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Wigman Street Ladies, during a project by the theatre company Hanby and Barrett

We’ve just published the final report from Performing Impact, a research project launched last year to investigate the way an arts and humanities vocabulary could be used to enrich discussions of the benefits of community theatre.  Along the way we read a heap of scholarship in disciplines like philosophy, aesthetics, performance studies, memory studies and sociology, held a workshop to engage with community arts practitioners, interviewed some key figures in the field, and set up a blog to exchange ideas.

The report summarises our findings, and suggests areas where more research might be helpful.  The discussion paper we published previously gave an account of our research and the directions it has led us in, but the emphasis in this report is more on what we heard from people involved in the sector.  We’ve anonymised the information, so they were able to speak freely, and our discussions produced some informative – and unexpected! – glimpses into how those working in community theatre see themselves and their art.

Lots of the conversations circled around what the point of community theatre was, and how it differed from other social interventions.  There were wrangles over whether “pleasure” or “enjoyment” was an important part of what theatre does, with some artists feeling that it should be the first line of justification, and others arguing that if that was the best defence of the arts, we should be running five-a-side teams instead.  Theatre was different, some insisted: it allowed people to explore character, emotion, and the way we all inhabit “roles” in our own lives, in a way that other leisure activities couldn’t.

Conversations about the purpose of theatre revealed a powerful instinct that it has one – and that both participants and practitioners need to believe in one – without enabling us to pin down what it might be.  An echo of Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose”, maybe?  Whatever the disagreements about pleasure or purpose, there was a general stress on the need to take the “artistic” element seriously.  Whatever benefits community theatre projects could create were felt to be strongly tied to the artistic integrity of the work.  Participants – whether prison inmates, troubled young people, or inhabitants of post-industrial communities – wouldn’t commit themselves to sloppy art, or to work which was really an attempt to manipulate them via a thin layer of aesthetic dazzle.

Some of the terms which our research had centred around came in for some scrutiny during the workshop.  We hear “community” being attached to everything these days, from marketing campaigns to the Big Society policies, but the artists were sceptical of what it actually meant.  Why was it assumed to be a good thing?  What even is a community, how can you recognise one, and how should you engage with it once you’ve found it?  Their experiences of how complicated communities can be in reality, and the dubious uses to which the rhetoric of community is put, chimes with the vigorous controversy within historiography about the notion of “heritage”. Raphael Samuel in the red corner, David Lowenthal in the… well, probably not the blue corner as such, come to think of it.  This is like Philip Blond and Maurice Glasman all over again, they do spoil a neat sporting analogy so…

Similar eyebrows were raised at “participation”.  Why is it good that we can prove people participated in something, and what does it mean, anyway?  Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the process they’re participating in, rather than assuming that taking part is a warm fuzzy in itself?  At this point I remembered the satirical cries of   “Get involved!” which used to echo around my college from students weary of years of being told to join in and play the game for the good of their souls.  It was interesting to hear that question “What do we precisely mean by the term…?” arising not from the academics, but from the practitioners.

Our project suggested there are a lot of avenues which need to be followed up, and since it started the conversation around social interventions, cultural value and arts funding has intensified considerably. This is the final report from this phase of the research, but I suspect it’ll spark off further investigation.