In a recent blog post on The Stage, Lyn Gardner argued that community theatre might not be glamorous, but it changes lives. I’m reluctant to lump community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre together, as Lyn Gardner does, but I do see why she groups them together, and I recognise that she is tapping into a very delicate matter. I would even say that, as far as the performing arts are concerned, this is THE elephant in the room.
No matter how sophisticated our practice and aesthetic research, no matter how liberal and democratic our field is convinced to be, the bottom line is that there are practices that for no particular reasons do not enjoy the prestige and the status of others. Community theatre, theatre for young audiences, and amateur theatre (only to name a few) are hardly ever seen as aesthetic experiences in their own right.
Before I go any further with this, I should come out: as a performer, my first audiences were children; I learned the ropes of the profession with children and teenagers, and I loved every minute of working with them. Theatre for young audiences is a field very close to my heart. I often see mild condescension from those who are not aware of the research behind a good show for young audiences. And I have to bite my tongue every time I hear a practitioner contemplating putting on a “kids’ show” simply because there is funding available (this usually makes for boring shows at best, patronising at worst). While community theatre at least enjoys considerable scholarly attention, theatre for young audiences is still an under-researched area.
If theatre in any shape or form has ever changed the lives of participants or theatregoers, any practitioner worth her salt would know that theatre practice alone cannot turn a life around and that burdening theatre with this type of expectation is dangerous. But the thing that puzzles me the most is that when community theatre or theatre for children are finally considered, they have to justify their existence as an instrument of something else: of education, rehabilitation, social cohesion or, at the very least, as the training ground for future Olivier Award winners. I am not referring to the necessary and valuable dialogue with schools, prisons, and other institutions. There is a difference between mediation and defensive justifications.
No other art seem to be so obsessed with the need to justify its presence. I might be out of touch with debates in other fields, but I don’t hear visual artists fretting around their legitimacy or their impact on communities and individuals. We, theatre practitioners and scholars, seem to be compelled to jump head first into the efficacy trap: but how do you measure the affective and intellectual impact of watching and making theatre?
The truth is that community theatre, amateur theatre, and theatre for young audiences are underdogs for a reason: they are practices with an extraordinary subversive potential. They rock the boat. They deprive the sites of culture of their privilege; they close the gap between production and fruition. They demonstrate that inventiveness, creativity, play are not just for specialists and that communication goes beyond the purchase of a cultural product created elsewhere by someone else. They remind us that individuals who are not frequent theatregoers are still sophisticated audience members who engage with live performance in extraordinary and unexpected ways. If this does not unsettle the theatre industry, what does?