What does 'community' theatre mean? Emine Fisek, author of Theatre & Community, takes a closer lookWhat do we mean by “community”? In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Society and Culture, English literary critic Raymond Williams makes a keen observation: although community’s English-language connotations fluctuate historically, they almost always signal positive associations. Community implies closeness, familiarity, warmth and even solidarity, and is often used in opposition to larger groupings that imply distance, strangeness and alienation.
For scholars of theatre and performance, these positive connotations are central to the stakes of what is often called “community theatre” in the Euro-American world. Indeed, when we talk about community-based theatre and performance practices undertaken by, for, or on behalf of a community, this positive valuation is implied. Community art, in its broadest sense, involves the coming together of a group of people who seek to represent a shared experience or identity, pursue a clearly defined political goal, demand a form of social or political recognition, or remember a forgotten past. Of course, this “coming together” is rife with blindspots: does community demand commonality? How do communities accommodate difference? In an era when the experience of being grouped into a community is said to rescue us from an atomized society yet often exposes us to new forms of capitalist exploitation, can community serve as an emancipatory tool?
When I began research as a PhD student focusing on theatrical representations of immigration in Paris in the early years of the twenty-first century, one of the many theatre collectives that I came across was named Quelques unes d’entre nous (translated as ‘A few from among us’). This group was composed of women whose lives had been shaped, in one way or another, by migration, and who now lived in the northern Parisian suburb of Blanc-Mesnil and were active in the local social center, La Maison des Tilleuls. In the aftermath of a series of social upheavals that took place in banlieues across France in the fall of 2005, these women had decided to mount a theatre performance presenting their perspective on the events. Their play, Le Bruit du monde m’est rentré dans l’oreille, was a moving exploration of what life was like for hyphenated citizens living in the peripheries of French metropoles in the new millennium: the women revealed an attachment to the small, mixed town of Blanc-Mesnil itself, even as they decried its abandonment by urban planners and politicians alike.
What I found most interesting and perplexing about Le Bruit du monde m’est rentré dans l’oreille, however, was that the group seemed to refrain from referring to their work as “community theatre.” Both the formal and the thematic content of their work appeared to mirror their North American and Western European counterparts, but “community” was not the idiom through which their practices became meaningful. Of course, this did not mean that community was not at stake in their work, but simply that it was not a readily identifiable aspect of their political imagination. As I researched the connotations of community or communauté in the French national context, I realized that there were multiple ways that artists and activists could articulate the value of collective action and collaborative art.
It has become imperative that we question the presumed universality of community as an artistic or political ideal.