboration:

Artists who collect stories, images, dance gestures from non-artist communities to then feed and inspire their own individual artwork start us down the slippery slope outside the realm of artist/community collaboration. At the other end, we have artists entering communities with the intention to teach them something, whether it be art or self-esteem. (There)...lies a more interactive collaboration: when the artist is giving and taking with the community. It is this exchange, this engaged dialogue that is producing some of the most intriguing and moving art in this country...the concept of ‘ethical space’ “when anything is possible at the outset.” In artist and community collaborations, this sense that ‘anything is possible’ will be part of the experience for all the participants, not just the artist. 

Next month, I will explore this way of looking with two distinguished women who live in Victoria—Lina De Guevara and Paula Jardine. Both are artists who have devoted their life to this type of aesthetic collaboration, to this kind of community engagement, to the discovery of this “ethical space.”

Please stay tuned. 

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is the co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today.