On putting the community into theatre

Image: That Production Company (RUINED)

It’s so easy to get caught up in attempting to define and partition off the kinds of theatre we produce. We tend to box, define, create matrices of the way stuff works, test things against check lists of expectations: professional, amateur, pro-am, community, independent …

Western theatre is no stranger to evolutionary processes; it’s one of its great strengths. Right here, right now, it’s clear that, as part of the wider arts-industrial landscape and the generational change in arts leadership, theatre makers are experimenting with the how and where of creating theatre. New alliances that enable greater participation are being thought about and enabled – look at the way the main-house companies like QTC and La Boite are opening the portals – something which, even a few years ago, was unthinkable. Many of the boundaries that used to exist are porous if they haven’t already been dismantled.

The notion of a ‘full ecology’ of theatre existing out there was put by Wesley Enoch (AD of Queensland Theatre Company) recently in a Facebook discussion. But it’s not so much out there as in the things we talk about in foyers, in the rehearsal rooms we occupy, the chat about shows we see. Wesley goes on to compare this ecology with the kind of easy acceptance of the range of activities in sport in this country and wonders why art-making hasn’t been as accommodating. It’s a good question and one that’s part of the thinking I refer to above.

Why no easy access as Wesley asks? It has, I think, as much to do with the ongoing struggle that art and artists in this country have had to ‘prove’ their worth. But it’s a big question that goes to the heart of Australian culture and will continue serving as food for ongoing discussion, but not here right now. I’m interested in the ways and means and the impact this movement is having in and on the wider theatre community here in southern Queensland.

The traditional linear continuum or boxed-off model of theatre-makers that extends from the professional to the amateur hobbyist, and including those attempting to bridge the identification gap between the two, would seem to be out of date; a more fluid matrix has emerged. Those earning a living from the performing arts have long accepted the importance of a multi-skilled approach to making their art. As well as earning money to live, finding a place to work is key. Whilst making coffee or serving fries (yes, that old joke) may be the way you pay the rent, most committed theatre-makers profess themselves otherwise.

Enter the fusion or blended model – what’s called ‘independent’ by some but which, to me at least, remains a curious and unsatisfying grab-bag signifier of the range of work being produced by professional and amateur theatre makers. The ‘independent’ part of  ‘independent theatre’ means freedom from old constraints in work practices and the emergence of new ways of thinking about how and where we work.

Last week on Facebook I saw someone referring with undisguised delight to the arrival of an independent/professional production on Brisbane Arts Theatre’s community/amateur stage. The labels don’t matter; the fact that BAT has also thrown its portals wider is testimony to its artistic vision and business savvy. In places like BAT and Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre, it’s heartening to see the ‘communion’ of intent – a serious, mutual engagement by everyone involved – in creating theatre and engaging community.

Community theatre has been – probably still is in some quarters – a synonym for amateur theatre. It’s used by some in this way to avoid what many see as the taint of amateurism, itself a foolish mindset that equates amateur with awkwardly-executed art. Check out its meaning: ‘lover of.’ There are many examples of finely-executed work that expresses the love and care – not to mention skill – which have gone into their making. There are many others that are not well-executed, but which stand as testament to the love of theatre of their creators.

But, sometimes art that doesn’t measure up to another’s standards is precious for other reasons. I saw a production of RUINED by Lynn Nottage last month that was the most powerful example of community theatre I’ve ever seen.

That Production Company headed by Timothy Wynn and Cassandra Ramsay works out of Ipswich in south-east Queensland. I wrote about Tim’s vision for the company in Interview 35 on Greenroom. The production of RUINED played as part of the Multicultural program in the 2013 Ipswich Festival. I saw it in the tiny Studio 188 one Saturday night. Tucked away in the old heritage part of the city, Studio 188 used to be the first Baptist Chapel in the city.  I learned – from a kind local who helped me find my way through those little streets – that Studio 188 had been refurbished as part of a deal Ipswich City Council struck with a fast-food chain which now occupies part of the precinct up some stairs behind the building – handy for coffee and snacks after the show. The night I saw RUINED the studio was full but that’s not hard for a 70-something seater. The audience were pretty much all local; young and old, black and white. The cast were all local; young and old, black and white. That was very new to me.

Tim’s decision to give this 2009 Pultizer Prize winning play about African women – the victims of war – was to gather in and welcome the large-ish, black African community in south-east Queensland and to find a play that was meaningful for all. The play is demanding, the subject matter tough for cast and audience. That most of the actors had never been on stage before meant the performances were uneven; of course they were. These new actors – blinking with delighted surprise during the warmth of the curtain call – were being given strong voices to express their story in community, that which I understood from Tim to be the most important thing about the whole exercise of RUINED.

Whilst it has many faces, I can’t think of a more powerful example of the value and, perhaps, the true meaning of community theatre.