30 May 2015
An essay by Sarah Weston
How does a community play differ from any piece of amateur dramatic theatre? Firstly, a community play project is entirely invested in the location of the specific community who undertakes it. It is not simply about putting on an existing play or musical, but about creating a piece of original work that is embedded in the community’s past, and perpetuated by the community’s present. A playwright is commissioned to write a new script that has a historical basis in the local community. At the same time, this script endeavours to reflect the community’s present: the current socio-political and cultural issues that affect and reveal community identity. In this sense, the community play tells us something about the past at the same time as saying something about today.
A community play is not entirely led by the community itself, but in dialogue with a professional production team. Many past participants in community plays advocate this model as it brings a level of excellence, skills and experience that would otherwise be absent. This sharing of skills is not one sided however: it is not just about the ‘professionals’ teaching the ‘amateurs’, but for a collective, dialogic distribution of skills and knowledge: alongside the professional theatre skills that the production team bring, there is a responsibility on the community to bring their own local and cultural knowledge into shaping the project. Involvement in a play reveals skills participants never knew they had. Community members take the responsibility to be involved in every stage of the production: performance, backstage, design, ticket selling, publicity, outreach etc. As Jon Oram writes, through taking on a community play, ‘a community begins to accept a responsibility for its own cultural development.’
The scale of a community play creates a collective experience that few participants forget. Being part of a large cast, over a long period of time, performing a piece of professionally steered theatre generates new feelings of camaraderie and solidarity in the community. People who live on the same road but never talk, meet each other in a new way. Older generations interact with the younger. Being part of a collective endeavour implicitly establishes participants on equal terms. The joy and celebration of a co-operative end goal draws people together, undermining established cliques or identity groups, and ‘by demonstrating everyone has a valuable contribution to make preconceptions and prejudices are broken down.’ Further than the participants, this also runs into the community play’s audiences. This is in the unique way that the community performs to itself that is characteristic of the plays. The promenade staging of the plays results in the cast and the audience sharing the same space in the performance, meaning that the audience are integrated into the community of the play, at the same time as the cast are simultaneously from the same community as the audience. This presents the cast member of a community play in a unique position different to the professional actor, where they can talk to the audience member in performance both as an actor, and as an equal. This is what Jon Oram describes as the ‘social actor’, distinctive to the community play: ‘actors who live and work in the community to whom they perform are uniquely placed to offer something professional actors aren’t generally placed to do.’ This role allows the community actor to express the contemporariness of the issues in the play to the audience: they perform a character of the past, at the same time as imploring the issue as a member of the current community, to other members of the current community. This ensures that the community play is socially and politically relevant to the present community experience, rather than just a recreation of the past. I believe in this sense, that a community play is a highly progressive and radical form of theatre practice that experiments with form and content in a way that most professional productions are unable to achieve. It is therefore a valuable contribution both to the artistic life of the local community, and to the state of contemporary theatre practice.
A community play accordingly makes both an imprint on the life of the broader community, as well as the individuals within it. Friendship, bonds and memories are formed that are unique. It changes people, both internally, and in relationship to where they live: the places that people just used to walk past become sites of the community play, events in the story, memories from performance, or markers of friendships. It is in this sense ‘life-changing’: it leaves a mark both locally and personally that is very hard to forget.
 Jon Oram, Claque Theatre: www.claquetheatre.com
 Jon Oram, Claque Theatre: www.claquetheatre.com
 Jon Oram, ‘The Community Theatre and the Genesis of the Social Actor’. Claque Theatre. http://www.claquetheatre.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Article_Community-Play-and-Social-Actor.pdfReturn to blog