Matt Trueman: Outreach theatre is finally coming of age

Turning a Little Further was a direct response to a production of Happy Days at the Young Vic. Photo: Helen Murray Turning a Little Further was a direct response to a production of Happy Days at the Young Vic. Photo: Helen Murray
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In the Young Vic’s Clare studio, about 30 women are on stage dancing. None of them are professional performers. They’re carers, all of them. Some are young, some old, some black, some white. Some are full-time carers, some part-time, but all of them are unpaid, save for a weekly carer’s allowance of £61.35, and all of them live locally. Today, all of them are dancing on stage at the Young Vic under a burst of golden confetti.

Their dancing isn’t particularly polished. The choreography is simple and the execution is rough round the edges, a little syncopated here and there. There’s the odd misstep and the occasional missed beat. It is not, in other words, what you’d ordinarily expect from a theatre like the Young Vic, where world-class artists and actors routinely tread the boards. In the main space, next door, Janie Dee, Dominic Rowan and Ashley Zhangazha are performing Eugene O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness!

Well, hurrah for that, I say. For too long, participation and outreach work has been deemed distinct – secondary, even – to a theatre’s main programme of work. It has been self-contained and kept separate: managed by its own administrative teams, conducted by specialists and held at one remove from the work the public gets to see.

That is changing. Participatory work is becoming increasingly integrated. More and more, you’ll find it presented in-house, alongside professional shows, not simply as an added extra or an aside, as something that happens elsewhere, in local communities or behind closed doors.

Each year, the Young Vic runs a series of parallel productions, in which non-professionals make work in response to its main stage shows. The carers performing in the Clare had seen Natalie Abrahami’s production of Happy Days next door. Made with the director Laura Keefe, Turning a Little Further likened their day-to-day experiences, always tied down by their responsibilities, to Winnie’s situation, buried up to her neck in sand. They ran through all the things that kept them going – their own happy days.

Sometimes these productions are simply a matter of handing the same material over to others, meaning that the Young Vic ran two concurrent versions of The Scottsboro Boys and A Streetcar Named Desire last year, with pros and with young people. Elsewhere, it might be a new play written in tandem, as with Anna Beecher’s The Surplus, which jumped off from Golem. In each case, the end result is a piece of art in its own right, playing on a Young Vic stage.

Carers, instead of professional performers, created a piece that represented their ‘happy days’. Photo: Helen Murray
Carers, instead of professional performers, created a piece that represented their ‘happy days’. Photo: Helen Murray

The National has a similar response to Light Shining in Buckinghamshire programmed in the Dorfman this month, while its temporary theatre is hosting Islington Community Theatre in July. The Sheffield Crucible is working with Slung Low on a large-scale community show Camelot: The Shining City that will deploy a cast of 150 around the city centre, while in Manchester, Home will use a community chorus in its production of the Oresteia, as National Theatre Wales did for its Mother Courage in Merthyr Tydfil Labour Club.

All this represents newfound joined-up thinking. “It’s more than creating a show with carers,” Imogen Brodie director of Taking Part at the Young Vic, says of Turning a Little Further. “It’s more than Happy Days existing here on its own. It’s actually a dialogue between those two things. How do the plays that we present here connect to people in a really profound way?”

Outreach departments blossomed under New Labour. In order to increase arts funding, the Blair government relied on an instrumentalist argument, pushing the arts to prove their social worth. Widening access became an end in itself, rightly so, but it also left a schism at the heart of many organisations: art on the one hand, outreach on the other.

“Funders and the organisations they funded had a choice,” writes Robert Hewison in Cultural Capital, his book about arts policy since New Labour came to power. “They could expand their current programmes and adopt new ones aimed at ‘outreach,’ or they could fundamentally change the way they worked. For the most part, they preferred the former course.”

In other words, while outreach departments upped the inclusivity stats, doing their thing in isolation, artists reaped the benefit of additional funding and largely carried on as they were – a case of never the twain shall meet. However, by the time coalition cuts came into play, that left outreach departments isolated and vulnerable. In 2012, after losing its local authority funding, Hampstead Theatre dropped its creative learning department.

Belatedly, the two are being woven together – ironically in part as a result of funding cuts, both in theatre and beyond it. Theatres are becoming increasingly conscious of their civic role, as well as their artistic one, and squishing outreach and output together recognises both.

Only last week Battersea Arts Centre announced its new mission – no longer ‘to invent the future of theatre’, but a more rounded, community-focused aim.

“Our definition of theatre and what it can achieve has become much broader,” wrote artistic director David Jubb. “Battersea Arts Centre’s new mission recognises that we not only make theatre but that we use it to create change. It recognises that we are not only an arts organisation, we are also a learning organisation and a social change organisation.”

All this is good for everyone concerned. It takes participation seriously, placing it more on a par with professional work and bringing participants into an organisation, rather than going out to them. It makes for a genuine exchange and it becomes an invitation. It lets participants feel better able to come back.

Brodie tells me a story about a young man waiting to see The Scottsboro Boys in the West End. A man asked him why he’d come. “It’s my theatre,” he replied. The man was David Lan, the Young Vic’s artistic director.

There’s a tendency to think of outreach work as being of lesser quality, as something worth shielding from audiences (or maybe shielding audiences from it?) However, the reality is that it works to an entirely alternative set of standards, with a different balance between process and product, between participants and audience.

However, for a good process to happen it still needs to aspire towards quality. Bringing the results in-house, presenting them as such, can only be a good thing. Besides, audiences are also increasingly used to seeing real life on stage, be it verbatim or Rimini Protokol-style testimonial work.

It works for emerging artists, too, as a showcase for young directors and designers, who get an opportunity to work in-house at a major venue without the usual pressures of a paying audience. It’s a particular challenge for them as well, since working with non-professionals requires a different skillset and clarity of communication.

Ethically, too, one’s practice shifts – in a way that could, over time, have far-reaching consequences. Working with participants requires an additional level of care in the rehearsal room, but it can also instil theatremakers with a wider sense of purpose, one that runs beyond their own emergence and development.

That can only bode well for the theatre of tomorrow. The more central we make participation, the more we embed theatres (and theatre) into community, the more necessary the art form becomes.