Community Playmaking: A Snapshot of the Global Context

By: Judith Marcuse, ASC! Project Director

Written on: January 12th, 2013

Over her 35+ years of creation, directing, producing, research and managing, Judith Marcuse has led local, national and international initiatives ranging from symposia and festivals to $5 million, multiyear, multi-partner Art for Social Change (ASC) projects. She is Co-Director of the International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC), a partnership between SFU and Judith Marcuse Projects, and is an Adjunct Prof at SFU. As Project Director, she will oversee fiscal and logistical coordination and supervision, and will lead the arts-based facilitation field study.

A rich body of community-engaged art has been created in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) over the last decade. This often-ground breaking work reflects a portion of wide-ranging participatory approaches to community-building and social change around the world. The many participants and volunteers, artists, administrators, technicians and others involved in the Heart of the City Festival and other projects have created, adapted and successfully-pioneered dynamic forms of community-engaged art that are rooted in creative partnerships. This work has brought residents together, encouraged people from outside the DTES to connect with them and has informed, and even changed, public policy.

Over the last decade, in Canada and many other countries, there has been an extraordinary growth in the field of community-engaged arts practices (also called community arts, community cultural development, arts for social change and cultural animation). In these disparate contexts, creativity and imagination become potent vehicles for positive change, providing effective ways for groups to explore their realities and visions through collaborative artistic inquiry and creation, and to communicate those thoughts, feelings and perspectives to others both within and outside their circles. In many cases, the collective creation process is as important as the products that are created. Music, dance, theatre, visual, media and urban arts all become potent ways to bring people together to listen to each other and, often, to create a kind of honest beauty. Vancouver Moving Theatre is part of this burgeoning movement, one that includes very diverse methods that integrate the head and heart.

Community playmaking can take many forms, some taking a few weeks and others that continue over years. Around the world, these collective processes respond to and address an almost endless range of issues, among them, human rights, environmental and economic justice, intercultural conflict-resolution and HIV/AIDS stigma-reduction.

Sometimes this work explores what it’s like to be “us,” looking back on history, exploring the present and visions for the future, providing reconciliation and healing, building relationships within polarized communities and, sometimes, simply celebrating one’s community, its stories and art forms. Other approaches help to educate and advocate for change, providing a forum for people whose voices too-often go unheard. This work can also inform and galvanize public policy in agendas such as poverty reduction, agricultural reform and public health.

Participants in the Theatre of the Oppressed workshop presented by Brazilian theater director and writer Augusto Boal at Riverside Church in New York City.

Plays, involving whole communities or segments of communities, such as youth or elders, are created and performed in refugee camps, prisons, community and arts centres, in churches, schools, city streets, markets and village squares, even laundromats. Although specific approaches and processes – the community play model, theatre for development, playback theatre, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and story theatre – are widely used or adapted, playmaking methods are as diverse as the communities in which they take place.

A few examples from around the world:

  • In India, an arts organization works with women in the slums of Ahmedabad to create plays about their human and economic rights. Performances that incorporate traditional music and storytelling take place in marketplaces on a stage that folds out from the side of a truck. Information about counselling and training resources are available on the spot.
  • Across the Philippines, a theatre organization works in both rural and urban areas to create community plays about environmental concerns, including the consequences of diesel fuel-use, using elaborate costuming and parades to advertise workshops and performances.
  • In Belgrade, a theatre company, working in community settings, excavates often unvoiced memories of the civil war to create safe places for commemoration, understanding, healing and reconciliation. Performances of the plays take place in theatres, on the street and on public transportation.
  • Indigenous youth and elders in northern Canada incorporate hip hop, rap and traditional storytelling forms to create and perform plays that address issues of addiction and suicide.
  • In the UK, for over 30 years, in a community process based on the work of Ann Jellicoe, a theatre company has been transforming ways in which people view theatre and community through large-scale and inclusive plays involving multi-generational casts of as many as 150 people, hundreds of volunteers, and promenade staging that puts audience members on their feet, surrounded by, and inside, the action.
  • All over the globe, in a community process based on the work of Augusto Boal, short plays about issues faced by the community are created and performed. Audience members are invited to take on a performer’s role in order to act out possible solutions to the often-complex community problems addressed by the play.
  • Three five-year projects in Canada with youth aged 15 to 18 explore issues that can lead to suicide; explore how young people experience violence in their lives; and how relationships to their environments, and to one another, are expressed. Live touring performances of productions that evolve out this work, film adaptations for network television, and related print materials, provide insight and foster new dialogue in schools, within families, and in other settings.
  • In Aida refugee camp near Ramallah, Palestine, a play about the history of the surrounding land is created by young people and later tours to Europe and the USA, providing affirmation for the participants and education for their audiences.
  • In West Africa, agriculture policymakers employ a community theatre company to work with rural communities to explore and address challenges farmers are experiencing as a consequence of global warming. Information culled from the plays is used to create more effective and practical strategies for developing sustainable agriculture in affected areas.
  • Quechua women in Peru create performances about their struggle for their human rights, articulating and sharing their quest for reconciliation, healing and justice.
  • A group of breast cancer patients in Ontario create a play about their experiences and perform it for medical practitioners and other staff, resulting in policy changes in that hospital and, after touring the play, in other hospitals.
  • Across Africa, plays are created around community members’ real-life experiences with HIV/AIDS. These plays contribute to reducing the stigma surrounding the illness and those living with it, while providing education to the broader community and promoting prevention.
  • Cambodian community artists work with survivors to make plays that reclaim and explore the country’s recent history, reconstruct and revive traditional culture, while also using participatory arts to help young people deal with pressing issues in their daily lives.
  • In Northern Ireland, playmaking is used to address sectarian violence, to create dialogue and help build healthier relationships between opposing factions.
  • This sampling of initiatives provides a quick glimpse into the remarkable diversity of playmaking around the world. As the entire field of community arts expands and develops, new networks, partnerships and conversations are taking place. People are addressing critical issues of skills-development for practitioners and the organizations with which they collaborate; they are discussing ethics and evaluation of the work; they are exploring how to chart the best way forward.

Research incorporating community-based arts is raising questions about the ways academia embraces – or does not embrace – these forms of arts practice. Pressing concerns about sustainability of the work, combined with a relatively new, more-open acceptance of “right-brain” processes to solve complex problems, are helping to create new relationships between artists and others working for positive social change.

As citizens engage with challenging, complicated and often inter-connected issues at local and international levels, community art offers a potent lens through which people can connect across silos of difference and, through a process of creation, discover identity, explore values and imagine new futures. These and similar concerns led to the creation of Vancouver’s International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC), conceived as a global hub for learning and communication in the field, created in a partnership between Judith Marcuse Projects and Simon Fraser University.

There are daunting challenges in the field, but much to be gained. However their work is defined, and no matter what their focus, artists and artist/practitioners must be courageous, flexible, empathetic, dogged, pragmatic and optimistic. The people and the work represented in this book demonstrate that community arts can, indeed, create new dialogue and insight while connecting people to their histories and celebrating the present. In the transformative spaces created when we make art together, we can celebrate the expertise we have in our own lives and create new energy for the changes we wish to see within ourselves and with others.