Co-Creation, Consent and Criticism

I’m standing outside Summerhall in Edinburgh, talking to a well-known journalist, whose daughter is a circus artist. We’re talking grandchildren, and I mention that mine (aged 20 months at the time) was already a seasoned performer, having appeared in two Spiegelcircus shows with his parents.

Have they thought about the issue of consent? asks my companion.

Which is food for thought. Of course, a toddler can’t give consent to appear in a show – although in this case, his parents are always very sensitive to his needs, and there was at least one day at this year’s Brighton Fringe that he didn’t go on because he was feeling grouchy. But most days he seemed very happy to be invited in on the action, if that counts for anything. Particularly as it involved wearing a tiger suit…

Children have always been part of the circus story. In traditional circuses, the kids sell popcorn and learn their craft and just as soon as they are ready, they are out there in the ring, playing their part. Even in contemporary circus, it’s not unusual. Chaplin’s grandchildren James and Aurelia Thierrée famously made their performance debut, aged 4, as suitcases with legs, starring with their parents, Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Victoria Chaplin, in the legendary Invisible Circus. Did it do them any harm? James went on to become one of the most respected circus/physical theatre performers of this generation; Aurelia ran away from the circus as a young woman, but found her way back eventually. It’s a family affair.

And it’s not just in circus: Welfare State International, led by John Fox and Sue Gill, were always a company with a strong sense of family and community, and the children were part of it. John and Sue’s children, Dan and Hannah Fox, were an integral part of the company, riding horses or carrying lanterns from an early age. Both have grown up to be leading outdoor arts practitioners, continuing the traditions and practices trail-blazed by their parents.

More contentiously perhaps, physical comedian Trygve Wakenshaw brought Trygve Versus A Baby to the Edinburgh Fringe 2017 – a show which aimed to answer the question: What’s more entertaining – a world famous mime, or a standard baby? Trygve played opposite his own one-year-old baby, Phineas, ‘inducting him into the family business as early as possible’, setting up a number of scenes in which he tried (and of course failed) to be upstaged by the baby. It was a great show, but I did worry what would happen if the little one (like my grandchild) had not wanted to go on one night – in this case, he was not an ‘extra’, he was the main attraction, which seemed pretty risky. I note that Trygve didn’t continue the show after its Edinburgh run.

Basically, when considering the issue of children giving their consent as performers, it is worth noting that we don’t ask consent of our children about many of the activities that we include them in from the youngest of ages – and traditionally that includes accompanying their parents to work. If we run a corner shop or cafe, our little ones will be sitting in a pram in a corner while we do our work, and as soon as they are old enough, they’ll be behind the counter serving. Babies are carried on backs during harvest time; children are expected to muck in with the mucking out on the farm. Across the world, throughout history, children have been expected to play a role in the family business. Of course, this is not to condone the exploitation of child labour, but being part of the family’s activities (including work) is normal in all places and times outside of the strange little bubble that is here and now. Is performance any different? If it is wrong to put children ‘on display’ without explicit consent, does that include photographing them or videoing them? Or writing about them? Where do you draw the line?

Further thoughts on consent for child performers were sparked by seeing the Ed Fringe show Katie & Pip, by Tin Can People. This show features two professional theatre-makers, and the 15-year-old sister of one of them (Katie) plus her dog (Pip). The subject of the show is Katie’s type 1 diabetes, and the role her medical alert assistance dog plays in keeping her safe. The show raised the issue for Total Theatre of how to review work that features children and non-professional performers. Indeed, should this work be reviewed at all? One one side: it’s being presented by a professional theatre company, and needs to be viewed and judged in the same way you would any other work. On the other hand – if children or vulnerable adults and/or non-actors are involved, should their work be judged? Basically, the rule of thumb seems to be, if the review is a good one, and there is nothing much to be critical of, then a review is fine. But if there are reservations, it isn’t. And that is something I am not comfortable with, and I therefore then decided that in future, I won’t be running reviews of co-created work – although such work will be covered in other ways, such as in feature articles (or indeed blogs, as here).

So, ’co-creation’ – let’s stop and reflect for a moment on that most contemporary of arts practices, which comes with its own terminology. The word was originally a business term, coined in 2000 to refer to a management strategy ‘that brings different parties together (for instance, a company and a group of customers), in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome’. (I can hear your sighs from here…)

It is certainly riding high as a word with ‘currency’: Battersea Arts Centre has set up a co-creation network, and it’s one of the key words of the moment as far as the arts funders are concerned. In brief: it is work in which professional artists work with non-professionals – real people, if you like – in presenting true life stories or real experiences in a theatricalised context. ‘Agency’ is another key word. How to give agency to the people who own the stories, or whose lives you are throwing a spotlight on?

Although it could be seen as just another way to reframe ’community engagement’, at its best, it is work by companies such as Mammalian Diving Reflex, whose mission is to focus on ‘creating social acupuncture – playful, provocative, site and social-specific participatory performances with non-actors of all ages and demographics’. Their always-excellent shows include Haircuts by Children (which is exactly what it says on the tin), or Nightwalks with Teenagers (ditto). Operating in a more conventional, theatrical context (even though the work itself is highly innovative): Bryony Kimmings made a fabulous show with and about her nine-year-old niece (Credible Likeable Superstar Role-model, 2013); Quarantine regularly place non-performers at the heart of their work, for example in Susan & Darren, an ’event with dancing’, created with and performed by dancer Darren Pritchard and his mum, Susan, a cleaner; and Scottee is currently touring Fat Blokes a ‘sort of dance show about flab, double chins and getting your kit off in public… made in collaboration with Lea Anderson and four fat blokes who’ve never done this sort of thing before’.

Another contemporary example is the recent work of Vincent Dance Theatre, who worked extensively with teenagers and young adults in the creation of  installation works Virgin Territory (exploring the experiences and fears around sexual violence of young women) and Shut Down (which did a similar thing for young men). Their latest work, Art of Attachment, is a co-creation piece commissioned by Brighton Oasis Project – a substance misuse treatment service in Brighton.

Throughout 2018, Charlotte Vincent worked with women in recovery from substance misuse, ultimately creating a performance piece in which ‘real-life testimonies combine with visual metaphor and movement to reveal the physical, emotional and psychological impact of drug and alcohol use on relationships… celebrating the everyday resilience of women and children overcoming adversity, whose stories demand to be seen and heard’. The resulting performance is presented by Brighton Oasis Project at the Attenborough Centre of Creative Arts, in an evening of related work that has come out of the project that also includes an uplifting set by poet Lemn Sissay, and a beautifully constructed film by Becky Edmunds.

Vincent Dance Theatre’s piece is an excellent example of co-created performance work,which is not only careful to honour and enable the ‘non actor’ participants with care and respect, but also a dramaturgically sound, satisfying performance piece in its own right.

Four women’s stories are presented, the four women – Annette, Louise, Leah, Vikki (no surnames given) – live on stage, each seated behind a wooden table placed side-by-side upstage, taking turns to speak out, then move out or under or around the table to occupy space elsewhere on the stage. Each testimony is heard as a straightforward text, in each woman’s own voice, but is also deconstructed and re-presented in a poetic blend of rhythmic sound, gestural movement, and intense physical action. Two professional dancer-actors, Antonia Gove and Robert Clark, are there to echo, shadow, illustrate or provoke.

I toy with the idea of reviewing the show for Total Theatre, but decide in the end that my self-imposed ‘rule’ needs to apply both ways. If it is not right to review a co-created work you have misgivings about, on the grounds that it might hurt feelings or worse, then even if (as in this case) you feel something does stand up on its own legs as a performance piece, it shouldn’t be reviewed.

That said, it comes highly commended.


The Art of Attachment, presented by Oasis Project Brighton and featuring Lemn Sissay and Vincent Dance Theatre, was seen at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, 18 October 2018. The Involvement of lead artists Charlotte Vincent and Lemn Sissay was funded by a Wellcome Arts Award.  

Featured image: Vincent Dance Theatre: Art of Attachment in rehearsal.

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.