On Tuesday afternoon I was at The Questors Theatre in Ealing to speak at the Evocative Objects workshop – part of the AHRC research project ‘Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space’. Amateur theatre practitioners from across England had gathered to explore the effect amateur dramatics has on lives and communities. I spoke about the work of Voluntary Arts and our involvement in RSC Open Stages. It was particularly interesting to hear from Ramon Tenoso, Artistic Director of The Philippine Theatre UK, who spoke about the work of this unique community theatre group. See: http://amateurdramaresearch.com/
Filed under: meetings | Tags: ace, arts, DCMS, drama, England, research, Scotland, volarts
On Thursday I was at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester to take part in the ‘Histories of Participation, Value and Governance Symposium’. This event was part of the Understanding Everyday Participation research project, being led by Dr Andrew Miles from the University of Manchester. The symposium reported on the project’s progress in relation to ‘Work Package 1: Histories of Participation, policy and practice’ and will lead to a book about Histories of Participation. A series of engrossing presentations explored a wide range of aspects of everyday participation.
We heard from Dr Mark O’Neill, Director of Policy & Research at Glasgow Life about the traditions of cultural participation in Glasgow. Mark noted that “we are now reinventing the link between culture and health, which the Victorians thought was obvious.”
Dr Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick spoke about ‘Policy Discourse, Cultural Value and the Buzzwords of Participation’, asking how and why a certain understanding of cultural participation has become so dominant and central to policy making in England. Eleonora looked back at the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain after the Second World War and how support for the amateur arts was progressively squeezed out of its work.
Andrew Miles spoke about ‘Locating the Contemporary History of Everyday Participation’ and the assumption that those who didn’t participate in standard forms of culture were somehow in deficit.
Dr Jane Milling from the University of Exeter delivered a paper titled ‘The Usefulness of the Stage: Eighteenth-century cultural participation and civic engagement’ which suggested that, in the 1760s, every theatre goer was an omnivore: audiences could not distinguish between high and low art.
Andrew Miles presented a paper by Catherine Bunting – ‘Calling participation to account: a recent history of cultural indicators’ – which looked the effect the PSA3 target about increasing participation had had on policy during the New Labour governments. Dr Abigail Gilmore from the University of Manchester then spoke about regional and local cultural strategies in the early 2000s, including the creation of Regional Development Agencies and Regional Cultural Consortia in England. Abigail looked at the development of the Taking Part and Active People surveys.
Dr Lisanne Gibson from the University of Leicester gave a presentation on ‘Governing Place Through Culture’ which focussed on the research she has been doing in Gateshead as part of the Understanding Everyday Participation project.
Other presentations looked at the relationship between wellbeing and culture, the role public parks have played in everyday participation, the British tradition of clubs and societies (dating back to the 16th century), and the politics of community in community theatre practice. It was great to hear so many perspectives on everyday cultural participation and we had some great discussions of the issues throughout the day – both within the conference sessions and during the breaks. You can read more about the Understanding Everyday Participation research project at: www.everydayparticipation.org.
I was in London on Thursday for a meeting about AHRC research project ‘Amateur dramatics: crafting communities in time and space’ – the first academic study of amateur theatre in the UK. This project is being led by Professor Helen Nicholson (Royal Holloway, University of London) with Professor Nadine Holdsworth (University of Warwick) and Dr Jane Milling, (University of Exeter). I took part in the first advisory group meeting for this project in October 2013, so it was great this week, 18 months into the project, to hear details of the researchers’ interim findings. Helen said people from the amateur theatre scene have been overwhelmingly generous. The research team have been writing case studies about members of the Little Theatre Guild and the National Operatic and Dramatic Association. Nadine has been looking at how amateur theatre is archived and the ways in which the theatres themselves are archives. She spoke about the ‘hard economics’ of amateur theatre and the labour necessary to attract audiences, maintain turnover, keep buildings open, hire space and costumes and sell adverts in the programme. You can read the project’s interim report at: http://issuu.com/amateurdramaresearch/docs/amateur_theatre_report_1ef015e9eca65c/1
Last Saturday I was at the Questors Theatre in London for the start of our latest RSC Open Stages Skills Sharing Weekend. Questors, founded in 1929, is the largest non-professional theatre company in Europe and hosts a season of around twenty productions a year. Questors is the only amateur theatre company among the regional partner theatres supporting Open Stages and acts as a hub for the amateur theatre groups in London and the South East taking part in the current Open Stages project.
On Saturday around 100 amateur actors from participating groups gathered at the Questors Theatre in Ealing to take part in workshops on voice, acting, movement and stage combat, led by the RSC’s team of professional expert facilitators. I’m always incredibly impressed by the standard of the amateur actors we see at the Open Stages skills sharing sessions. Invariably they tackle exercises used by drama schools and professional theatre companies with a level of skill, creativity and experience that makes it impossible to tell that you are not actually watching an internal RSC training session.
On Saturday we were joined by Erica Whyman, the Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Erica joined the RSC in January 2013 and works closely with Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, on all aspects of artistic strategy. She now has overall responsibility for the Open Stages project and the RSC’s programme of work with amateur theatre and this was her first experience of an Open Stages skills-sharing weekend. I talked to Erica about the origins and development of Open Stages and the RSC’s plans for further work with the amateur theatre sector beyond the end of the current Open Stages project.
On Monday I was in London to meet Geraldine Collinge, Director of Events and Exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Company. We talked about the progress of our second Open Stages project which is currently involving 100 amateur theatre companies across the UK. We also discussed the possibility of further collaboration beyond the end of the current project and revisited some of the ideas we had originally considered that didn’t make into Open Stages.
Rachel Perry is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Sheffield who is working on a PhD on ‘Management and artistic direction in contemporary British theatre’. In particular she is exploring initiatives in which professionals and amateurs work collaboratively to create unique theatrical events. On Thursday I met Rachel in Huddersfield where she interviewed me about the development of our RSC Open Stages projects.
On Thursday afternoon I was in London to take part in the first meeting of the advisory group for a new research project, ‘Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space’. This three-year project, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme, will look at the contributions amateur dramatics makes to constructing communities and the role of the arts in non metropolitan spaces. Helen Nicholson, Nadine Holdsworth and Jane Milling (who we previously worked with on the Grassroots Arts Connected Communities project) are leading the new study. They feel the amateur theatre scene has not been sufficiently researched, and they are interested in telling an untold story. Amateur theatre groups act as valuable social barometers of communities over time and make an important contribution to the creation and continuity of communities. I look forward to contributing to the research project and seeing the results of this study.