I have been invited occasionally to present or write papers about the broad area of Community Engaged theatre – or Irish theatre in general. A list of these papers (2004 – 2010) appears at the bottom of this page. Directly below is a paper called
“Aesthetics in Applied Theatre”,
delivered at the Citizenship and Applied Theatre conference at NYU in 2010. (abridged)
Author’s Note: While I was invited to speak at NYU in early 2010 as an independent practitioner, this paper was written and delivered while I was still immersed in my work with Upstate and it therefore references that work. I am grateful to Upstate for their support in the re-publishing of the paper here in 2011, and I should acknowledge that certain of the views it contains are my own and not necessarily those of the Upstate Theatre Project.
(Like Queen Elizabeth and President Obama on their 2011 visits to Ireland, and like many a canny Irish public speaker before me, I used a few words of Irish to open the presentation . DG)
now read on…
… I have just expressed my pleasure at being here today and my thanks to some old friends for having me, in one of a great array of languages now in daily use on the streets of my home country Ireland. The language I used is Gaelige or Irish, the surviving minority daily language of certain communities in the West of Ireland. Much more common on our streets are English, of course, Polish, Yoruba, Congolese, Chinese and Portuguese to name but a few. Twenty years ago there were two languages in use. Today there are over ninety. Fifteen years ago there were daily shootings and bombings in the North of my country. Today we are at peace. Ten years ago the Irish economy was held up as a model of rapid expansion and success. Today it is a model of shame and ridicule having been derailed by corruption and greed.
This is the news from a country in extreme flux. In this paper, I am going to touch upon the role that my colleagues and I at Upstate Theatre Project have tried to play in this ferment of good and ill – and to seek to draw from our very culturally-specific, local researches in the field of Community-Engaged theatre some universal lessons that I hope will be of interest to you here in the United States and in the many other societies represented at this forum.
I am working on the assumption that nobody in this room is in doubt about the positive social and educational potential of the smorgasbord of practice that we call Applied Theatre. While we are a culturally and internationally diverse gathering with many individual approaches and nuances to our work, we are drawn to this particular forum this weekend – I assume – by our shared belief in the power of drama to transform.
This is therefore already an unusual setting for me.
At home in Ireland, largely separated from this community of practice, I often find myself having to advocate for this area of work among people who are either ignorant or sceptical of it. When I speak at theatre conferences (often indignantly from the floor!) it is occasionally to challenge academics or critics who blithely exclude this kind of work from their lofty discourses about contemporary drama. In other cases, when I am among trade unionists, human rights campaigners, social funding agencies and so on, I am sometimes called upon to explain that drama can be a transformative agent in their endeavours and not just a social night out in a suit.
So it is lovely to be here among the largely converted, and it is good today not to have to convince anyone of the VALUE or the VALUES of this community-engaged or so-called Applied Theatre work. But perhaps instead to invite a dialogue about the nature of that value and also about aesthetics in this art practice, and to dare to name those two words in one breath. Value and Aesthetic. Oddly enough, sometimes when I have been among a certain cadre of activist who do believe in and practice Applied Theatre, I find myself a little dismayed by the absence of an aesthetic discourse. As though to care about art, to care about form and structure and beauty is somehow wrong when you are dealing with people whose lives have been scarred by violence or poverty or marginalisaton or just sheer ordinariness – or where the institutional objectives are narrowly defined in classic educational or social development terms.
Upstate Theatre Project was founded initially to explore the interface between art and progressive social values. We always described our quest first and foremost as an artistic one, immediately affirming that no-one has a monopoly on dreaming, on creativity. Culture and cultural expression are rights – and as with most rights, those who enjoy them carry with them responsibilities. We have worked with communities time and again for whom the adventure of entering a theatre workshop, of dreaming up an image or narrative from nowhere, of progressing this to a stage performance, is a novelty. There has usually been no tradition of this. We are there because through whatever brokerage process these people have asserted their right to make art and to make sense of the world around them through art and we have been invited in to be part of that journey. Once in, we have never shied from insisting on our shared responsibility – we as trained artists, them as participant artists – to make art of the highest possible standards, whatever that might mean in these given circumstances. – to make art that is enquiring, new, beautiful and spiritually transformative in ways that other rehabilitative ‘instruments’, such as sport, economic supports, health and wellbeing programs and so on may not.
This is not to create a hierarchy that places art and theatre above (or indeed below) other approaches to community development. But to acknowledge that art – even in the midst of life as community art is, even in the grey prison, even in the dark warzone – has its own special illuminating quality and deserves to be brilliant – or – because life can be defined as a series of frustrating compromises punctuated by joyful moments of breakthrough – as brilliant as we can make it today.
The time and place of Upstate’s work as I said is unique and it is impossible to speak of the work without some reference to the culturally specific context I have already named. The end of a dirty war, the boom and now the recession, the influx of migrants. We established in 1997, one year before the Good Friday Agreement which enabled the end of the Northern Ireland conflict and which represents to me one of the rare triumphs of mainstream democratic politics in modern Ireland. That agreement brilliantly redefines the thorny issue of citizenship for Irish people declaring in international law the right of the disputing parties to claim Irish or British citizenship or both. Sadly, a few years later, Irish citizens in the Republic of Ireland voted in a referendum to narrow the definition of citizenship, not to exclude their Northern brethren, but to exclude the immigrant parents of certain children born in Ireland, a minority who had previously been allowed citizenship. It is important as we proceed this weekend, I believe to delineate clearly between Augusto Boal’s metaphysical definition of the citizen as a global activist and the narrow constitutional notion of national citizenship which is one of the most exclusive clubs in the Western world.
For our first 10 years, we were funded in equal measure by the Arts Council, the statutory body charged with funding the arts in Ireland, and the Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, a finite European Union programme intended to stimulate normal society in the post-conflict era in Northern Ireland and in the six small counties of the Republic of Ireland that make up that mythical no-man’s land we call the Border Region, and which we playfully renamed as Upstate Ireland, borrowing an exotic and evocative geo-political term from this country. Our programmes initially focussed strongly on peace-building.
In more recent times, as uneasy peace descended and the war receded in the consciousness, we shifted our focus to two new strands: interculturalism and urban youth – aware of the increasing low-level racism in the households and on the streets, and of the ever-widening gulf between a puffed-up nouveau riche and political elite and an increasingly alienated edge-city youth, duped into consumerism and denied true cultural right of expression. Again, in this second phase, a high percentage of the finance we raised to match the Arts Council’s arts-based support, came from social funding agencies with limited knowledge of the arts but sufficiently credulous of the arguments set out in our funding narratives to take a risk on us. Too often, the funders have tended to require that we solve the social and political problems of generations within six months, and that we devise a utilitarian curriculum that could be evaluated to demonstrate quantitatively how we were reducing racial prejudice or crime levels. We of course asked ‘How High?’ and jumped through these hoops, indicating in our contracts that we could and would meet these occasionally absurd standards. We are after all creative people. However, we were never dishonest. Deep down, based on career long experience, we knew we could in fact make a difference – just not one that can readily be quantified.
On the ground, of course, we then alter the language and bend the rules. Our only rule in fact is that you leave your baggage at the door – especially if it contains a gun. If the funding was offered on foot of your being perceived as a victim, a disadvantaged person or indeed a trouble-maker, we are not going to exacerbate that perception (or even self-perception) by taking it as our starting point. Come into the room and dream. Dream of a different world – maybe a better one. We therefore almost never pursue what is referred to as an ‘issue-based’ agenda or programme. We pursue a creative program. An artistic quest, if you don’t mind. The fact is that the issues will inevitably follow you into the room in due course anyway. But why let them lead when they can just as easily follow?
What I mean is this. The issues of class, race, gender, ability and so on are part of the political backdrop which – dare to say it – defines us because it dictates to us. Politics is part of life. We inherit our labels, we absorb them, we resist them, we embrace them. They are as real as the trees and the houses. So we cannot lock them out of the creative, imaginative process any more than we could lock them out of life itself. But we do not start with them. As artists, surely we can see more in the criminal than his or her criminality; more in the victim than his or her victimhood. Who wants to be defined as a victim or a destroyer when a good, first two-hour drama workshop can already allow you to reimagine yourself as a winner and a maker?
And when the issues do come in, they come in on our terms. I don’t mean my terms. I mean the group in all its human diversity. When we have shared our dream narratives, run around the room together honking as deranged geese, fallen about laughing at our silly portrait exercises, collectively invented thoughtful or comic short improvised tableaux, then – and only then – might we allow ourselves to move towards making art that touches upon the things that divided us or terrified us or stereotyped us or caused our anger back then before we began. It’s a simple switch, but one I recommend.
And – at the risk of heresy in this room – I am going to add that by and large at Upstate we are uneasy with the current trend towards Verbatim Theatre. We’ve done it, we’ve seen it and appreciated it, but when we are working within communities, where the participant is the ultimate maker, we find sometimes that there is a richer seam to be mined than the tasteful transcription of spoken diaries and testimony. It is called poetry. And fiction. Our work is never about encouraging the victimised to describe their victimhood. We leave that to other forms of chronicles. But we find that very often when people are enabled to write creatively, they do just that. They surpass their pain and their emnity by creating something new, something that captures their inner journey more succinctly than the mere facts, something called art. And they and we – continually again and again – are empowered by simply having that part of ourselves, that space, opened up for us.
There is, of course, undoubted merit in those Applied Theatre approaches that allow oppressed groups to enact scenes illustrating their oppression in order to provoke dialogue or indeed resistance within the community. There are even more compelling arguments for the Boal approach that encourages the actors and the community to imagine and enact scenarios for change. But there are counter-arguments too, when the practice drifts into sanctifying victimhood as it can occasionally do, or when work that is presented is just not that good – and therefore changes nothing and convinces nobody. What I am arguing for is something different again – the liberation that can derive from personal and communal creativity, where didacticism may be part of the purpose but equally may not. And I am not talking about art as an opiate, as consumer culture can be. There is much evidence that the community that assembles to imagine and to make is already a community in change, a community in reflection, a community seeing alternatives. Real political change seldom flows from a theatre stage, but it might flow from those who themselves are changed by creating for the stage when that creative process is underpinned by values of respect, trust, empowerment and also the right to joy.
I shall conclude with that and I look forward to lively discussion now and over the weekend about these matters.
List of Papers presented or published in recent years (selected):
New York University – Citizenship and Applied Theatre Conference, 2010 – Aesthetics in ‘Applied Theatre’ – abridged text above.
IUGTE, Latvia 2004 – illustrated presentation of the politics an aesthetics of Upstate Theatre Project
Varna Summer Festival Conference, Bulgaria 2005 – Good Europeans – reflections on Irish Theatre in the context of European Union cultural developments
Theatre Forum Ireland, Wexford 2009 – Are you being served? – Arts Policy, the Arts Council and the making of theatre
Blue Drum / Water has no Edges Conference – National College of Art and Design Dublin 2009 – Reflections on Theatre and Community Development
The Making of Zoo Station – published in ‘Four Essays’ Create, Ireland – marking ten years of The Artist in the Community programme – 2009