work in progress
Leading on from thinking about representation, we’ve been discussing the issues around authenticity and truth in community theatre performances. When talking about how realistic a performance is, we might want to pause to consider what is underpinning our idea of accuracy and realism: what kind of “truth” do we find in a performance which is “true to life”?
There are a number of different kinds of “truth” which we are used to navigating in our lives, such as scientific truth (identifying facts and causes), emotional truth (recognising what we feel), creative or artistic truth (when an artwork produces a powerful affirming response in an audience), truth to ourselves (when we don’t let ourselves be used or ignored by others). Some of these are objective and testable (scientific truth), others intensely subjective and personal (emotional truth) and some are the result of people’s joint responses.
When it comes to telling the stories of particular groups, as community theatre projects often do, the performance can have a powerful effect in presenting group feelings as well as facts. To quote the historian Miri Rubin, cultural works can ask not only ‘How it really was’ but rather ‘How was it for him, or her, or them?’” (1) Rubin’s comment acknowledges that events and experiences, whether they took place yesterday or a hundred years ago, are partly made up of subjective kinds of truth. When community theatre practitioners work with groups whose voices often go unheard – in a prison, a women’s refuge or an ex-mining village – they can help explore the different truths which are overlooked by TV news or government reports. The stories which emerge can feel more genuine, more authentic, than the official histories or media coverage.
This is not an uncontroversial idea, however. When communities tell stories about the past, particularly about previous generations, they are sometimes accused of trafficking in communal myths and group heritage. The historian David Lowenthal distrusts the idea that communities can claim specific versions of the past as true for them, and not for other people. According to him, heritage “uses historical traces and tells historical tales, but these tales and traces are stitched into fables that are open neither to critical analysis nor to comparative scrutiny.” (2) Lowenthal is troubled by the fact that groups can claim stories from the past as exclusively theirs, and use that to exclude others. He would deny the suggestion that any account of the past can be more authentic because it is told by a member of a community (whether national, religious or ethnic) whose previous members were involved in the events recounted.
On the other side of the argument is the attitude outlined by Stephan Palmié when discussing the ways African-Americans recounted stories about slavery in the 1980s. Those stories about slavery made it into the “inalienable possession of descendants of its victims, and as a lasting moral debt on the side of its direct perpetrators or indirect beneficiaries”: the past is imagined as something which must be claimed and owned by people who are still disadvantaged by it in the present.(3) The African-American writer Palmié discusses might feel that Lowenthal’s emphasis on accuracy and the availability of evidence to be tested is quibbling in the face of massive historical injustices which continue into modern life.
These questions of what makes a story authentic, and what kinds of truth it may reveal, have obvious bearing on the work of community theatre practitioners. We all have the “right” to tell our own stories, but what about the people who feature in those stories? How can we do them justice? When we talk about the past, when is it fair to identify ourselves with people who were previously members of our community – whether because they were from the same area, the same faith group or had similar experiences? And what happens when people within a community believe contradictory things about the past? Does the story of a pit village belong to those who remember the mines proudly as part of their heritage, or those who are glad their children will never work in them? Who does the story of the miners’ strikes “belong” to? We’re keen to hear how these issues affect your work.
(1) Miri Rubin, ‘What is cultural history now?”, in David Cannadine ed., “What Is History Now?” (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) p.81
(2) David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge University Press, 1998) p.120
(3) Stephan Palmié, ‘Slavery, Historicism and the Poverty of Memorialization’, in Susannah Radstone and Bill Scwarz, eds., Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates (Fordham University Press, 2010) p.368