community theatre

community theatre
   In the 1960s fringe companies, formed around political and cultural issues, began taking theatre into non-theatre venues. The most notable example was John McGrath’s 7:84 company, whose tour to the Scottish Highlands of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil epitomized the notion of making live theatre available while promoting the ideology of a ‘counterculture’. The community theatre movement grew out of the recognition of the needs of communities without theatre. It was generally populist in appeal, offering an aesthetic challenge to the style of establishment theatre and creating new venues and audiences; it also, by and large, retained an ‘oppositional’ stance grounded in a political idealism associated with ecological concerns and an acknowledgement of the oppressions of those outside the dominant class. The idea that theatre could be made with communities began to take root. Welfare State International developed the concept of ‘celebratory protest’ with their carnivalesque style of ‘theatreas- event’, where audiences are in the thousands; Ann Jellicoe founded a new genre with the ‘community play’, involving hundreds of local people. Both have worked on the principle that art is a bonding agent for communities which have become fragmented. Direct participation has become the key element of community theatre, with professionals working as ‘animateurs’ to facilitate people in finding a voice and using theatre as a means of agitating for improvement, or as a way of animating (hidden) histories.
   Whereas ‘amateur’ theatre groups still flourish as a hobby for the middle classes, who replicate the hierarchies of West End theatre, community theatre groups operate on democratic principles and are rooted in the concepts of accessibility, involvement and identification. There is crossfertilization with other arts, as frequently community drama is allied with dance and music under the umbrella term ‘community arts’. Continued expansion of community theatre companies/groups in the 1960s testifies to the efficacy of this new branch of theatre practice. International theorists (Barba, Boal) have been influential in the move towards valorizing the ‘process’ of making community theatre, and of using drama as a cultural ‘healing agent’, as opposed to its product. The politics of those involved in the movement have diluted somewhat in the 1990s as the focus has shifted from the macro level of radical cultural intervention to the micro level of individual ‘empowerment’. See also: fringe theatre; improvisation; McGrath, John; theatre, regional
   Further reading
    Kershaw, B. (1992) The Politics of Performance, Radical Theatre as Cultural Intervention, London: Routledge.
   DYMPHNA CALLERY

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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