Our Community?

It’s more complicated than just rejecting the premise of the question, but I do flinch whenever a form asks us how our art serves our community.

Such questions imply that art should have a simple utilitarian function and that artists should be in a position to know what utilitarian value our audiences receive from it. The challenge doesn’t stop there, after all, what is our community?

I have sympathy for those who ask the question. It’s not unreasonable to assume that art fulfils a need in an audience, if it didn’t then no one would bother turning up to anything. What that need is though, who knows? I’m not even entirely sure why I go to performances.

‘To be entertained’ is too strong. ‘Diverted’ is possibly better. ‘Taken to a state of transcendence’ would be nice once in a while. ‘To be educated’ is wrong but ‘provoked’ or ‘enriched’ both work, as does ‘intellectually stimulated’. ‘Moved’? Well that’s often nice. I don’t think I ever attend knowing which of these experience I hope to have, showing up is an act of curiosity. I attend for the pleasure of exploring an unknown thing that’s the result of someone else’s artistic labour. Sometimes I attend in order to feel part of an event that is larger than myself. Sometimes a performance may be an excuse for a social encounter, in which case what the performance is is secondary to the encounter it catalyses.

As I can’t define in simple terms my own motivations for attending art then second guessing this in other people feels like a hopeless task (and lumping everyone together as having the same motivation seems crazy). To write anything in the box feels either impossibly reductive, irredeemably arrogant or inexcusably pretentious.

The second question, embedded in the first, asks how we define our community. The implication here is that we operate in a singular community, but realistically we are members of multiple communities. We create art in Birmingham, so this city feels like our community, but our concerns are broader than that. We are humans and so always humans are our community (we don’t make shows for animals, plants or lichen). We are adults and sometimes children feel like a different community. We are artists and theatre makers, so our shows may speak particularly strongly in this community. When we work with a school that school (and its multiple communities) become our community.

Looked at superficially Home Of The Wriggler has been Stan’s Cafe’s most parochial show. It was the story of the Longbridge car plant and was made following interviews with former workers. However, despite its specificity there was also a universality to its themes that meant it was performed across the country and toured to Beijing. The Full Monty was about former steelworkers in Sheffield and similarly parochial.

As stated above the question doesn’t seem unreasonable. If public money is going to be gathered in centrally and distributed for the making of art then there have to be some shared criteria as to how much goes to who for what. In such a situation it seems reasonable for the people charged with giving out the money to ask ‘what benefit will accrue to who if we give this to you?’

Unfortunately it is impossible for me to imagine what a really good answer to this question would be. Vague answers feel most truthful (‘this is a show to enrich the lives of inquisitive adult humans’) but their vagueness automatically makes them terrible answers. Simple precise answers (‘this show will improve the mental health of the residents of B16’) sound like better answers but they also sound unrealistic, untruthful and ultimately, if you put too many of them together, they start to sound like the arts portfolio of a communist state.

I’m afraid not only do I have no good answer to this question I don’t even have a suggestion as to what a better question would be, which isn’t very helpful. We’ll all probable just have to continue to muddle through as we are.

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