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April 20, 2014

When I started working as an Artist – decades ago now – there was a touring circuit in the UK for new, experimental, original small works. You put together a show, sent out publicity, got bookings, toured. Many venues even paid you, because they had budgets for that sort of thing. Much of the work on the circuit was awful, some was good. Some was extraordinary and life-changing. That’s how it needed to be – the circuit was a place for trial, experimentation, learning, apprenticeship, self-indulgence. It was a place full of integrity and bullshit, of visionaries and snake-oil salesman (and which was which depended on who you asked), of innovation and imitation. It was a diverse and sometimes vibrant ecosystem that was tough to survive in (I lived in it for nearly a decade) but which nurtured (with a kind of rough indifference) most of those who chose to inhabit it


Photo: Workshop with The Company Theatre, Mumbai, 2014

I am not harking back to some golden age. Because though there were good things in that small-scale touring scene, there was also bullshit. Then, as now, the easiest way to ensure success was to be born into a privileged background, to have both the money and self-assurance to thrive in that particular jungle. Then if you were of a ‘minority’ (culturally, ethnically, in terms of dis/ability, sexuality) you tended to be ghetto-ised within the ghetto of the small-scale circuit.

There was also a very patronising and exclusive attitude towards ‘community’ art (as it was then called); art which was concerned, in some sense, with forging different relationships with the audiences that it played to; art that was ‘participatory’; art that delivered the possibility of social change and social development. Some ‘community art’ existed, and some of it – just as much else in the art world – was awful. There were shows that I still cringe at the memory of, that involved, somehow, a contrived ‘opportunity’ for the audience to be dragged up on stage to join in a final celebratory dance – whether they wanted to or not. There was other truly awful ‘community’ work. Yet there was also innovative, extraordinary, deeply intelligent, life-changing work. Undoubtedly though, ‘community’ work was the poor and patronised relation of ‘real’ art.

The separation between ‘Art’ and ‘Community’ was bullshit. Total bullshit.

Fast-forward to today. Many things are changed. There is no real small-scale touring circuit in the UK. Though there are other ways of creating a show up and giving it an extended life, they are often, far too often, producer-led, funding-led, venue-led, ‘initiative’-led, rather than artist-led. Still the best way to make work is to be born into privilege. But now the audience, the ‘community’ is everything. ‘Participatory’ is almost obligatory. There is a sense that if the audience are watching rather than ‘interacting’ they are not, somehow, integral to the creative act.

There is some excellent ‘participatory’ and/or community work about. Some good work. A lot of crap. That much at least has not changed. But suddenly it seems every artist is focused on ‘the community’ and those who perhaps are focused on ‘art’ or ‘skill’ or ‘experimentation’ are marginalised, insulted, patronised.


Photo: Workshop with The Company Theatre, Mumbai, 2014

You think I exaggerate? I know of meetings where those responsible for commissioning have said explicitly that they do not care about the quality of art, they want to know how many ‘clients’ will be served. I have talked with people whom I respect deeply, who earn their living in the ‘cultural industry’, who say they have no interest in the process of making art, they want to know how the community will benefit. I, personally, have been told that what I do – focussing on the training of artists and innovation with performance form – is unfundable and of no interest to ‘today’s world’. Of course, many claim that, in promoting ‘participation’, they simultaneously insist on ‘quality’, but this is, frankly, bullshit – just as many of those back in the 80s who claimed to care about the communities they performed in were talking bullshit. They just wanted the gig.

This separation between Art and Community is still bullshit. As is the separation between ‘Art’ and ‘Participation’.

I never really understood these separations. When I started work, for a number of years, I did two jobs simultaneously. I worked as a performer in a very hard-core, experimental Grotowski-inspired physical ensemble. Our work was experimental art. No compromise. We received (some) funding and survived by touring and by subsidising our work with other jobs.

Simultaneously I worked for, and eventually co-directed, a youth theatre in a tough area of inner-city Leeds. Our work was ‘community art’ (and therefore almost entirely unfunded by the state). We changed people’s lives through deep immersion in artistic process. We made great youth/community shows that performed, with huge casts, in school halls and occasionally elsewhere.

I never saw any conflict between these two jobs – they intimately fed off each other. One gave me rich and complex understandings of the body as an expressive tool, of creative strategies, of languages of performance. The other gave me an understanding of how to empower a performer, of how to develop work that transformed the raw voice of a cast into something innovative and artistically excellent, of how to make work that spoke to, with and for a specific community. In fact both jobs did all these things and many others,  and thus they spoke to one another. I became a better innovative/experimental artists because I worked in community and a better community facilitator because I immersed myself deeply in the arcane mysteries of the creative process.

Because art is both of these things – rigorous, complex, introverted development of ones personal expressive capacity AND a rich, humble, complex and non-patronising awareness of the contexts within which ones work happens.

Not all work can, or should, try to serve all agendas. As Ann Bogart once wrote about Thomas Richard’s post-Grotowskian work: ‘cultural and political revolutions begin in small rooms’. In India I met artists who worked with Grotowski, who now use their own developments of that work with street-children. I have met similar people all around the world – whose ‘arcane’ and ‘experimental art’ feeds their community and social interactions. The self-indulgent excesses of the UK touring circuit in the 80s (some of them at least), became the populist innovations of subsequent decades.

There is a need – a deep need – for artists to do work that pays little or no attention to the ultimate needs of their audience. That was one of the strengths of the old ‘touring circuit’ in the UK. There is also a need for artistic process that works with, for and within specific communities, empowering audiences, changing perspectives and paradigms, breaking the tyranny of a mediatised culture, democratising interpersonal contact… all those things that live performance can do so well. Sometimes that involves an audience getting out of their seats (or not having seats) and ‘participating’, sometimes that involves audiences participating in the way they often have – by listening, watching, experiencing.

Because the arts are a complex eco-system and if you euthanise one form of exploration and innovation, you damage all others. Image


Photo: Workshop at Ninasam, Southern India, 2013

There are of course specific reasons why those whose preferred aesthetic is in vogue are so vitriolic and hostile towards others in the artistic eco-system. The ‘artists’ of the 80s did not want to encourage ‘community’ art because it threatened their own self-importance and, perhaps more importantly, there was (even then) not enough money to go round. To encourage people doing different types of work threatened to result in there being less money for them to do what they wanted to do….Those who have their snouts in the trough do not like to share…..

So too today. It makes me very sad how contemptuous so many of those in the ‘Arts’ are of those whose vision is different to their own. Perhaps no one is as vitriolic as someone who sees their pay-cheque under threat….. But, just as the lack of respect for ‘community’ was one of the factors that fatally weakened the old touring-circuit (it became very easy to attack and very hard to defend), so the lack of respect for the complex details of the creative process that characterises our current ‘arts industry’, is its fatal weakness. I hear of one organisation that thinks that it is a good idea to run ‘community’ classes without an artist being present – somehow the presence of the artist is ‘undemocratic’ or ‘disempowering’. This particular strand of bullshit is the inevitable consequence of an approach that deprioritises the importance of artistic skill and process because it chooses (in entirely bullshit ways) to see art or ‘technique’ as being ‘in opposition’ to community involvement.  It is profoundly patronising because it offers communities ‘art’ without valuing ‘art’. In doing so, it fails to value the community.

If you are not interested in ‘art’ you should not be involved in working artistically with communities. Be a social worker instead. (No – that’s not an attack on social workers. I respect them profoundly, but their agenda should be different to the agenda of an artist).

It’s bullshit. All of it.

The arts – and my particular area of the arts – live performance – flourish when they are complex. They flourish when they are abundant and interdependent, as is true with any eco-system.

This (unfortunately because I do not see it happening) requires that the evolution of our eco-system be artist-led. Not funding-scheme led. Not government or private philanthropist-led. Not led by a view of art as a way of delivering ‘social-policy’ to hard-to-reach communities. Not even ideology-led (though all artists will have some kind of ideology, whether they acknowledge it or not).

Artist-led. Artist-vision-led.

And it needs to be inter-dependent, inter-connected and mutually respectful. Because the divisions, the categorisations, the tick-box mentality of ‘serving an agenda’ or ‘fulfilling a funding criteria’ are all bullshit. Bullshit that has NOTHING to do with the creative process that audiences, communities and artists engage in.

How do we do it?

I don’t know.

Engage with the system when it serves you, but not when it controls you. Do not seek approval from those in ‘authority’, seek approval only from those who matter (and as an artist, your own self-approval is your single most important guide to whether you are honouring your vision). If you are lucky enough to benefit from the current political/aesthetic climate, always defend and support those whose vision is very different to yours. Unconditionally support those who are different to you.

Be generous – radically generous.

And listen to yourself. Because that small inner voice – not some tick box on a funding form – is your vision. That vision is what you have to give your community.


Photo: ‘Performing at the Edge #2’, Residential Workshop, Lesbos, Greece, 2013

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