performing impact

work in progress

can community theatre ‘empower’?

The idea of empowerment is often used in conjunction with community arts. This post is concerned with both the multiple meanings attached to the term ‘empowerment’, and with its actual practical possibilities.

We are particularly interested in ‘community theatre’, which typically involves amateur, community performers who may or may not make contributions to the creation of a script. We are interested in what they get from their involvement as well as what audiences get from their performances and what happens to the people and to the records of productions when they have finished.

Our reading of the literatures around community arts suggests that empowerment can be used variously to mean:
1. a space in which individuals and/or groups can develop a sense of optimism, identity and agency. How these groups deploy or apply these new attitudes and competencies is, however, often beyond the life of the arts project(s) to map or measure.
2. support for individuals to discuss and explore their social conditions – for example, discrimination and oppression. Performance is then frequently used as a means or vehicle of representing these concerns to an audience.
3. a performance that either represents or stages the concerns of an existing social movement, or functions as the means to bring together a social movement. The audience is integral to this goal and there is frequently an expectation that cooperative social action will continue after the project has finished.

From our reading of the literatures, we sometimes see that 2 and 3 are regarded as somewhat superior to 1. In other words, a priority appears to be placed on politically oriented community arts rather than that with more social/cultural aims. Yet all community arts projects – and community theatre – are not all in the same kinds of contexts and they are not all measurable in the same way. We are asking through this project how appropriate it is to create a hierarchy of approval between work which for example celebrates a heritage museum and aims to educate people about it, and work which serves a distinctive population with well developed political frames of action.

We have read some work which criticizes the philosophical basis of the very idea of ‘empowerment’ (e.g. Ellsworth, 1989; Gore, 1993). This work raises a number of questions including:
• What happens when government agencies appropriate the notion of empowerment?
• Is focusing on community participants and their actions avoiding looking at the real problem of where social and economic power actually lies?
• Is it possible for one person to ‘give power’ to another, or must power be taken?
• Is it perpetuating unequal power relations if middle class arts practitioners decide that they know what is best for marginalized communities and all they need to do is to wake up to their oppressions?
• Is there something fundamentally patronizing about ‘me’ doing something for you, if you haven’t asked for it?

We wonder if the problem with the idea of empowerment isn’t also a more practical political one of promising what cannot be delivered in short time frames. We then also think about some of the ethics involved in activities that aim to empower vulnerable others. We ask ourselves, would it be unethical to get a bunch of young people stirred up, encourage then to try to take social action, only to see them disappointed or worse still punished in some way for their action?

But of course there are already groups that are concerned with power and politics and questions of empowerment are on their agendas. There are significant social movements in the UK – around the environment, gay rights and capitalism more generally (Occupy) for example – as well as trade unions. But it seems that much community theatre practice does not connect with them. Is this a function of funding or of desire we wonder? And is it even a problem?

We notice that there is now some writing which suggests that community arts can do a great deal to form ‘little publics’, that is, small groups which operate democratically and collaboratively (e.g. Fine, 2012; Hickey-Moody, 2012 in press). This literature suggests that, if it is difficult and a very long term project to make society as a whole more democratic, it might still be achieved in small groups. And, if these groups were multiplied, then social life in general would be more democratic in a kind of ‘beyond government’ way. Proponents of this view suggest that it is possible to raise important political, moral and cultural questions in little democratic groups in ways that are now almost impossible at a national or local government level.

We are very keen to hear what you think about these issues. What do you think about empowerment? Is it possible? Desirable? What do you think ought to be the social and political role of community theatre?

Ellsworth, Elizabeth. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Education Review, 59(3), 297 – 324.
Fine, Gary Alan. (2012). Tiny publics. A theory of group action and culture. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Gore, Jennifer. (1993). The struggle for pedagogies. Critical and feminist discourses as regimes of truth. New York: Routledge.
Hickey-Moody, Anna. (2012 in press). Youth, arts and education. Reassembling subjectivity through affect. London: Routledge.


One comment on “can community theatre ‘empower’?

  1. Peter Matthews
    August 16, 2012

    Interesting post and I often grapple with these issues myself. On the issue of empowerment, I often find the criticisms of empowerment as depressing as the poor outcomes of “empowerment” activities themselves, particularly because, from a pragmatist standpoint, they don’t deliver a better outcome – criticism for criticism’s sake.

    There’s also, for me, a lot unexplored in what empowerment “feels” like, as opposed to whether people are “empowered”, something I explored in my doctoral research and wrote up here:

    I think if community theatre can be part of this process of making people “feel” empowered (rather than overturning global capitalism and leading to true empowerment, perhaps?) then this is ethically right, and it should continue, no matter if it being “done” by people from a different social class. I also find Sennett’s book “Respect” talks to this debate in a very informed and useful way.

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This entry was posted on August 16, 2012 by in democracy, empowerment, tiny publics and tagged , , .

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