Lyn Gardner: Theatre with, not for, local communities is the way forward

Ayesha Dharker and Chris Clarke in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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At the Engage conference in Hull at the end of November, Arts Council England’s deputy chief executive Simon Mellor indicated that Arts Council strategy is likely to move from “great art for everyone” to “great art with every-one”. His words are especially significant as he is leading on the development of ACE’s 10-year strategy from 2020.

This is a long overdue shift and one that reflects not just the changing times but also changing practice. I was at a conference at Battersea Arts Centre some years ago, when Artichoke’s Helen Marriage talked about approaching the Arts Council over 30 years ago to get funding for a participatory project involving more than 400 people. She was told “that there is no place for amateurs in ACE-funded work”.

Increasingly there is, and theatre is a better place for it. I’m a massive admirer of Ruth Mackenzie, but I’m not entirely convinced by her assertion in The Stage last week that the UK still doesn’t “realise that culture binds people together”.

Theatre du Chatelet artistic director Ruth Mackenzie: ‘The UK doesn’t realise that culture binds communities together’


The government may not, and its assault upon the arts in the education system is but one sure sign of that, but artists and those running our funding bodies and theatres increasingly do. And those that don’t will end up making themselves obsolete.

As BAC’s David Jubb observed in the wake of Brexit: “Our country is crying out for a narrative that brings people together and for a way of working together that unites us, not divides us. People are tired of the same old same old and are looking for a fresh approach that taps into their own creative ideas and makes that change, rather than waiting for change to arrive. People who work in culture have easy access, and a level of expertise, to one of the most powerful ways of bringing people together and making positive change: our shared creativity.”

That means enabling everyone to be creative, not just the chosen few who – for reasons of background, access to training and opportunity – get a chance to make theatre. It will also mean looking not just at excellence of artistic quality (a highly disputed idea) but also prioritising excellence of engagement.

Making theatre with non-professionals doesn’t diminish the role of the artist but gives it new purpose. It follows that if art embraces the community and is part of everyday lives, then the community will embrace art, and fight for it when it is under threat. We live in the 21st century, but many of the notions about the way art is funded perpetuates 19th-century tropes that see artists as apart from society rather than an integral part of it.

Instead of putting the artist on a pedestal, it is much more fruitful to recognise the value of the citizen performer, as companies such as Slung Low do.

Erica Whyman’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in which amateur casts from around the country played the Mechanicals alongside the professional cast – was not diminished by those amateurs but enhanced by them. Not just in terms of what that production meant to audiences in the towns and cities where it toured, but also artistically.

I totally understand the desire of unions such as Equity to protect their members’ rights and pay packets, but they also have to respond – and urgently – to a changing landscape. There is a world of difference between a theatre saving on professional actors’ salaries by using a community cast (and such instances should be called out) and a production that puts the community, its needs and the stories it wants to tell about itself at its very heart.

This celebration of the citizen artist is the idea behind the remarkable 64 Million Artists Project, which invites everybody in the UK to do something new and embrace their own creativity (even if it is just singing in the shower).

Then there are the equally remarkable Fun Palaces that pop up all over the country every October, inspired by Joan Littlewood’s belief in “the genius in every person”, whatever their age, background and life experience. Fun Palaces are based on the simple and elegant idea that local people curating local projects for other local people is a very good model for creating art and sharing it.

As Fun Palaces co-founder Stella Duffy says: “We do not bring in world-class orchestras to work with Fun Palaces. We couldn’t afford to even if we wanted to – and we don’t want to. The expert simply reinforces the idea that the artist is ‘other’. The local person, on the other hand – perhaps not well known, or known at all, but expertly and compellingly enthusiastic – is a role model who says: ‘I am from here, I am like you and that means that you can do it too.” The local enthusiast, rather than the flown-in expert, underlines the possibility that we can all be creative.”

Hear, hear. Theatre with, not theatre for, is the way forward.