work in progress
Memory studies has been a potent strand of work in a number of academic disciplines ranging across the arts and social sciences of late. It is worth pausing to consider the possible applications of that research to community arts projects and contexts. Community theatre, often almost by default, engages with memory in a range of way. Individuals and groups are frequently invited to share a sense of the past, personal or historical, through workshopping or listening post engagements (1); and that sense of the past, as we see in the Site, Space and Place blog, is often intimately connected to space and place. Consciously or unconsciously, then, community theatre projects frequently mobilise Pierre Nora’s influential formulation of places as ‘sites of memory’(2).
One of the questions our project hopes to explore through extensive dialogue with practitioners is how the processes of enquiry that these acts of memory take in the rehearsal or workshop space – the all-important acts of remembering, reconstructing, learning, sharing that groups collaborating on community theatre either as subjects, participants, performers or audiences undertake – are documented, recorded and preserved. And, in turn, how the ‘impact’ of these individual or collective acts of memory might be measured.
Firstly, there is the deceptively simply distinction between individual versus collective memory in these exercises (3). To what extent do people’s memories get shaped and reconfigured (and sometimes distorted) by the collective method and does this matter? Is ‘authenticity’ at any rate the aim or is the multiplicity of memories that might be available to a particular project and the selection from that multiplicity a necessary part of the creative process? Mythic memory may prove as persuasive and compelling in a theatrical context as known ‘fact’; but should the archive be able to distinguish between these categories in any meaningful way?
One point of consideration in examining the impact of any performance-making project within communities is the very practice sense of how memories are mobilised and shared.
In some instances memory is a highly materialised concept. Participants and collaborators might bring meaningful objects and artefacts to the group to facilitate the storytelling element of the work; conversely, practitioners might choose to use certain objects and their ‘biographies’ to spark off certain kinds of discussion or practical work in the rehearsal space (4). How do we preserve the impact of these stages of work when measuring or analysing impact?
Embodied memory may be a particularly strong element of collective remembering when working with communities of labour and practice: the ‘muscle memory’ of steelworkers in Stoke on Trent that enabled the choreography of particular scenes in the Peter Cheeseman, New Vic Theatre documentary drama Fight for Shelton Bar for example. How does the corporeal act of remembering get recorded in impact evaluations?
A number of our blogs have already asked questions around the differentiation between short-term and long-term impact of community theatre projects and we are really interested in finding out from our collaborators examples of where the afterlife and reanimation of community theatre projects has been an active part of the process or where the re-engagement of participants in other projects has been part of the post-event analysis.
Welsh director/researcher Mike Pearson has written suggestively about a conscious act of return to the site of the staging of a particular community arts project in Aberystwyth, PAX, which was staged at the town’s railway station by the Brith Gof in 1991 and which entailed the direct involvement and contribution of railway station company members. The process of remembering the performance became in this instance an important activity for the participants and collaborators not only in the (ongoing) recovery of the site and its meanings but also the ongoing effects and impacts of the performance process and the relentless passage of time. The performance is not fixed in aspic, and the material surroundings themselves alter: ‘the station concourse is now a bar, the platform an antique shop […] There is no pretence at restaging here, but the energetic recollection of that which was once feasible may inspire other initiatives in challenged circumstances’(5).
Site-specific productions may, then, seek to ‘story’ places and spaces into being in a range of sometimes conflicting ways, but if the story-telling and story-making does not end with the production itself to what extent can projects seek to measure and evaluate the engagement with memory across time that their work has enabled? Is there intrinsic value in building in conscious activities of ‘return’ to site in to projects of this kind?
(1) See http://www.opus.org.uk/lstngpst.htm [last accessed 16.8.2012].
(2) Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de Memoires (Paris: Gallimard, 1997).
(3) Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory ed. and trans. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
(4) I am invoking here Arjun Appadurai’s notion of the ‘social life of things’, that objects have ‘careers’ or biographies that we can chart; see Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
(5) Mike Pearson, Site-Specific Performance (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), p. 194.