Performer, director, producer, enabler: Anne Langford explores artist development for community theatre-makers of co-created work
We’ve all had a bit more time to think over the past year. Or maybe you haven’t? Maybe you work in the part of theatre and performance that never stopped. The deep, creative and ongoing work with young people and communities all over the UK, that overnight transformed how it operated. Creating on Zoom, or over the phone, or through letters. That worked out how to run socially distanced sessions as soon as that was allowed.
As theatre buildings closed their doors at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, many creative learning teams stepped up a gear. Many more smaller organisations and independent artists rolled up their sleeves, recognising the deep need to find ways to come together and make art to make sense of all this. It doesn’t surprise me – people who make performances are a resourceful bunch, used to creating magic from limited resources to a very public deadline. Community theatre makers have refined this skill. So of course, those that were able, just looked at this new challenge and cracked on: learning new skills, weaving together the resources that existed, taking care and risks through stories and games and making, making, making.
But did they get a chance to pause and reflect? Did anyone ask how they were? What about the sometimes-traumatic new experiences they held? What did they notice about the accelerated learning they went through while experiencing deep uncertainty: has it changed the way they think about what they make? If they could start again, would they use Zoom in quite the same way? What happened that Tuesday evening in May or September: how did the choices the practitioner made with the artists in their group impact the audience?
So much is unknown, and lost. A whole rich vein of practice that disappears with the red ‘Leave Meeting’ button and the notebook stuffed into a box under the bed.
I qualified as a coach at the start of 2020. In my first supervision session, with two other coaches of similar experience, facilitated by a much more experienced coach, I felt a deep sense of relief and sadness. Here was the space where I could bring my anxieties, my questions, my moments of pride, and turn them into something useful. Why had I never had this as a creative practitioner? When I’d followed all the organisational processes for a really challenging safeguarding issue, yet I still had anxiety dreams about the experience. When I was trying to unpick my dissatisfaction at the way a particular piece was (not) working and feeling alone and resource-less. When I devised a brilliant new exercise and there was no one to challenge it or congratulate me. I feel very strongly that we do practitioners – and the artists and communities they work with – a huge disservice by leaving them alone and unsupported. So I want to adopt and test a supervision model for freelance practitioners who work in co-creation.
What I want to say is this: I’ve made 30-plus shows that have never been reviewed. Not once. Most of my work is not eligible for any theatre award I know about. I’ve made shows with a cast of 50, and shows with a cast of 5. I’ve been employed by some of the most well-respected theatre buildings in the UK (though their artistic directors have rarely seen my work – that’s for a different day) and for touring companies and community centres. I’ve created very traditional work in theatres and all sorts of other performance that centres body, voice, place. I’m really proud of some of it, and bits of lots of it. I train, I study, I strive to make bold and interesting and purposeful choices. I invest in my craft and my community. But no. I don’t have any reviews. Or any sodding awards.
How can artists who work with communities, in co-creation, be supported and develop their practice? This is going to be my project.
I remember when I first encountered Total Theatre in 1996. It was this glorious, vibrant recognition of a particular way of making, and thinking about, performance. In 2020, I was selected to be part of the Total Theatre Artists as Writers training programme. It made me reflect even more on the value of critical writing. As a resource for other makers, as a component of developing practice, as recognition, as making the ephemeral lasting in words and images. I felt the absence of this in the world of community, collaborative and co-created performance very keenly. Even more than when I have to fill in those bloody applications that ask for reviews.
There is a career issue here – the lack of visibility of so much of this work can lead to the practitioners not being seen as ‘proper’. There’s a bigger loss though – to the development of practitioners and the form, for want of sharing. There are so, so many ethical questions about how to write about this work. Who are we writing for? Who with? How do you critically engage with process? It is absolutely not enough to just arrive and watch a performance – which is often the tiniest tip of the iceberg of what the work is and means. I would love a Total Theatre for co-created work. A place of considered critical reflection, celebration and advocacy.
Experienced cooks move around the kitchen, taking some of this, a pinch of that. Knowing when to measure exactly, sensing what is needed for balance. I’m trusting myself to initiate this project like that, and that I have enough awareness to know that I can’t and don’t want to make this change alone. But it has to start somewhere and if a project is going to be funded, it needs a plan. This must be funded because people must be paid fairly, so it can be genuinely accessible. So, here’s my sense of what’s needed to go forward – the beginnings of a recipe for a different way of doing things. I’ve got a hunch around the ingredients list, a clear sense of some non-negotiables, and a deep commitment to, and trust in, the process of co-creating it with those who want to explore the question.
Ingredients for two experiments in creating a culture of supervision for community theatre and performance makers; and creating models of critical reflection for co-created work:
You will (probably) need:
- A steering group of eight-ish practitioners with a range of experiences to research and shape and challenge the project (paid).
- The interest and support of people who work in this way, organisations and funders – as critical friends and advocates (gifted).
- To devise a supervision training course, with an experienced coach/facilitator and the steering group (paid).
- About 15ish practitioners with experience ranging from three+ years to train in supervision skills (paid).
- Around 45ish practitioners, ranging in experience from starting out to 20+ years, to participate in about six supervision sessions, over 6-8 months (paid).
- Training for 15ish practitioners in critical writing (paid).
- A couple of days to devise a/some models for critical writing about co-created work, including writers, thinkers, the 15ish practitioners, and people who have/are taking part in projects (paid).
- 15ish projects to write about and with, testing the models of critical writing (paid).
- A place to share this work – maybe a simple, accessible website.
- A group of 20ish practitioners who don’t participate in supervision or critical writing to contribute their experiences over the period of the project – a control group (paid).
- Someone outside the project to honestly evaluate what worked and what didn’t (paid).
My non-negotiable quality standards, or conditions of making this project:
- Care is centred as a key value and methodology.
- Power is always considered, exposed and explored – who has it in any exchange, how have they gained that power, and how can they share it, or give it away.
- Permaculture ethics are applied to project design – people care, earth care, fair share (equity).
- This experiment should be a collaborative act, including the constellations of people and groups who make this work. Recognising and working with, and within, the eco-system.
- Everything should be open source – the models, the training, writing, failures and successes (while taking care of people); all transparent and accessible.
Yup – it’s idealistic. But if now isn’t the time to re-imagine new ways of doing, I do not know when is. It might not work. It might be an abject failure. And if it is, I want to be open about that, kindly, carefully. So others can avoid that route and choose more fruitful paths.
Coaching, collaborating to create art and critical writing all hold space for moving from reaction to reflection, for new thinking that creates meaningful change. I hope this project works but if it doesn’t, or, more likely, if bits of it sort of work in a way, the challenge still exists for others to work on.
How can artists who work with communities, in co-creation, be supported and develop their practice?
Editor’s note: Total Theatre Magazine has always supported co-created and community work, and we run feature articles by practitioners working in co-creation/community theatre practice. Some examples can be found in the Total Theatre Magazine Print Archive. Proposals on this subject are very welcome! Send to firstname.lastname@example.org
An affiliated publication, Mailout, dedicated to community arts and co-created work, existed for a number of years, but is sadly now defunct. Some back issues are available for download via ISSU: https://issuu.com/mailout/docs/mailout
Featured image (top): Yard Youth @ The Yard: You were us, We are here. Photo Edith-Whitehead
Anne Langford makes theatre as a director, performer and facilitator; and makes theatre happen as producer, mentor and coach. Anne took part in the Total Theatre Artists as Writers 2020 programme.