The Fashion of working with Community.

My 'Llaneski' Waleslab has just come to an end and as part of the work I had to feedback to NTW about what I discovered and how it has/will affect my personal practice. 

'Llaneski' was a project where I and a team of creatives worked with a group of Polish teenagers from Llanelli to give them an opportunity to express themselves, their voices and their experiences in a creative way- mainly through dance and art.

I had originally hoped to work with the whole Polish community of Llanelli, I had also imagined that this project would eventually go on a journey where, in a year or so, we would be putting up a site-specific piece of theatre with the residents of Llanelli (locals, Polish and all other cultures and ethnicities that now live there), giving them a creative stage to have their voices heard on. I imagined all sorts and was very excited by the idea.

But it was my idea. Not theirs. And guess what? They weren't as excited as me- they were busy and wanted to keep their heads down and out of any trouble. They definitely has no interest in making that much noise about the fact that they were living here. 

I got a lot out of the workshops, and really hope that the individuals that came did also. I gained loads of insight into life in Llanelli as a teenager from Poland- the language barrier is a huge problem for a lot of them, racial abuse is a daily thing in their lives and most of them felt completely disenfranchised. We explored these themes, created some work and it sparked ideas of what direction this project could and should go.

So, coming to the end of this project meant that I was having to think of not only what my next steps as an artist were but also what next steps can I put in place for the young people who have responded positively to having a creative outlet? What would they like to see happen next and what can I do to try and put that in place for them (regardless of whether it involves me or not)? They helped me with my idea therefore I should listen to and help them with theirs. And this is an element of working in Community Theatre as a freelancer that I feel must be shared- you don't get paid for this bit. This is something that you do in return for the presence and voice they've given to your work. You have experience and contacts of how to go about a creative idea they might have. This is your responsibility- not just as an artist but as a member of society.

By the way, I'm not saying that you then have to commit yourself fully to becoming the world's best volunteer within any community you work in! If there's anything that comes out of it that seems to need a lot of time then you can always try and find funding for that and include your time in it. For example, the teenagers we worked with said they would love to have singing lessons so I've found a singing teacher and made connections with the school's youth worker and have applied for Communities First funding to secure singing lessons for the next two terms. I've written the application and made the connections (one day's work maximum) and then that project will continue without me. If they wanted drama or writing classes then of course, I would have included myself in the funding application to be paid for leading those workshops. But that one day's work without pay to try and kick-start an idea the community have is what I believe is the artist's/theatre company's responsibility. 

I feel very much that I'm a part of a wave in theatre at the moment where we are all (and I'm definitely included) obsessed with working with communities, with "real" people, "real" voices. It gives a project or a production a certain purpose, a depth and a rawness that you can't create with just three actors in a black box. But we MUST remember that with working with all this real-ness, comes a huge amount of responsibility. We've got past the stage of parachuting in and out and we now use lots of buzz words like "legacy", "outreach" and "exit strategy" but lets please make sure that we all give those words real thought and sensitivity. It really is very important.

One of the biggest thing I've felt from working on 'Llaneski' is that I've started to hate titles! We create these titles for the community groups we work with. To say that I'm working with 'Polish teenagers' seemed so ridiculous because it made them all seem the same and of course, they were all completely individual, as are all people! We do it all the time- working with 'prisoners', 'young mothers', 'the elderly', 'muslim community'. It's all so broad and vague and one dimensional- but how do we get around that? By naming every single individual you're working with???!! I don't know yet, but I'm thinking about it!

I wanted to share all this with you and also welcome any thoughts or experiences you might have had with working within communities and more importantly, with what you did at the end of a project. Anything you wished you'd done differently?

And how do we avoid those titles??? Someone must have a great idea about that!


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Comment by Gavin Porter on April 7, 2015 at 23:11

Hi Bethan, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have experienced similar things on both sides, both having projects 'done' for my community, as opposed to with, and working with communities. I too am conscious of how I describe who Im working with. I remember attending a seminar around community arts practice and what stuck me was how many time people used 'they' to describe the community the artist was working with, I thought where is the 'we' and the 'us'.

I also remember when I first started out working as an artist working with communities and after receiving funding for a project I'd sometime have to beg friends and family to turn up to a workshop, because ultimately what I thought was a great idea wasn't what the community wanted.  

I dont know how we avoid titles but and I haven't worked as a freelancer for a while now, but once my post finishes here at NTW and if I work communities again I hope that the projects that are community driven, that my role is as much as an enabler as an artist, that roles are interchangeable, that I remember the community is the expert and that this approach leads to the 'we'.

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