work in progress
We might define community theatre as theatre made by and intended for, members of a community. Of course the ways it is made, and the ways the community have input, differ depending on the situation. They might include:
• a play drawing on the heritage and memories of a particular region or industrial site
• performances from the street culture and experiences of young people
• drama workshops around particular issues in prisons
• performances exploring women’s experiences from a feminist perspective
A number of different models and definitions have been offered in recent years in an attempt to get to grips with what makes it distinctive (1). It has been described as an attempt to build another way of life within modern culture (Kershaw) and a theatre which “asks for an audience that is open to change” (Kuppers and Robinson). These definitions claim that community theatre can challenge the values of our society. By foregrounding the importance of people and their experiences, community theatre might be able to tell stories which the media usually ignores, and demonstrate the value of those stories. Young people in urban areas might be given the chance to show themselves as creative and worthwhile, or offenders have an opportunity to explore their positive potential outside the label which has been applied to them.
One definition, which struck us as particularly interesting, comes from Helen Nicholson. She uses the phrase “applied theatre” as “a shorthand to describe forms of dramatic activity that primarily exist outside conventional mainstream theatre institutions, and which are specifically intended to benefit individuals, communities and societies” (2). She lists “drama education and theatre in education, theatre in health education, theatre for development, theatre in prisons, community theatre, heritage theatre and reminiscence theatre” as falling under the “applied” label – all of which clearly draw on different sources for different purposes. But they all share, in Judith Ackroyd’s words, “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”(3). Nicholson suggests that “The idea that theatre has the potential to ‘address something beyond the form itself’ suggests that applied drama is primarily concerned with developing new possibilities for everyday living rather than segregating theatre-going from other aspects of life”(4).
Again, those “new possibilities” will vary depending on the kinds of theatre, but it seems a helpful way to think about what they share. Those possibilities could take in a variety of intentions and impacts, such as:
• Theatre in prisons looking to find new possibilities for offenders in the way they see themselves and deal with problems. (Such as Geese Theatre’s mask work.)
• Heritage theatre helping people celebrate the history and memories of their area, building a narrative about the place and people. (Such as Hanby and Barrett’s A Lifetime Guarantee)
• Exploring the conflicting forces at work in and upon a faith community. (Such as New Perspectives’ Entertaining Angels)
Identifying the different modes within which community theatre takes place can help us distinguish between the different kinds of input they need from their participants, and the different ways we might think about evaluating them. They do seem to share a common interest in the way theatre can have an effect beyond itself, and how theatre could be brought closer to everyday life.
Do you think these definitions provide a useful way of thinking about community theatre? Do they make sense or do they miss out on crucial aspects? What do you think community theatre is, and what can it do?
(1) e.g. Petra Kuppers and Gwen Robinson, ‘General Introduction” in The Community Performance Reader (London: Routledge, 2007): pp.1-8; Helen Nicholson, Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005): 2. ; Baz Kershaw, ‘Performance, Community, Culture’ in Kuppers and Robinson, Reader, pp. 77-96;
(2) Helen Nicholson, Applied Drama: The Gift of Theatre (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005): 2.
(3) cited in Nicholson, Applied: 3.
(4) Nicholson, Applied: 4.