Participatory arts: what’s it for? Prompted by the recent death of community play pioneer Ann Jellicoe, Kathryn Deane revisits practice purposes…
Ann Jellicoe has just died. Hands up those to whom that means anything? She was, on the one hand, a corner stone of the Royal Court, perhaps most famous for writing The Knack (1962, staring Rita Tushingham). And on the other hand, the founder (probably) of the large-scale community play movement.
Settling in Dorset, she created the Colway Theatre Trust in 1979 (by the way, she was already in her early 50s) to develop community plays; and by 1987, had written Community Plays: how to put them on – still one of few how to do it manuals not only in community theatre, but in community arts.
There was certainly a model to Jellicoe’s way of working. Professional playwrights – including David Edgar, Howard Barker, Fay Weldon, Nick Darke – wrote about historical subjects: the Monmouth Rebellion, social unrest after the Napoleonic wars. Professional actors took lead parts; multiple short scenes accommodated some locals; and to cope with the hundreds who wanted a place on the stage there was usually The Mob, or The Congregation; and to cope with the superfluity of women, there were few scenes that couldn’t handle a crowd of local shoppers in mob caps: ‘I call them my basket ladies,’ said Jellicoe. And the harking back to history? Jellicoe reckoned that contemporary happenings were too dodgy to portray on stage, and that universal truths of power and ownership could best be portrayed through a historical lens.
Shortly after in Mansfield, East Midlands, with the miners’ strike still raw in the town, we had a different take on community theatre, with Deckchair Tales. Kevin Fegan wasn’t there to write a play, but to help local people say what they needed to say. ‘Write what you feel,’ he urged his team, ‘the truth will out.’ And they did and it did, and Fegan’s skilful crafting wove it together into a meaningful whole with authentic ownership and genuine themes tackled honestly. Pete Moser’s score did likewise (the programme book listed 21 names as ‘Composer’).
Whither such politics now? Alive and well in the theatre – check out Cosmic Scallies (Graeae and Royal Exchange) as just one example. But maybe not so much in participatory arts. Certainly not in community music, where the history is one of radical politics giving way to social and civic policies – a great loss, says Ben Higham and others in Whatever Happened to Community Music. Or just an example of community music adapting to the job that needs to be done, says Deane (Community Music in the United Kingdom: politics or policies? Oxford Handbook of Community Music – in press).
For art is utilitarian, and participatory art especially so. We don’t need to worry whether community music ‘ought’ to be political, or whether Fegan and Moser’s techniques were ‘better’ than Jellicoe and Edgar’s. We don’t need lengthy expositions on definitions. We just need to know what purpose a piece of work is attempting to serve, and how good it is at serving that purpose.
For me, participatory arts is used for the following:
- for policy ends: promoting social inclusion, improving health
- for communities’ ends: in England, think Creative People and Places for example
- for individuals’ ends: enhancing self-worth or resilience
- for political ends. Yes, still, sometimes
- to make art. But not just any old art, but something that is meaningful and genuine to the maker.
William Morris was not ambitious enough: you can have things in your house that you both believe to be beautiful, andknow to be useful.