Enacting Community: Critical Histories and Theories of Community-based Theatre and Performance Practice

Start Date: 18th July 2012
End Date: May 2013
Dr Kerrie Schaefer

Community is a highly ambiguous and deeply contested term. It is also ubiquitous. This presents problems for fields of practice known as community-based such as the one I intend to examine here. Established in the latter half of the 20th century, the field of community-based theatre and performance practice requires urgent attention due to the frequent invocation of community in contexts outside, yet related to, theatre and performance.

There is growing concern at the increasing power of the term 'community' in public policy (the latest iteration of which is the 'Big Society'). Community is put up as both the cause of and solution to myriad social problems, hence programmes in local areas to build, create and support community where it is seen to be lacking. There appears to be no problem that community cannot solve. Academic researchers have examined the political rationalities and governmental technologies behind this operationalisation of community (Rose 1999). They have also criticised the ideal or exclusive concept of community (Young 1990) closely linked to new models of economic management such as 'advanced liberalism' (Rose 1999).

One of the key problems that this research project will address is how community is enacted in theatre and performance practices, and how these enactments of community relate to these broader economic, social and political processes and the critical questions and debates surrounding them. The research will bring critical theories of community, namely Jean Luc Nancy's notion of 'inoperative community', to bear in the re-examination of community-based practice in theatre and performance.

The key research questions are:

1. How is 'community' conceived and enacted in community-based theatre and performance practices?

2. How might theories of 'community', in particular, in the work of Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben, provide a critical lens through which to analyse and theorise community-based theatre and performance practices?

3. How can the theoretical and critical analysis of community-based theatre and performance practice contribute to the field of practice, as well as interdisciplinary and social questions about the construction and/or deconstruction of communities.

In order to answer these questions the project will present five case studies of community-based theatre and performance practices. The case study method has been chosen due to its demonstrated ability to gain depth and understanding of context and process. The case studies are drawn from an international field and include practices from the UK, Europe, North America, Australia and Singapore. I will conduct fieldwork with performance companies in these various contexts. The research data will comprise observation field notes, recorded documentation (video, still photography) of working processes, practices and performance outcomes, and interviews (audio recorded) with practitioners and participants. It will also comprise in-depth notes from a close reading of primary critical theory sources and selected secondary sources. These critical theories of community will be compared to the theories emerging from the ground of the case studies, and in this way, critical theory will be applied, tested and evaluated in relation to theatre and performance practice.

This critical analysis of community-based performance practice will connect theatre and performance studies with key cultural critiques and theoretic debates in other disciplines (public or socially engaged art, philosophy, cultural geography, sociology) by means of a monograph and other academic outputs (conference paper, journal article, inter-disciplinary seminars and network symposium). It will also provide a richer and more nuanced understanding of the role of theatre and performance practices in variously enacting communities which will feed back into the field of practice by way of activities with co-producers of community performance.