My post with Open Road Ltd has allowed me a lot of time to reflect on my work to date. One thing which has really fascinated me is exploring the co-dependent relationship between arts and the community.
Arts and the community are intertwined at the deepest level. For thousands of years the tales of previous generations have been passed down through fireside stories, important questions have been posed through pieces of theatre and political movements have found a voice through art. But the cultural sector is so much more than that. It isn’t just something communities can access; art and culture are integral in building a thriving community. The arts can help create a sense of ownership and instil a sense of belonging and being within communities.
Creating art or accessing culture can provide an outlet for our frustration, a safe space for experimentation or a way to let our inner voice out. The arts can also be used as a tool to bring people together. Through a rousing tune or persuasive monologue, art is a powerful tool to connect people, providing them with a shared identity and purpose.
We can use art as a medium to venture into the unknown or as a conduit to explore difficult topics and facilitate discussions which we’d otherwise shy away from – topics we might know no other way of exploring because they are too relevant to us. As well as offering escapism and a chance to forget all your worries, art can also offer a new, abstract perspective on the challenges a person might be facing in their own life.
Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company in Minneapolis (www.tenthousandthings.org) are pioneers in making culture accessible to people from all backgrounds by bringing theatre into different communities including performing in correctional facilities and homeless centres. Michelle Hensley, the company’s founder, acknowledges that an audience at a homeless centre might not feel comfortable engaging with a modern piece of theatre about poverty. Many of them already live this every day and know far more about the topic than the performers, but if you present that same story set in a different time or place it can become a lot more accessible and easier to relate to. That’s why Ten Thousand Things stage a lot of classic works by playwrights such as Shakespeare – the content is relevant to the audience, but it’s not a perfect mirror of what they’re experiencing in their own lives.
Another example closer to home was a community drama project I worked on a few years ago. The community had recently received an influx of immigrants which caused some tension among the residents. The remit was to work with the local youth club to develop a piece of theatre which addressed these tensions and encouraged more tolerance. Rather than developing a piece of theatre around the themes of race, the young people were supported in building a story about two rival planets who were both running out of essential resources. Over the course of the performance the planets’ residents discover the only way they could survive and thrive was through working together, supporting each other’s development and overcoming and celebrating their differences.
In these settings culture doesn’t just raise awareness; it acts as a catalyst for change. It can open new discussions and introduce an audience to alternative paths and choices in their own lives.
I recently read The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon. This book has changed my view of culture and the way we access it. (I’d recommend you add it to your reading list!) Simon invites you to imagine your cultural offering, be that music, visual art or a performance, contained inside a room. The only way people can access it is by walking through the door. Regardless of how appealing the content inside might be, first you need to offer people the key for the door, and you need to make the door easy to open. That’s relevance. You need to make the door appealing, not just the content. You need to make the door feel familiar and your audience need to see it being used by other people they identify with.
Ten Thousand Things achieve this by staging their works in locations which are familiar to their audiences and removing some of the boundaries which often face theatre attendees. Many of their shows are performed in the round without a stage to remove the divide between the cast and the audience. They are performed with no fancy lighting, just whatever lights are in the room, and the company allow the audience to interact with the performance and express themselves however they feel most comfortable.
The etiquette we enforce in the arts – the rules about what to wear, what to say, how to react, when you should applaud, how you should applaud, they all serve a purpose, but they also can make the arts elitist and put up a lot of barriers which makes it much harder to access certain forms of culture.
So, going into 2022 I’m making a pledge to keep asking myself how I can do my bit to make people feel more welcome in the world of culture. How as practitioners we can engage the communities around us in creating meaningful work and how we can create more doors of different shapes and sizes which lead to our work.
By Martin Aitken 2021
Martin Aitken is a multi-disciplinary arts practitioner based in the North-East of Scotland. Much of Martin’s work is rooted in the city of Aberdeen, telling local stories or working with local creative organisations and youth theatres. Initially training in technical theatre, Martin is keen to use his knowledge in the industry to connect with communities and contribute to building a stronger arts identity for the North-East. Martin is also working towards releasing his second children’s book in the new year.
Image Credit: CC0 licence/public domain dreamstime.com