A rehearsal for real life

By Chris Creighton Kelly, October 2013

Community theatre transforms us and reinforces our connectedness.

So where were we? Oh yeah, trying to figure out what community theatre is. In the September edition I looked at one example of community theatre and others that were not true examples. I concluded with a quote from Laurie McGrady that emphasized the notion of an interactive collaboration between artists and community that gives rise to “ethical space.” 

Academic and theatre critic Baz Kershaw describes community theatre a bit differently—and broadly— as “an attempt to build another way of life within modern culture.” In theatre professor Judith Ackroyd’s words, it reveals “a belief in the power of the theatre form to address something beyond the form itself…to inform, to cleanse, to unify, to instruct, to raise awareness.”

Rather than striving for one unique definition, I want to mention some significant trends in contemporary arts practice which circulate around community theatre. These trends do shed some light. They are less a definition than a location, more of a confluence of influences, the place where the rivers converge.

My limited research is in no way intended to be exhaustive. These trends are: Popular Theatre; Cultural Democracy; Community Cultural Development (CCD); Non-Traditional Venues; Relational Aesthetics and Social Media Practices. 

The point of naming them is to suggest various ways that help us to understand community theatre in today’s context. I was reminded of these trends in conversations with two distinguished Victoria artists—Lina de Guevara and Paula Jardine. 

I asked Lina, founder and artistic director (emeritus) of Victoria’s Puente Theatre about her work. “I have been influenced by the popular theatre movement. I had a need to tell my own story as an immigrant woman from Chile who came to Canada,” she told me. Popular Theatre describes a type of theatre that is deliberately social, often political, in nature. There are popular theatre groups all over the planet. 

Lina continued: “So I worked with other immigrant Latina women who had no theatre experience, even though they had poetry in their background. I had no choice, really. We had to express ourselves in our new country; our work became a rehearsal for real life.”  

Lina’s experience illustrates the notion of Cultural Democracy. This is a way of conceptualizing art and culture as a human right. It promotes cultural/racial diversity in the arts as it advocates for every citizen to have both access and active participation in community cultural life. Cultural Democracy is often contrasted with the Democratization of Culture which tries to make the cultural “classics” more available to more people.

I wondered if her art—clearly about social change—actually changed society. Her response was, “I am not sure if I can change society, but my work does change individuals.” She compassionately told me a story about a women who had bravely left her violent partner after being inspired by one of Lina’s productions. “In that way, the work does change communities—what communities talk and think about.” 

Lina’s passion about communities is also an outstanding example of Community Cultural Development (CCD). CCD encourages various artistic activities that give communities the opportunity to tell their stories, to build their creative skills and to be active participants in the development of their own culture. It usually includes collaborations between communities and artists. Lina continued, “Augusto Boal once said, ‘If you need change, do it!’ Sometimes the simple act of storytelling can lead to change.” 

Lina spoke about that critical juncture where theatre professionals and community members meet, the ethical space where anything is possible. She suggested, “Art is not only made by artists. In community theatre creation, it could be everybody’s experience, not just the artist’s.”

But could a community be exploited in that ethical space? Lina responded assertively, “No, that is absurd. If a community feels exploited, they will leave; they will simply not participate. After all, you are not paying them to be there. They are there because they want to be. In any case,” she concluded, with wonder in her voice, “a community involved with theatre is a transformative thing. That is why we do it.”

Transformative. Also an essential word in the vocabulary of Paula Jardine, founder and artistic director (emeritus) of Public Dreams, whose work in her words, “incorporates elements of celebration, landscape, poetry, lanterns, parades, music and fire.” She has been working her out-of-doors, theatre magic in Victoria during the last decade. 

Paula works with non-traditional venues—parks, cemeteries, empty urban lots. For community theatre, sometimes the non-trad venue comes with the gig—church basements, community centres, even people’s homes; sometimes it is more deliberately chosen—a back alley, a river bank, a bike path. 

I asked Paula that same question about ethical space. “I do my work to be in relationship, to find relationship with others. I understand my role as a conduit, as a collaborator—in a way, as a facilitator. There is a sacred, transformative aspect to this work. 

Paula was indirectly speaking about Relational Aesthetics which take, as a theoretical and practical point of departure, the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than a single artist working in a private space. Relational Aesthetics is a provocative movement based in the visual arts but it also inflects community theatre when audience members/participants help to “invent” the piece. She adds, “You know, I feel a responsibility to honour everybody who is a participant. I do not feel comfortable branding my work as The Paula Jardine Show.”

She talked about her original impetus, “to get into community theatre through ritual and tradition…we are so hungry for these in our society. They reinforce our ‘connectedness’ to each other as people; to our ancestors; to the land.” I am reminded that many Aboriginal artists also emphasize these three elements of connectedness.

Paula continued, “My work is not about making money. I am trying to reclaim a kind of village culture in a contemporary world. Trying to tap into Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious using art as public performance.”

Of course, Social Media Practices are changing the very manner in which we imagine the collective unconscious, in which we rework notions of community. Media and visual artists are all over this, using the internet as a global means of creation, production and distribution of artworks—sometimes all three are achieved with the same mouse click. 

Paula wound up by elaborating a story that begins so many art workshops. “A new participant starts by saying, ‘I am not creative.’ They kind of sabotage themselves before they begin. So I try two different strategies. First, I find what they are good at—say a carpenter—but then use these skills in a different way—say to make a fantastical, larger-than-life dress! Or secondly, I completely change it up. The carpenter becomes a dancer. People are often amazed at what they can do, at what they did not know about themselves.”

So, there it is. Some things are not community theatre; but community theatre can still be many things, with an abundance of trends and tributaries flowing into its river. 

One of those things could be a pathway—which we create together—that unearths “what we do not know about ourselves.” One could even say, a discovery that is transformative.

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.