‘The Necessary Space’ is the latest organisation to join ArtWorks Alliance. Here Director Simon Sharkey, who previously worked for partner National Theatre of Scotland, writes about why theatre has never been so urgent and important, calling on us to act on Martin Luther King’s ‘Fierce Urgency of Now’.
I’m at the Burgerbbunen (Citizens’ theatre) festival in Dresden. It’s also called ‘Our Stage’. I was invited by director Miriam Tscholl to be part of a panel helping her curate the festival. This year, it is presented in collaboration with the European Theatre Convention. It’s the festival’s fourth edition and, in my opinion, one of the most exciting things on the European theatre calendar. The work is exclusively drawn from artists and organisations working in ‘participatory’ settings: though they, like me, might not define the work in that way, it has this ethos at its heart. Miriam, her colleagues and associates are pushing the boundaries and shaping the future of theatre in Dresden – and across Europe – with their Burgerbuhnen model.
Last night, I sat in a packed auditorium to watch a dance piece performed by dancers who are all wheelchair users, with the exception of one who has CP (cerebral palsy). Their form was completely unique and a standing ovation rattled the rafters when they were called for several bows.
The night before, I stood in another theatre, along with the rest of a packed house to applaud the En Dynamei Theatre Ensemble and Eleni Efthymiou from Greece. This eclectic troupe of artists has learning difficulties and other physical and mental health challenges. Their story – ‘The Fan Man or How to Dress an Elephant’ – looked at the often brutal and sometimes joyous ways in which their ‘disability’ was used to make them ‘other’. We stood in solidarity – all of us being ‘other’, and finding unity in diversity. It was glorious.
Later the same evening, I witnessed one of the most honest and authentic pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. The fans of RC Lens in France have a reputation for being the most passionate in the world. They took to the stage in full fan regalia: flags, football tops, scarves, booze and mascots. They regaled us with the stories of their passion for the club and how it was a focus for their town: a steel, coal and textiles town. When the industries collapsed, the football club was an even stronger focus for social cohesion. Mothers, grandmothers, sons and daughters all appeared in the show to share a moving and politically charged narrative about how their town of socialist communist communities is shifting to the alt right because they are being ignored. Even their football team is banning behaviours that are working class. It was a complex and rousing night of theatre with drums and horns and chants and half time snacks.
I then watched a show where a mother and her son, through their mutual love of pop idol Sia, explored and navigated their way through the complexities of growing up and parenthood. This beautiful piece was made in Scotland by 21Common and has been touring the world for three years.
The rest of the festival is packed with ‘must see’ shows, talks and breakout sessions.
Tomorrow, a piece from Hungary has a homeless man play an interactive game with the audience; from Spain a piece called ‘Pending Vote’ turns the audience into the actors in debating and shaping the future through voting; from South Africa a group of young people share their stories through dance. There is site specific work in people’s houses; work from Belgium, Austria, Germany and beyond. I’m running workshops and speaking on a few panels, there’s a café set up by refugees for us all to eat and share and hang out and discover the truth about each other. It is truly a celebration and festival of theatre made in participatory settings. And yet it’s more.
Since leaving National Theatre of Scotland and setting up ‘The Necessary Space’, I have been very fortunate to be invited to talk, create work and share experience at festivals, symposia and forums across the world. What I see going on around the world and the UK is very exciting. I genuinely believe we are on the cusp of a revolution in theatre and art. It has been happening for decades, sometimes slowly in the margins and sometimes spectacularly in the bright light of the ‘mainstream’. But like all revolutions, the foundations lie in years of thought and activism, of shaping and responding to shifts in society, in resistance to forces of conservatism and hierarchies, in recognising and seizing the opportunity when it comes along. That time is now. The Burgerbuhne Festival is another brilliant example of how art and theatre is shifting and moving centre stage for all to participate in. It is a brilliant example of ‘seizing the opportunity’.
I was invited to talk about my new venture The Necessary Space and to expand on what I call ‘Theatre of Opportunity’. In my talk, I refer to ‘The Fierce Urgency of Now’, a phrase coined by Martin Luther King in the midst of the civil unrest and revolution in America. I believe we are in the midst of an unprecedented paradigm change across the world and the old structures and ways of dealing with things are not working any more.
Politics doesn’t work because it’s broken and the idea of democracy (though always flawed) is easily undermined by social media: we saw it happen, and we see it happen again. Religion doesn’t work because it’s divisive and we put more faith in our algorithms than we do in our spiritual leaders: we turn to Google for answers not god. Media doesn’t work – fake news, twitter, news feeds: who and what can we believe any more? Even war doesn’t work, because we live in a global economy and the age of empire is over. We know that if Trump goes to war in Iran, it won’t work because the market algorithms will shift and the people will be left behind. We are in a new paradigm and the old stories, hierarchies, means of expression and sharing are not serving us. Where do we go if church, parliaments, media and national institutions are failing us?
Theatre, my friends, has never been so urgent and important. We are responsible for shifting the view and creating the forums that reflect the needs, the yearning for community, identity, security, conversation, collaboration and truth. It is theatre, in all its forms, that helps us define our past and shape our futures. It is in participating in theatre that people are finding truth in their situation: finding new ways and new forms to share new stories.
The Burgerbuhnen Festival is doing this beautifully. There are signs all over the world that this shift is happening. I am aiming to create ‘The Necessary Space’ for this to grow in communities, both locally and globally. I’ve already started and am very encouraged with what is going on. I will be launching ‘The Necessary Space’ website at the end of June where I intend to continue this Blog and offer up other resources. I hope I’ll see you there. For now, you can tune in to my Instagram which is Theatre_of_Opportunity.
From Dresden with Love