The community drama


A common thing I see when working in the field of community drama or indeed at university is the concept that everything that young people devise in community theatre work is good. The phrases "that was amazing" and "that was like something from the west end" are thrown around with little regard for truthfulness or actuality. The reality that young people need positive comments and recognition for the work they do is imperative to maintaining our practice with young people through raising self-esteem, confidence and performance ability. However this protection from critical feedback acts as a barrier to critical thinking and may be damaging young people's development. How long can this in-genuine positivity last?

As community artists or indeed anyone working with young people we can sometimes allow participants too much freedom which can lead to destructive sessions, ineffective projects and can even be dangerous for the young people involved.

There are lots of different forms and methods of facilitation; many of which work in the plethora of different situations we find ourselves in as a community practitioners but inside these forms there are some central ideologies that cross between the styles and means of facilitation.

It is important to explore facilitation methods, the ideologies behind them and their efficacy in relation to young people in arts projects across the UK. Why do some practitioners allow sessions to be 'hijacked'? Why is there a common thought that 'if young people want to do it, it must be right'? And how can we combat this culture of 'saying yes' while also maintaining our iterative and pedagogical approach to our community theatre?

This essay plans to explore facilitation styles that lead to different outcomes and feeling by participants. The ideologies and efficacy of different styles will be compared and examples of practice will be given in regard to their social, political and theoretical standing.

I will also explore the difference between criticism, and critique. How important is it to critique work that young people complete? Are professional plays made for young people properly critiqued? And is there a difference between critique and constructive criticism?

This essay will compare two contrasting facilitation styles; the 'Dorothy Heathcote' method: a non oppressive approach with freedom to experiment and the 'Mike Leigh' method which feeds on people's ideas to generate an outcome, both of which practiced by many people in the field of community drama.

This paper intends to compare different styles of facilitation and their outcomes which will answer the essay title. I intend to prove that not all work by young people needs overly positive feedback, and that constructive criticism and critique are key factors in the work we do as community drama practitioners.

Section 1 - Facilitation, Outcomes and Efficacy

This section will explore different methodologies and their efficacy with young people in the field of community theatre.

Dorothy Heathcote - Non-Oppressive Facilitation Style

Dorothy Heathcote (although not categorically a community drama facilitator), explains that young people should be allowed the freedom to create and be explorative with theatre, enabling learning and self-motivated development through the use of drama. This method is a widespread and commonly used style which allows pedagogy (Freire, 1970) to take place (teacher or facilitator learning with student or participant as opposed to 'oppressive teaching').

In Heathcote's method, major decisions are left up to the participants for example; where and when a piece should be performed, the content, the timeframe and the characters; therein their feelings, motivations, actions and emotions. This instils a sense of ownership towards the piece, however she would not allow the participants to laugh or break concentration, ensured that the piece was taken seriously and that nobody gave up. When participants came to a problem, she didn't solve the problem for them rather gave them options and consequences to actions they took as the character they were playing.

"Dorothy Heathcote doesn't direct drama; she invokes it. Unlike most drama teachers, she allows the students to make as many of the decisions about what the drama is going to be about as possible. She makes only those decisions that must be made if what they choose to do happens dramatically" B.Wagner (1986)

Heathcote's method, although theoretically sound begs the argument: Would it work in today's climate? Nowadays young people can be more forceful with their unwillingness to comply with theatre exercises; can be somewhat complacent to the system of 'being taught' and in some cases express contentment for the facilitator involved. In essence the practice of 'allowing space to create' is perfect; the young person is satisfied that their view and ideas have been used and the facilitator has a finished piece that keeps everyone happy. However, what if the content of this piece is riddled with racism or sexism for example and after the warnings from the facilitator, the piece is not changed because 'it's the young people's work, they own it'. Isn't the piece in jeopardy of instilling these views on people who might not have these views before? If there is no clear boundary for the creation of the drama, anything could happen.

I am just playing devil's advocate but worst case scenario; this may happen, in fact, I have seen it happen. I think it is a difficult state of affairs when young people are engaged so much that the facilitator stops seeing the content of their participant's piece and focuses on the amazing spectacle that the young people are actually engaged. However, if the piece itself is promoting something that counteracts the majority's beliefs (i.e. racism, homophobia, cultural hatred), then the work is then looked at as meaningless in the eyes of the spectator, It offends, It defeats the object of our practice.

Heathcote's ideologies will work in some cases (for example a school), but I believe that there needs to be more than just 'space to explore through theatre'. Heathcote is an educationalist (and this means that her methods may have been different if she had been a community dramatist working with a group of young people at risk of offending for example) but her theories and methodologies are used by community theatre practitioners, meaning that our practice has been influenced by her teachings. Many people utilise her 'mantle of the expert' and other common methods, however is using the 'Dorothy Heathcote' technique leading community theatre practitioners to be less authoritative, less assertive and therefore having less control of their participants work?

Mike Leigh - Non-democratic yet non-oppressive facilitation style

"Although Mike Leigh's process is not a democratic one, because he makes the decisions regarding the selection of final material, you can see how the actors are afforded new ways of being involved in the creation of a piece of drama.

The idea and the information are coming from the actors' observations and their improvisations and not a single writer" R. Fredman & I. Reade (2004)

Again, not a specialist community theatre practitioner but an accessory or example to the practice of many facilitators I have encountered working in the field.

This method relies on the participant to provide the information and material from which the facilitator can produce a finalized piece. A mixture of experiences, 'talents', ideas, concepts and personal creative flares are among the many things that culminate at the end of his devising process. Leigh draws upon this uniqueness of each participant to personally select the bits that go into what he classes as his piece, effectively negating the need for a writer.

Similarly, some community facilitators use this pattern to create work with young people, myself included. I have found that this approach works with groups that lack the fundamental collaborations skills necessary to produce pieces that effectively communicate the ideas of the project. Some facilitators would argue that this method lacks 'community spirit' or collaboration; I would say that the collaboration occurs when the group is ready, and if a specific project has a short timeframe, this approach works well.

Although his methods can be questioned as far as community theatre is concerned, this process of 'leadership through collaboration' is a common one in our field. And through leading and 'being in control' of a collaboration some people's ideas and views may be lost or criticised.

Trestle Theatre's Toby Wishler states that he has had to learn, through his years of making theatre with Trestle, that not all ideas will work in the bigger scheme of the piece. That you cannot hold your ideas in such high regard, as others many not agree with you or other participants ideas may counteract your own.

"The thing I've learnt about devising, the real skill, is letting go of your ideas. Of having ideas and knowing, no matter how important they are to you, that someone else might not think they're that important. You've got to be prepared, the moment you speak an idea, the moment it has left your lips, to know that it's no longer yours, because you've planted a seed in someone else's brain, it will take root there and germinate into something else, which is a joy and a frustration. When you devise, you can have as many ideas as you want, but you'll never see the whole lot on stage at the end." Toby Wishler: Interview with Gill Lamden (2000)

This view is frustratingly familiar and maybe some participants in the field of community drama feel the same way. Unless a practitioner envelops and uses the entirety of an idea presented by a participant in the final piece, is the participant left with the same feeling? I would say the answer is no (for the majority of facilitators), if a facilitator is clever with their delivery of speech; the participants will feel that their work has been put in to the piece, even if it is only in a minuscule way. Trestle is similar in that respect, Wishler is one of the artistic directors of Trestle meaning that there must come a point when the collaboration must stop and a decision made (that old expression; too many cooks spoil the broth comes to mind). An artistic director is there to ensure an end product is made that matches the brief, Trestle must therefore use a 'Leigh' approach to devising and making theatre.

Leigh's technique could be seen by some as somewhat brutal when working in the field of community drama, however, he does not. His practice is used with professional actors. In the context of this paper he is used to illustrate a similar method used by practitioners in our field.

Both of these methods allow for an iterative or communicative process between practitioner and participant, in short a conversation of 'what works and what doesn't'. In this conversation arguments for and against specific ideas are presented by both sides and this is where evaluation and constructive criticism come into play.

Constructive Criticism and Evaluation versus Critique

It is important to define what the differences between these methods are; to enable us as practitioners to deliver them properly without the overzealous use of positive feedback or oppositely overly negative criticising of young people's work. Is critique necessary when working with community drama groups, or is evaluation good enough?

Constructive criticism is the process of taking notes on something, criticising it while also maintaining that it was conducive to the bigger idea. For instance; a group of young people I am working with have produced a piece of theatre without me. They show me the piece and I accordingly take notes. When the piece has finished I call the group together and we discuss what happened during the piece. "That scene seemed really quiet, how can we make it louder?" Then participants would suggest ways of making it louder. As the project goes on, the criticism becomes more specific and by the end, participants can really improve on bits that weren't as clear: "Jen, you were missing half of your costume and you forgot your lines during that scene. However you improvised really well and I think that the lines you used worked, but let's spend some time running through this scene" could be an example of specifically targeted critical evaluation. However if this were a critique it would be the evaluation of the performance as a piece of art. Kerrigan states that critique does not reference towards a process, only a final product.

"People confuse evaluation and critique; it is important to understand the difference. Evaluation talks about processes, methods, tools, abilities, what is learned and what is valuable - all in terms of agreed-upon goals. An evaluation places the activity and behaviour on a continuum from high to low - from success to failure.

A critique concerns the subjective, complex criteria that comprise a work of art. A critique doesn't deal with process; it deals with performance. Critiques take place constantly during rehearsals and after performances." S.Kerrigan (2000)

If we as community practitioners critiqued young people's work solely as 'artwork' then it may invalidate the process by not paying attention to the hard work put in by the young people.

McGregor et al (2000) states that there is a large portion of drama practitioners and teachers who think that drama should not be assessed, the idea that someone should judge participants feelings and emotions in a piece may be counterproductive. Some also feel that there are too many factors to be able to assess the work fairly and that criticising work too much could reduce quality and spontaneity of drama, thus leading to less truthful and realistic evaluation. However Ghiasi (2008) believes that some practitioners who promote and advocate this should be prepared to research the effect this has on participants. She states that in the mid-80s some practitioners criticised the praise given to participants, ultimately leading to young people becoming "praise-junkies" and that this hyper-dependency on praise (Kohn, 2001) lead young people to reduced achievement through becoming complacent.

"While positive reinforcement is a necessary feedback mechanism for children, generic praise can undermine self-esteem and be detrimental to achievement.

Such praise can disseminate the false notion that achievement is based on immutable internal parameters; reduce mastery and autonomy in achievements; and promote the internalization of failure and avoidance of challenges." Ghiasi (2008)

This argument is particularly intriguing when coupled with the information Chris Johnson's House of Games (2000). He describes an incident that occurred in his early years of community theatre practice where the session was entirely led by the young people within it. He describes how his process was 'hijacked' by the participants who did only three sessions in which they enacted heightening degrees of violent crimes through improvisation. On the fourth session, the group did not show, they had been arrested for attempting these violent crimes in real life. Johnson admits a sense of naivety with this group but also states that he allowed this to happen, praising the fact that the group were participating, let alone 'improvising', this is an example of how praise in the wrong situation can be catastrophic.

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