Is This Proper Community Theatre? 

Making Theatre in Huang Pu Village, Guangzhou

Performers Huang Pu Village

I have spent a long time in my working life trying to overcome the labels others, including funding bodies, set as descriptions for a particular type of creative activity, and the conflict that can occur between these different forms. The most obvious include Amateur Arts versus Professional Arts, Community Arts versus Professional Arts, Community Arts versus Amateur Arts and Process versus Product.

Labels can be extremely problematic and when discussing community and participatory art they seem to have huge amounts of baggage and differing understandings.

Community arts ‘process versus product’ debate was raging in the 1990’s when I was Artistic Director of Northern Stage in Newcastle, UK. The company were often accused of just being interested in ‘getting bums on seats’ and not showing any interest in local community activities. This was patently not true, and we prided ourselves on the three strands of our work, all of equal importance, ‘Producing, Presenting and Participation’. We achieved this through the vehicle of an Ensemble Company of performers and artists. We were committed to the creation of great art with and for everybody, long before the Arts Council of England thought that was a good idea. We worked with great world-class artists as well as with local people, young people, old people, people with disabilities, (celebrating their abilities), people in prisons etc etc. We toured across Europe with shows. The local was international and the international local

‘A Clockwork Orange’ one of my first productions at Northern Stage 1994

During my time in Newcastle I got to know the work of Helix Arts. an organisation based in Newcastle, that undertakes Participatory Arts Programmes across the North East of England. They believed that

‘participation in creative activity is fundamental to the well-being of individuals and communities and should be accessible to all’

We also believed that.

But somehow there was a schism between organisations who worked in the larger ‘mainstream’ organisations and those who worked with smaller, local, grass root organisations. This was probably because the funding for large regional theatres was very much larger than the neighbourhood projects. But there were other more important reasons why the mistrust existed. I remember having conversations with Toby Lowe, then Chief Executive of Helix Arts about his Spectrum of Participatory Arts Practise where he puts forward the view that –

‘ …. we think that it’s possible to define a spectrum of participatory arts practice that could help us to understand the differences between different practices. At one end of the spectrum lie projects whose purpose is to facilitate a creative enquiry for a set of participants, at the other end lie projects in which an artist uses a group of people as material for a creative process that they define’.

He went on to explain that he named the different ends of this spectrum Kester and Bishop in homage to the debate between Grant Kester and Claire Bishop about the quality or otherwise of different elements of “collaborative art practice”.

The use of the word ‘uses’ troubled me. It feels judgemental. Nobody likes to be used.

But I always thought I was at the Bishop end of the spectrum, where I worked with people to understand them better and ‘used’ the process, in a way that I defined, to create contemporary performance pieces. Is this proper community theatre? On many occasions I was accused of using people for my own purpose – somehow exploiting them. I carry this thought with me in every piece of community art I engage in.

Walking into work at Huang Pu Village Gaungzhou

I was thinking about all these things as I travelled to Asia this November to work in Guangzhou, in mainland China, to undertake a 5 day workshop organised by Jade Liu at 72 Life Theatre Project.

72 Life Theatre Project is currently sponsored by One Lab of One Foundation in China and is helping to support people from different communities, particularly marginalised or disadvantaged groups. Jade had attended a previous workshop I held with Joyce Lee, Mind the Gap Resident Director, in Hong Kong last year and she had invited me to Guangzhou.

My job was to develop a piece of theatre with a group of professional social workers, teachers and community arts workers based on the methodology I was exploring in my recent theatre work in UK, including Contained in Bradford  and Anniversary in Leeds. Jade felt that the way I worked might be used in the different circumstances in which 72 Life Theatre Project was working. Also that the people attending the workshop might use some of the methods in their own work.

Ancestors Hall – photo Feng Shu

I wanted to make some theatre that came from the stories of people who I didn’t know, who did not speak the same language as me and whose culture and life experience I didn’t have knowledge of. By listening to their stories I imaged I would learn more about them, myself and the world we live in.

I always describe the work I do as ‘contemporary performance for people who are interested in people’. I think the work can be defined as community arts and I think it can also be defined as professional theatre. But to be honest, it is other people who want me to define it – I prefer to think about it as theatre performance that ‘works with the most appropriate people necessary to create the work’. I don’t have some lofty ambition to change people’s lives, although sometimes the work contributes to life changing attitudes, I am interested in what happens on the sidelines of life. I want to explore those seemingly insignificant moments of life that become meaningful to me and to others.

Telling stories photo Feng Shu

Lyn Gardner wrote about my work in a Guardian Newspaper review of William Trevors’s Ballroom of Romance I did at Northern Stage as follows;

Like so much of director Alan Lyddiard’s work, it has a diffuse quality: often, the important things are on the periphery. There are no big statements, only tiny gestures: a woman picking a hair off a man’s suit, the men strutting. It takes the lives of ordinary people surviving on the margins and makes them seem special, almost blessed

That is where I feel happy and where I can make a little bit of sense of the world. Through the process of sharing the work with audiences, I believe others can enjoy being with people, enjoy their stories, enjoy watching them and feel an empathy for them. The generosity of sharing stories, the generosity of listening to others – A Theatre of Generosity.

Mr Hu’s Ancestors Home
photo Feng Shu

So back to Guangzhou. I arrived mid October after having some problems getting my visa for China. (You can’t currently get a Chinese Visa in Singapore if you don’t live there permanently ).

Guangzhou traditionally romanised as Canton, is the capital and most populous city of the province of Guangdong in southern China. Located on the Pearl River about 120 km  north-northwest of Hong Kong. Guangzhou has a history of over 2,200 years and was a major terminus of the maritime Silk Road and continues to serve as a major port and transportation hub today.

Listening to Sean – photo Feng Shu

My workshop took place in Huang Pu village where Jade had organised a week long residency. We had 17 participants from all over China with some people travelling from as far away as Beijing and Wuhan City to take part in the workshop.

Tuesday 31st October

Jade, I and interns Carol and Venessa travelled to Huang Pu Village and moved into our accommodation for the week. A delightful apartment alongside a charming river running through the village. We met with Mr Qi, The Fixer, and visited Mr Hu’s Ancestors Hall to prepare the space for the next day. There are many Chinese Ancestral Halls in Huang Pu, it was once a very rich port. We cleared the space of everything we didn’t need and made the space welcoming with the help of Mr Hu and his team of helpers. We met the Uncle who worked as a kind of caretaker/janitor. He became a fixture of the workshop – always there, always helpful, always sitting watching what we were doing.

The Caretaker – Photo Feng Shu

Wednesday 1st November

First days of workshops always make me feel a little nervous but the participants arrived early and I had a chance to get to know them a little before we started. Sean, one of the people I had worked with in Hong Kong was there which was reassuring. We had to work in three languages Mandarin, Cantonese and English, but with Jade acting as an interpreter we were on solid ground. At 9.30am we welcome everybody and introduced them to Mr Hu Senior who told us the history of the place and about some of his ancestors.

Mr Hu telling us about his Ancestor Hall

We learnt about the significance of the building and of the people in the photos that were on the walls. I wanted our performance to be about the place where we were performing and the people connected to it, people from the village as well as the participants.

I explained the work we would do over the 5 days. Everybody was given a little brown book where they could anonymously write about their thoughts and feelings. These books were collected every morning and distributed to other people so that the books became the stories, thoughts, observations and reflections of many people.

Slow walking – photo Feng Shu

Then the starting point of all my work – The Slow Walk exercise. I have been doing this exercise with people for over 40 years, with thousands of people from all walks of life. You can get details of this exercise, ‘The Slow Walk of Charisma’here

I am here – photo Zong

After lunch we split into groups and had a guided journey through the village. Groups went to visit locals to hear their perceptions of the village. We visited another Ancestral Home, that had been turned into a art shop, a wood-carver’s studio, a oyster restaurant and other places. We needed to get a real sense of the place we were working in.

We started telling each other stories.

Thursday 2nd November 

Slow Walking, Stories/reflections/observations, reading from the little brown books.

Gathering material.

I introduced the group to the 5 Principles of Authentic Living as devised by Robert Rabbin

Be Present

Pay Attention

Listen Deeply

Speak Truthfully

Act Creatively

Choreography – photo Feng Shu

I find this mantra useful in getting stories from participants at workshops. A simple guide to compiling stories that will fully engage audiences. I work with them to achieve a state of ‘living and performing’ in the moment. It is difficult for people just ‘to be’, to let go of all the things that occupy our minds.

Letting go of thoughts is an important step in delivering authentic stories, stories that come from a deeper part of ourselves and get beyond all that stuff that preoccupies us every day. Just as the space must be clear of debris so must the mind and the body. As Ricky Gervais once said, approximately, ‘I like performers to be the equivalent of a cold glass of water’. That sounds perfect to me – natural, cool and life giving.

I also introduced the group to The ‘Nelken’ Line from the piece by Pina Bausch. This choreography is being taught across the world as part of a project from The Pina Bausch Foundation – Details here

The Nelken Line photo Feng Shu

We worked on the choreography – simple movements representing Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. There were two reasons for including the ‘Nelken Line’ into our piece of performance. Firstly we would be part of of a world wide initiative that meant that we, in our little village of Huang Pu, would be connected to a global phenomenon. Secondly the Nelken Line has a clear connection to the slow walking exercise, in that it is a combination of simple walking and gestures. Slow walking is not in itself meaningful, but somehow it is always interpreted by an audience with their own understanding of what it means. Our performance was emerging as a series of personal stories interrupted by choral movement pieces, exploring both the presence of the individuals and the community as a whole. We we attempting to show the importance of community support and activity to empower individual aspiration. The group and the individual being of equal importance.

The Performance Space – Feng Shu

The movement sections were a collection of rules and instructions. They are a structure in which meaning emerged through the doing of the structure.  All the “rules” are actually arbitrary, any rules are only the outward representation of an intention. The intention is 100% commitment to what one is doing, and taking 100% care to complete the task without thought.  A mediative process that connects with a deeper understanding beyond thought.  Incidentally it is worth also looking at the Japanese Actor/Director/Teacher writings about taking pleasure in daily tasks, fulfilling them completely with 100% focus.  (Yoshi Oida’s The Invisible Actor)

One of the aspects of the work that we did not cover enough, because of time restraints, was to get to know the village better. We did what we could. In the afternoon Mr Qi, the fixer, had invited a number of people living in the village to come and meet with the group and to exchange stories. This was a really great session with about 30 people sitting in a circle listening to each other, sharing stories, getting to know each other. Mr Bu the singer, songwriter sang us a song which we used in the performance, one of our favourite restauranteurs shared with us why he called his restaurant ‘The Auntie That Always Laughs’, a small business woman explained to us why she never locks the door to her house and a Sushi chef played a tune on a Xiao (flute). We heard many fascinating stories of artists who had come to the village to work.

We had heard from Mr Hu on our first day of the workshops, but he was one of only a few older people we got to know. We got to know the uncle caretaker a bit, but it was a gap in our research. The young artists and entrepreneurs  who had come to the village to live and work told one part of the story of life in the village, we needed to learn from the older generation.

One older man attended the workshop everyday and would sit in a corner. We wanted him to join us. He had so many stories to tell us. He knew a lot and really wanted someone to listen to him, but refused to talk in public.

Sean and Helen talking to the older man who would not join us

Friday 3rd November

In the morning Slow Walking, rehearsing ‘The Nelken Line’, Story telling and readings from ‘The Little Brown books’

In the afternoon ‘Mise-en-scène’. I always liked the phrase Mise-en-scène rather than director or the term ‘blocking’. It makes more sense to me and what I do. I place things and action on stage in order to illuminate the text, or rather, in this case, the performers, who were the text.

The Mise-en-scène is the structure and frame in which the work or meaning exists. Everything the performers do is important and crucial to the meaning of the piece. Sometimes the most important action happens in the background or in the margins. Sometimes it is an accumulation of many things happening in different parts of the stage.

Choreography – photo Feng Shu

I structure the action to reflect the performers I am working with. The performers are creating the text by being who they are, doing what they do and saying what they say. I remember the Russian/Israeli director Yevgeny Arye, Artistic Director of Gesher Theatre telling me the story of one day taking a rehearsal in the theatre. All the ‘actors’ were working  hard to express the essence of some scene when a door opened right at the back of the stage, and a cleaner walked through and started brushing the stage. Yevgeny eyes where drawn to the cleaner. In fact watching the cleaner became more interesting and meaningful than anything the ‘actors’ were doing. I think of this story often when organising the mise-en-scène of any show I am working on. Today I think would be much happier watching people in a town square going about their business than I would be watching a ‘world-class’ production of Peter Handke’s ‘The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other’. A show that I was actually very enamoured with when I first saw it in 1992.

Saturday 4th November  

Slow walking, Choreography, Storytelling and readings from the little brown book.

A free walk in the village to try to meet older residents and learn more about the village.

On Saturdays and Sundays the village is full of tourists and locals set up stalls selling everything from sugar cane juice to sugared artworks, from small crabs on strings to the most delicious dumplings I had ever tasted.

We spent the most of the day rehearsing, discussing which stories people would tell. It was their decision, I just wanted to make sure that the story they had chosen was told in an engaging way and didn’t go on for too long.

Stories – photo Feng Shu

It is extraordinary the way the work matures each time we go through it. It is always changing and developing – it is never finished. As long as there are stories to be heard life will go on. The performance changes as people’s lives change, we just create something that is true for that moment in time.

Choreography – photo Pina Bausch

Sunday 5th November

Slow Walking, Choreography, readings from the little brown books, re-capping on the stories.

Mr Ding was still not sure which story he wanted to tell. He was the oldest of the group and maybe didn’t have as much performing experience as others in the group. He was nervous. He wanted to tell the right story. He had come to the workshop because he had been persuaded by his daughter. He told us about his relationships with all his daughters on the first story telling session and how he felt about them. A lot of love of course. Half an hour before the performance he still hadn’t made up his mind.

Mr Ding

He knew when he was due to talk but didn’t know which of the many stories he had told would be the one he would share with the audience that night.

There was another section of the piece that was not pre-defined. At one stage the whole company came to sit on the front steps, closer to the audience. They picked up the littlebrown books and started to read to themselves. These books had been passed to different people every day. Each day they would write about what they experienced, anecdotal stories, descriptions of people they had met, reflections on the work and whatever they felt at any particular moment. Everyday we would share some of the writings from inside the books.

In the performance one by one (not everybody) would read a section from the book that they happened to be reading. Nobody knew what was going to be read out and there was a sense of anticipation and a moment of spontaneity among the performers. Mostly these where completely new thoughts or feelings that were being read out.

We performed the piece to an audience of maybe 100 people. It was performed in darkness with artificial light for the very first time. On the whole the piece worked.

It was touching, funny and beautiful to look at, full of delightful moments from ‘lives in progress’.

Performance – photo Feng Shu

At the end of the performance we discussed the piece with the audience. The first question was why I had included the Pina Bausch choreography, ‘The Nelken Line’. I explained that, like so many artists, Pina Bausch is, and continues to be, a big inspiration in my work. She amongst other inspired me to create my company of older performers.

Performance – Photo Feng Shu

When I started to write about community arts on this blog, I named ‘Kontakthof’  createdby her, with a company of performers over the age of 65, from her home town of Wuppertal, as the best piece of community dance theatre I had ever seen. Most importantly the reason was because the Pina Bausch Foundation was encouraging people across the world to learn the piece and upload a video of it to the Foundation web site. I though that we would make our contribution to this from the village of Huang Pu so we could be connected to a global phenomenon. In fact I believe we are the first group from mainland China to do it.

Nelkin Line – Photo Fenu Shu

For more details go to

Monday 6th November

The last day of our workshop. Time for reflection. To put questions and to think about what the group had achieved. To think about what to do next.

I want to say a personal thank you for all the people who participate in this workshop I learnt so much through the process of working with you

Janice, Nora, Gwan, Mi Qi, WenJing, Julia, Mr Ding, Michelle , Sean, Jing, Lynn, San Shui,  Sherry, Shuang, Banana, Kimi

To Jade Lui and all her team at 72 Life Theatre Project including interns Carol, Vanessa, Zong, Sharon and Jane

To Zong (again!) and Shuai and Feng Shu for documenting the process and performance

Performers photo Kong

The late night plane back to Singapore to continue my travels across Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia arriving back in UK on the first day of February 2018.

Post Show – photo Feng Shu