I was co-founder of WCT (in its first incarnation as Arts in the Community Events or ACE) in 1991. Though I’ve always worked in educational and community theatre, this was a leap into the unknown. But I’ve always like improvisation and spontaneity, starting with four years in a theatre and writing co-operative called Word and Action (Dorset). We mainly performed Instant Theatre, in which we asked the audience to create a story on the spot and then acted it out, involving them as fully as possible. It was scary, ragged but often very exciting and empowering.
I kept on with this open-ended approach to creativity when I moved on into Drama and English teaching in a secondary school in Bournemouth. Much of my practice was still about tapping into people’s latent creativity and trying to them a sense of ownership of emerging work – I was very lucky that the curriculum was much more open then!
In the late 80s I became interested in two particular forms of applied theatre – the then thriving national and international community play movement and the emerging practice of site-specific theatre, with performances taking place out of conventional theatres in unusual outdoor or indoor areas. I was then co-Director of Dorset (later Bournemouth Theatre in Education) with Sharon Muiruri, employed by the Local Education Authority. Our Line Manager was Jeff Hart, with whom by chance I had studied Drama in Education at Goldsmiths’ College in the 70s. Though a Dorset Schools Inspector Jeff was (happily for us!) very open to innovation.
So Sharon and I got the go ahead to experiment with developing site specific community plays with schools – and a mixed age community group. We began by researching local history and preparing a range of open-ended stimulus inputs, for each group involved. These creative inputs combined storytelling and performance to stimulate a response from the audience, who then became co-actors in the unfolding of the story.
Though we have democratized this initial process since them so that members of the community are now fully involved in the research process too, we still employ a similar method to devise the plays. Audiences also share in the experience, following scenes from place to place – instead of sitting in darkness, as an anonymous crowd, they became co-participants themselves, their own journey reflecting that of the characters through time and space.
For several years, we had casts of around 200. It was exciting and exhilarating – as well as exhausting and often very stressful! I finished an MPhil Research Degree into our approach in 2002 – ‘The Significance of Community Plays in Schools’ (University of Exeter). lib.ex.ac.uk/.
We’ve all learnt a lot about making the productions more manageable and effective for everyone and ensuring we have the right partners. Schools involvement is more limited, but continues to be fruitful for all concerned.
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