work in progress
Building from the definition we offered of community theatre as “theatre made by, and intended for, members of a community”, there are questions to be raised about the dynamic between performance and audience.
In the last few decades, writing around theatre has increasingly emphasized the role audiences play in making theatrical meaning. We see this from the relatively technical analysis of theatre semiotics, which declares that “every spectator’s interpretation…is in effect a new construction of it” to the broader concerns of performance studies, which explores the connections between theatrical spectatorship and other kinds of “seeing” in our culture. (1)
Scholars tend to agree that a performance onstage can only achieve its full meaning in the presence of an audience which understands enough about what the performance is trying to express, and the means it uses to express it. An audience which only understood the conventions of ballet would have a hard time appreciating a murder mystery, for example. Or a group of tourists might enjoy a kabuki performance on a trip to Japan, without actually understanding much about the form or what that particular performance meant.
Community theatre takes this involvement in the making of meaning one step further, deliberately blurring the lines between the performers and the audience. Whether the “community” in question is a rural town, a prison or a faith group, community theatre carries a sense that the performers are speaking for, as well as speaking to, the audience. This may be literally the case in memory-based pieces, where those on stage are speaking lines which have been edited and collected from interviews with local people, who have then attended the show. Or it may be more broadly true in pieces exploring issues which many in the audience will encounter in their own lives, such as local unemployment, domestic violence or racial tensions. This may help to shift attitudes away from the feeling that theatre and the arts are something which are presented to communities, and towards the idea that they are activities carried out by the community themselves: rooted in shared understandings and actively created rather than passively consumed.
This feeling of identity between the audience, the performers, and the story being told is crucial to the impacts the play may have. Performing similar pieces to different communities will obviously have different effects, depending upon whether the audience feels they have a connection with what is taking place onstage. For example the play Fallout and the verbatim theatre piece The Colour of Justice both centred around the murders of young black men in London, in the aftermath of the deaths of Damilola Taylor and Stephen Lawrence respectively. Whilst Fallout was performed at the Royal Court Theatre in front of the regular clientele of a consciously progressive niche theatre, The Colour of Justice was staged at the Tricycle, which noticed a larger proportion of young black people in its audience than was usual. Mary Luckhurst suggests that the second play provided the opportunity for a collective act of witnessing, in which parts of a particular community came together to recognise and remember what had taken place. The focus, as she noted, was not on convincing people or changing their minds, but on this collective activity of gathering and witnessing. (2)
Blurring the lines between performers and audience can allow the production to draw on shared knowledge and feelings about the world, such as knowledge of local stories or feelings which are more likely to be understood by those who have been through similar and difficult experiences. It can also help us attend to the various different ways in which audiences engage with a performance, and the different forms of theatrical meaning which result. They might be celebrating a shared identity, remembering a past tragedy, honouring their heritage or examining joint experiences. Does this perspective fit with your experiences of community theatre? How do you understand the blurring between audience and performers?
(1) Keir Elam, quoted in Simon Shepherd and Mick Walis, Drama/ Theatre/ Performance Abingdon: Routledge, 2004. p.238. For more on theatre semiotics, see Elaine Aston and George Savona, Theatre as Sign System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance Abingdon, Routledge, 1991; for a more performance studies approach, see Susan Bennett, Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception Abingdon: Routledge 1997.
(2) Mary Luckhurst, “Verbatim Theatre, Media Relations and Ethics” p.208, in Mary Luckhurst and Nadine Holdsworth, eds., A Concise Companion to Contemporary British and Irish Drama Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. pp.200-222.