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is ‘recognition’ a useful idea for community theatre?

We have observed and documented the ways in which community members make decisions during conversations with community theatre practitioners about how much they should say about their lives, how much they should reveal. They almost seem to be deciding whether the theatre practitioner can be trusted. We wonder what goes on to make the community member decide to ‘open up’.

And, one of the things that we saw frequently when we have been researching live community performances concerns the ways in which people respond when they see their stories re-presented back to them in artistic form. Even if the story is not exactly as they told it, but is a version of it, they almost always respond as if something of the essence of what they have talked about has been successfully captured. They don’t leave the performance moaning about how ‘they got it wrong’ but rather leave talking animatedly to others, using the performance as a way of re-remembering the events and others like them.

The capacity to successfully carry out the kind of communicative and artistic interpretation that community members enjoy and remember is of course down to the skillful work of the community theatre practitioner – empathy, astute observation, careful listening, good recording and then the artistic work itself. This is where we think that the demands of community theatre and research practice are very similar.

But these things are interesting from the point of view of evaluation too. We know from our conversations with community members that the take-up of their stories – indeed their lives – is something that can be very important to them. Indeed, one of the members of a women’s group who worked with Hanby and Barrett in all of their Bilborough productions has said that she wants the production film made about the women’s group to be shown at her funeral!

We wonder what is going on here.

The concept that seems most to capture what we think we have seen is that of recognition, as used in the writings of Nancy Fraser (Fraser, 1995, 1997, 2000).

Fraser argues that one of the ways in which people are marginalized and discriminated against is if their identities, languages, choices and ways of life are mis-recognized. This misrecognition then turns into active discrimination and injustice. The current case of gay marriage for example is one in which the claims of a particular group of people are culturally denied, are not recognized. They are legally prevented from participating in a social institution and a very common practice.

Fraser argues that a politics of recognition works for justice as a parity of participation – that is the right to participate in society on an equal footing with others. She says:

“According to the norm [of parity of participation], justice requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers. For participatory parity to be possible, I claim, at least two conditions must be satisfied. First, the distribution of material resources must be such as to ensure participants’ independence and “voice.” I call this the objective condition of participatory parity. … the second condition requires that institutional patterns of cultural value express equal respect for all participants and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social parity. This I shall call the intersubjective condition of participatory parity. … neither burdening them with excessive ascribed “difference” or by failing to acknowledge their distinctiveness.”(Fraser & Honneth, 2003, p. p 36)

We suspect that community theatre does at least some of these things. There is certainly something going on about respect and voice. We know that many of the community members who participate in community theatre do not experience parity of participation in their everyday interactions with for example, school, the health service and housing authorities. We know that some come from neighbourhoods which are spoken about in media and government reports as if they are feral and feckless, or quaint relics of a bygone age or simply unimportant places where ‘nothing happens’. We know from our own and other research that they are often fed up with other people making decisions for them and speaking for them. We know from our own and other research that they often feel that their versions of events do not warrant attention and that the attention they do get is sometimes stigmatizing or misleading.

Our hunch is that the ways in which people interact within the frames of community theatre might offer some redress to this lack of parity. We have seen that community theatre can provide moments and spaces in which stories of everyday life can be told and be valued and respected and held in esteem equal to any other life story. We wonder if recognition via parity of participation is one of the processes which leads to community members saying they have valued the experience of participation and of being an audience member, that they have ‘got something out of it’.

We ask ourselves and you if recognition is a helpful idea to pursue in thinking about formative evaluation. And we wonder how something as ephemeral as the moments of recognition we have observed might be recorded in a meaningful way.

Is this an idea that rings true to you?

Fraser, Nancy. (1995). Politics, culture and the public sphere: Toward a postmodern conception. In L. Nicholson & S. Seidman (Eds.), Social postmodernism. Beyond identity politics (pp. 287-312). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fraser, Nancy. (1997). Justice interruptus. Critical reflections on the “postsocialist” condition. London: Routledge.
Fraser, Nancy. (2000). Rethinking recognition. New Left Review, 3(May-June), 1- 9: Accessed September 2, 2005.
Fraser, Nancy, & Honneth, Axel. (2003). Redistribtion or recognition: A political-philosophical exchange. London: Verso.

Note: We are aware that there are vigorous scholarly debates about the notion of recognition and that Fraser’s is not the only version of the idea. However, we are drawn to her interpretation because of the connections she makes with participation.


One comment on “is ‘recognition’ a useful idea for community theatre?

  1. Pingback: questions of representation « performing impact

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This entry was posted on September 9, 2012 by in audience, heritage, identity, Nancy Fraser, parity, participation, recognition, site and tagged , , , , , .

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