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Connected Culture
Connected Culture

Caroline Joyner at Ages and Stages

Posted by Connected Culture on 13 January 2012

Ages and Stages took place on 7th January 2012

A conference for anyone interested in community performance

The Ages and Stages conference, hosted by London Bubble; explored the evolution of theatre and dance made with and for intergenerational communities. The conference attracted professional and amateur Theatre Practitioners, participants and contributors; to debate a field of theatre making that is both seasoned and contentious.  The conference took place in the brand new and inspiring Canada Water Culture Space; which houses its own theatre, library, café; and overlooks the water. There was great coffee, and good opportunities to network throughout the day.

Should we use the phrase community theatre, or are we simply theatre makers? This was just one of the many questions posed by audience members, following each of the four stimulating panel presentations and discussions. It was great to have the contrast of a participant led panel, an academic panel, one made up of Directors, and one of a Choreographer and Writer. Some people were easier to hear than others, and some of the debates proved more engaging than others. Overall a lot of ground was covered, and I think it left people wanting more.

However, near the end of the conference, it was observed that perhaps there had been a lack of political debate during the day. This could be a reflection of peoples’ positive and proactive approach during our current and challenging economic environment. There is a sense that people are getting on with it, and managing how they can, whilst not happy with the arts and other cuts. However, could the presentations have been a little more provocative?

I particularly enjoyed Rosemary Lee (Choreographer), expressing her insights into working with 8-80 year olds in site specific spaces; and later hearing the participants speak of their experiences with these innovative and transformative dance projects. The debate relating to process and product, started to be unravelled; with a particular focus on how best to create a desired aesthetic, whilst weaving together both the Director/Choreographer vision, alongside the inspirations of participants. This dialogue was both sensitive and constructive, with the fine line being drawn between how to engage and empower the ensemble, whilst sustaining a safe and productive space, whereby participants feel comfortable to take risks and grow. Unmasking was a word used a lot, which neatly sums up the raw and natural approach to this form of theatre making.

I was moved by the lady who had attended the dance project alongside her teenage son. She described how two years after completion of the project, when they had heard that one of the other participants had since died; her son had expressed such a depth of emotion, it was proof of how powerful the process had been. It was equally inspiring to hear from the participants of Blackbirds. For example, the young woman of thirteen who  notices how the mixed generation group now mixes on the bus home, whereas before they kept their distance from each other. Similarly, the perspective of the local man and his daughter, both in Blackbirds, and who relate the project  to real life experiences of family members during The Blitz. Blackbirds has sold out again, a great example of community theatre working for both the local population and the general public at large. Having the final performance in the Canada Water Culture Space was also significant, given the history of this area during the Blitz.

The academic panel and ensuing discussion, was equally enlivening. Topics covered included: the dramatic change of journalism against the backdrop of the new “citizen journalist,’ whether the critic needs to be aware of process as well as product, the importance of legacy within community theatre projects, and the significance of infrastructure. I liked how intergenerational work was highlighted as a way to get to know our neighbours, in a world where we are instantly connecting with our global counterparts; and sometimes forgetting those closer to home. Evaluative methods and measuring impact were discussed. Meanwhile, simple observations such as participants attending consistently, sometimes going off to do their own thing, and then coming back for more; is a clear sign that something is working. We spoke about the concept of community theatre creating a family structure. This highlights the potential qualities of; support, space to grow, creativity, and the opportunity to leave the nest and come back another time. On this note of family, Jonathon Petheridge (Creative Director of London Bubble), asked Tony Horitz and Neil Beddow from Wimborne Community Theatre and ACTA (Bristol) respectively; whether their families are involved with their work. This to me demonstrates, how involving family can highlight the heart felt and collaborative nature of community theatre. This in turn can enhance its supportive, inclusive, creative and dynamic environment.

Even though there was a performance of Blackbirds following the conference, I would have liked to see snapshots of community theatre performances (such as Blackbirds), within the conference agenda. This could have provided an interesting springboard for further insights and discussions, and added to the dynamic. It would have been a productive way to involve participants, to present abridged performances of their work.  Finally, perhaps next time to inspire a more provocative approach, questions need to further challenge the status quo face on. For example, “Should community theatre participants get paid, once performances are reaching a certain standard and ticket price”? “Given these economic times, should Community Theatre go where the funding is, and thus not necessarily pick topics that the community wants to make theatre about?”. It would also have been useful to get in to break out groups, to then feedback to the larger forum; and for action points to be taken away; to perhaps start to lobby or initiate practical changes, as agreed by the conference forum.

Caroline Joyner

Connected Culture
Freelance Theatre Practitioner


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