Community Engagement

There are a number of devising companies that actively engage with the community, Welfare State International, Lone Twin and Theatre Club to name but a few. I have decided to focus on Welfare State International (WSI) and the community event  Glasgow All Lit Up! (1990)‏.

To give some backround WSI was founded  in 1968 by John Fox, Sue Gill and Roger Coleman, the last WSI performance was in 2006 .  Their work has featured  street theatre and public performance, their later work is community based and location specific. (WSI Website, 2015) WSI was set up with the intention of making art as accessible as ‘free dentures, spectacles and coffins.’ (Fox and John, 2002). WSI positioned itself “out side of ‘middle-brow#middle-class’ theatre” , this accessibility is key to the WSI performer -audience relationship. (Shaughnessy, 2012)

As theatre can be used to promote social and  political change working with communities gives rise to a number of ethical issues and responsibilities. Especially if a company is not indigenous to a region there is the potential to misrepresent the histories and voices of the community. Working closely with existing community organisations allows practitioners to discover local priorities and preoccupations. Glasgow All Lit Up! is a great example in both form and content of community engagement.

Glasgow All Lit Up!‏ was a contributory event  to the Glasgow’s European City of Culture festivities in 1990.  WIS worked for 18 months with 250 educational and community groups through the region of Strathclyde to produce 4 big lantern processions which were  8000 lanterns strong. (Unfinished Histories, n.d). Working with local people on the ground taps into local expertise of the space being used and gets community buy-in to the celebration. The form of the procession has a community vibe, routed in religious tradition it gives a sense of unity to the public event. The content had specific significance to the community as it drew from the Glasgow City Crest, as one review of the event described;

“In recognition of Glasgow’s strange crest – the tree, the bird, the bell, the fish – there were hundreds of brightly coloured fish from huge sharks to tiny tiddlers; Lochgilphead primary school brough a whole shoal”(Unfinished Histories, n.d)

Big fish, Glasgow

Figure 7: Big fish, Glasgow Lantern Palace (Unfinished Histories, n.d)

To close the journey of Welfare State International from visual art to more community focused events has been summarised as  “an aesthetic adventure searching the hinterlands between populist community carnival and exclusive experimental theatre ” (Coult and Kershow, 1983: 216)

Aside: WSI have created a handbook of practical skills and experience – Engineers of the Imagination, this enables communities to produce their own art.

To navigate to the next blog, Youth Audiences, click here

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