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Participatory Theatre

Europe’s Game Changer

In 2009, at Germany’s Staatsschauspiel Dresden theatre, Miriam Tscholl pioneered “bürgerbühne,” or participatory theatre for citizens, a form of community outreach via artistic collaboration. Tscholl worked to give participatory theatre productions the same resources and scheduling as the playhouse’s main programming, and it became an integral part of the city’s theatrical landscape. Her approach has been adopted, adapted, and reinterpreted in theatres across Europe; a German theatre company, Munich Kammerspiele, for example, now includes such work in their main repertoire without distinguishing it from their other productions.

Participatory theatre was the focus of Our Stage – 4th European Bürgerbühne Festival and the European Theatre Convention’s International Theatre Conference, which took place in Dresden, in Germany’s northeast, in May 2019 for just over a week. Attendees came from all over the European continent and South Africa to participate (ten countries in all)—presenting work, taking part in discussions, and enjoying the eleven productions and thirty-eight events on offer. During my time there, as I watched shows and attended talks, it became clear to me that not all countries—or even communities—have the same ideas about how participatory theatre projects work or “should” work, and, on top of this, what the role of the artist, within these communities, is.

exterior of a theatre space

Festival Centre at Kleines Haus, Staatschauspielhaus Dresden.

Collaborating with the Community

There is a continued debate among those who create participatory theatre about whether the experience of the process for non-professional participants is more important than the aesthetics of the particular piece. At one of the festival’s events, a number of presentations were given on participatory projects from different countries. Simon Sharkey, artistic director of the Necessary Space and associate director of National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), discussed several projects he has worked on that focused on both high aesthetic values as well as community involvement in the process. Ignition, set in the Shetland Islands, is an example that balances these two competing notions well. Led by NTS and Shetland Arts, it examined residents’ complicated attitudes to the oil industry and renewables. During the process, the companies held workshops, residencies, and pop-up events that led to conversations within the community about the topic and helped shape the content of the production. The resulting piece of work was a theatrical experience in a Toyota Prius (the world’s first mainstream hybrid car), where audiences were exposed to real stories about the community’s relationship to travel and transport and were challenged to think about their own relationship with cars.

Participatory theatre goes beyond how shows are made—it’s also about who is in them, which has an effect on what they are about.

It can be difficult for artists to work with communities, though. Birgit Eriksson, a professor at Aarhus University’s School of Communication and Culture in Denmark, regaled attendees at the same event with a story about how community trust-building is a vital component of participatory theatre. She gave the example of a group of Danish artists who traveled to a village they wanted to make participatory work about. They held a meeting one night where the community could come if interested and get involved. Despite plenty of advertising for it, barely anyone showed up, but when the artists went to the village pub and chatted with the locals there, they initiated interest. The project got off the ground and was successful. It was a case, says Eriksson, of the artists needing to ask the community for help with the project, rather than just turning up and dictating how it should go—especially without including the prospective participants equally in the devising process.

a group of actors onstage

Fan Man or How to Dress an Elephant. Pictured: Eleftheria Drakoulidou, Maria Koltsida, Maria Dachlythra, Margarita Kainada, Kimon Kalagkanis, Vaggelis Kosmidis, Nikos Kyparissis, Vasso Asikoglou, Nikos Kyparissis, Vasso Asikoglous, Kleio Antonopoulou, Giota Kouintzoglou. Photo by Dionysis Metaxas.

The “Who,” the “What,” and the “How”

Participatory theatre goes beyond how shows are made—it’s also about who is in them, which has an effect on what they are about. The Fan Man or How to Dress an Elephant (FM), by En Dynamei Theater Ensemble from Thessaloniki, Greece, is a work devised by disabled and able-bodied actors and non-actors. It is about institutional bullying of the disabled, how everyone in society is different, and how this difference should be accepted and stands out precisely because the “who” affects the “what.” I have never seen a work before where time is given for the actors to hit their marks or say their lines in a meditative manner. It’s not patronizing, nor does it emphasize difference. According to Eleni Efthymiou, the show’s director, this choice is about giving everyone the space they need on stage and encouraging them to work together in an equal way, because they all have the same aim—to act well. Ego doesn’t play a role. “Participatory theatre is political in the way in which you choose to do it,” said Efthymiou. That is certainly clear with this show.

Then there are artists who refute the term “participatory” as a descriptor of their shows. Mohamed El Khatib, director of Stadium, which was showcased at the festival, does not see himself as someone who makes work in this genre, but says that, for democratic reasons, he prefers “having people talk for themselves, especially the working classes.” Stadium, a kind of documentary theatre, puts the football fans of Racing Club de Lens up onstage to tell stories of their lives as supporters of the team. Lens is a community in Northern France that was abandoned by successive governments after the demise of the mining industry, leaving its citizens in poverty. By involving real-life fans in the show, El Khatib brings to life their stories about unemployment, solidarity, and team spirit in an unfiltered account of “sociological and human truth.” In the director’s words, allowing the citizens to speak for themselves is “a form of symbolic fixing for the people who have been broken by the system.”

Festivals such as Our Stage and participatory theatre in general highlight the debates being had around process—a show’s developmental journey, be that devising, improvising, etc.—and its aesthetics.

El Khatib did admit that in one performance he spontaneously invited the show’s tour bus driver to come onstage and take part without any preparation. “Very few theatre companies would have done this,” he says to me. “They think in a more classical way.” While he may say he does not see his work as participatory, what could be more so than this?

In one of the festival’s standout pieces, Fix and Foxy’s A Doll’s House (ADH)—which I’ve written about extensively—the “who,” the “what,” and the “how” begin to conjoin. For director Tue Biering, theatre is a “perfect hostage situation where the audience is trapped in the courtesy of theatre.” This production of ADH stretches that idea—and Ibsen’s realism—to its breaking point by having non-actors take on the roles of Torvald and Nora and perform, in front of an audience, in their own home. Moving around their space and watching their real-life relationship play out alongside the characters’ relationship, the play’s themes took on a modern societal context. The exercise also allowed the two non-actors to make personal reflections about their own private lives.

a group of people sitting underneath stuffed animals pinned to a wall

Stadium. Photo by Yohanne Lamoulère/Picture Tank.

The Inclusion Debate

Hillbrowfication, a collaboration between the DorkyPark ensemble and the Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg, is a dance piece about Afrofuturism that showcases young performers from Hillbrow, a formerly affluent but now poverty-stricken district in South Africa’s biggest city (although the children taking part came from wide socioeconomic backgrounds). The piece sparked a brief but fierce debate around inclusion and its purpose within participatory theatre, because whilst the show was received with standing ovations from audiences at the festival, Tunde Adefioye, an invited speaker at the festival’s conference and city dramaturg at KVS in Brussels (born and raised in Los Angeles, though he also spent six years in Nigeria as child, where his father is from), proclaimed he was “bothered by it.”

Adefioye acknowledged that he was proud of the hard work put in by the youngsters in the show, but in an email to me expressed a worry that the production was made for a white audience to experience a bit of Africa on a Friday night “without needing to challenge the racist and colonial reality that is present in their own city.” For him, the money could have been spent working with artists of African descent, living in Germany, who could then tell of their experiences of racism and “give their visions of an Afrofuture that is less a variety show and textbook example of exotification.” However, Constanza Macras of DorkyPark and the director of the piece, insists that Hillbrowfication talks about xenophobia and borders within the city, mentioning that the show was based on an afrofuturistic novel by Andrea Hairston and materials developed with the cast. According to Tscholl, it was created mainly for black communities in Johannesburg, where it was shown several times before being brought to the festival. Tscholl does acknowledge, though, that Adefioye’s comments necessitate further discussion.

three actors onstage

Hillbrowfication. Pictured: Thato Ndlovu, Pearl Segwagwa, Vusimuzi Magoro. Photo by Themba.

Process vs. Aesthetics

As mentioned, festivals such as Our Stage and participatory theatre in general highlight the debates being had around process—a show’s developmental journey, be that devising, improvising, etc.—and its aesthetics. Some shows might focus more on the aesthetics, which can make people worry that the emphasis has been less on process—to the detriment of the participants. Or it could be the other way around: the process has been invested in more—at the expense of the aesthetics—making it seem less professional. The conflict between process and aesthetic was nicely illustrated by Long Live Regina (LLR), at times a verbatim-seeming documentary theatre piece about women and childcare issues, performed by Romani women from Hungary. It’s aesthetic follows the Rimini Protokoll tradition of putting ordinary people on stage to tell their stories, and its structure—women celebrating a birthday party and telling their personal stories about childbirth experiences—perfectly echoes the psychodrama therapy workshops the show was born out of; a sort of process meets aesthetics.

If LLR’s aesthetics had a deep link to the show’s process, and the hand of its director Edit Romankovics seemed slight, the opposite could be said of Invited by Seppe Baeyerns from Ultima Vez (a show I have also written about in depth). In it, the aesthetic was the process; the two were not interchangeable. Audiences were led onto a stage, where they sat and were invited to dance. They were both the audience and the performers.

Participatory theatre is indeed changing the theatrical landscape.

For Tscholl, aesthetic is as important as process—its abstraction helps the art transcend and gives the audience a heightened experience. Tscholl wants “an aesthetical and social discussion about the relevance of these (participatory) encounters.” Eriksson worries that artist-led aesthetical work—where participants are less involved with the direction of the piece or its content—whilst gaining in celebration and inclusion, might lose in its subversive element. She cites Jeremy Deller’s we’re here because we’re here project in the UK—where volunteers dressed as WWI soldiers went into public areas and onto public transport to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme—as an example: once upon a time, such a work might have been seen as a protest against war, but it now seems more of a commemoration.

three actors onstage

Long Live Regina. Pictured: Robértné Hováthné, Valéria Gergőne Kállainé, Anita Rácz. Photo by Gabriella Csoszó.

The Future of Participatory Theatre

So, what is the future of this kind of work? I put to Tscholl that the theatre world might be witnessing a minor revolution—where theatre is becoming more collaborative, opening out to more voices and communities—and she laughs and shakes her head, saying participatory theatre only makes up 10 or 20 percent of theatre in Europe. I draw her attention to the number of women participants in the festival—they made up almost, if not more than, 50 percent of the creatives, especially directors. Just as I am wondering if this has something to do with the male ego—perhaps it is men who desire to work in more traditional, hierarchical, and conservative ways—Tscholl mentions that whilst participatory theatre is increasing in most countries such as Italy, Greece, France, and Scotland, where it is being embraced by institutions, in Poland and Hungary artists have been forced to take participatory theatre into the independent sector due to a lack of state support. However, even there participatory theatre is on the rise because it is seen as a medium for political involvement.

I later ask Sharkey if we are experiencing a move towards a different way of working in theatre, and he responds by saying that he believes there is panic from global institutions as they have realized the Western canon is no longer attracting people and that they don’t know how to find new stories and make them relevant using old structures. Whilst Sharkey loves great playwrights and thinkers, as indeed I do, he says the place of the playwright is definitely changing. Here he means that a playwright’s role in the broader theatre world—not just in participatory theatre—is shifting from being the sole author of a piece to someone who arranges material that is devised or found by others; a sort of dramaturgical role.

Theatre was always about collaboration, Eriksson adds, it’s just that it’s been hidden from us until recently. Now people are becoming more aware of it. As for Adefioye, he believes that theatre is a “democratizing tool for different individuals to tell the stories they want without fear of being rated or critiqued by the values of a dominant group of people.” For him, Our Stage and the Bürgerbühne festival has a long way to go to get there.

Overall, participatory theatre is indeed changing the theatrical landscape. For some people, like Tscholl, it celebrates plurality, allows a range of voices to be heard, and employs a high standard of aesthetics. For others, the question of what the collaboration between artists and citizens looks like is an important part of its relevancy. Rather than clarifying terms and work methods, the Our Stage festival showed that there are as many different approaches to participatory theatre as there are disparate voices taking part and being given a platform. If Tscholl really wanted to celebrate the variety that this kind of theatre allows, then this festival was successful in this.

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Whilst Sharkey loves great playwrights and thinkers, as indeed I do, he says the place of the playwright is definitely changing. Here he means that a playwright’s role in the broader theatre world—not just in participatory theatre—is shifting from being the sole author of a piece to someone who arranges material that is devised or found by others; a sort of dramaturgical role.

This really stood out to me. I want to see this from more writers in the future, if current institutions can find space and time for this type of work. And I hope they do.