Theatre as knowledge exchange
Blog by: Dr Ellie Byrne
Photography by Jon Pountney
The People’s Platform was an event we held in Merthyr on 16th June. It was a piece of immersive theatre, held in a social club, with performances based on data from research we have been doing since 2013.
Performed to an audience of at least 200, sitting on round tables to facilitate discussion, it was developed as a finale to our case study within our project, Representing Communities, in collaboration with POSSIB: Lleisiau mewn Celf/Voices in Art. The research looked at how the arts can help construct different types of knowledge on health and wellbeing, and whether or not arts-based knowledge can be used by policy makers as a form of evidence. And, in relation to The People’s Platform, how arts can facilitate knowledge exchange between community members, policy makers and service providers to contribute to better understandings of health and wellbeing.
The show was co-created by local residents, the team at Cardiff University, and a number of other collaborators:
- POSSIB: Lleisiau mewn Celf/Voices in Art is a bi-lingual arts project with whom we have collaborated a lot over the course of the project. POSSIB partnered with us to commission National Theatre Wales TEAM for the show.
- National Theatre Wales, through their TEAM programme, was always going to deliver the show; they were identified in the original funding application as supporters of the research. We wanted to base the show on their Assembly model, which is described as a ‘performance debate’.
- Common Wealth Theatre: after meeting Rhiannon White, artistic director and co-founder, we knew we wanted her to direct the show. I went up to see one of Common Wealth’s shows in Bradford, and left feeling mesmerised. It touched my senses and emotions in a way that no other theatre had done before, and I wanted our show to do the same.
I had also met writer Kelly Jones about her previous work in Merthyr and her interest in our work, so we asked her to come on board as a dramaturg. Her role was to act as a conduit between the data and Rhiannon’s creative direction. With some extra funding, we brought Charlotte Lewis on board as a director for a newly established Young Company with pupils at Pen Y Dre High School.
We knew that by involving NTW team and Common Wealth it would be an excellent piece of art, and that was really important; it had to be excellent, otherwise people wouldn’t be moved by the messages in the data. But that also meant relinquishing control and ‘trusting the process’ as Rhiannon kept saying to us. She was right, of course, but it was an unsettling journey nonetheless!
We wanted a hook for policy makers to feel that the event was something worthwhile to them, so we linked it to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act as a lot of our data spoke to the 7 goals of the Act.
We had collected data through interviews, focus groups, and a range of visual and creative methods during the three years of research. We really wanted these to be reflected in the show as far as possible, but the range of voices, themes and issues was so broad that it sometimes seemed like an impossible task. In terms of the process we worked Kelly, Rhiannon, Charlotte and a huge team to devise the show. The directors held weekly workshops with the young company and a group of working age men at 3Gs Development Trust to explore the themes and content for the show, and to develop their confidence to get them ready to perform.
Alongside the workshops, Kelly came to our office and looked at the data in all its forms – interviews, drawings, video interviews, poems, music and film – and wrote a series of monologues from it all.
There were points where we felt the inter-disciplinarity of the collaboration quite intensely, and where our priorities clashed. We’ve referred to ‘logics of representation’ when we’ve talked previously about the priorities held by different players in a single project, and it’s the same here. Our own logic of representation was one of maintaining the integrity of the data, and representing it as plainly and as ethically as possible. We didn’t want it to be abstracted too much, or turned into metaphors that people might have to work hard at to understand. We wanted the show to reflect real life. The logic of representation for Rhiannon, Kelly and the creative team was about creating a powerful and coherent piece of art, and although they knew the data was important, their first priority was integrity for the art. For participants, the logic of representation sat with their own personal experience, and being able to represent that within the theatrical context.
For 5 days leading up to the show, we were in rehearsals with the creative team, professional actors, devisors and community members, some of whom performed in the show. Devising consisted of group work, with actors working together and with the community to come up with ideas for each scene, working with the script that Kelly had written and Rhi had edited. Scenes were performed to everyone and everyone had the chance to contribute to the creative process. Having had no experience of theatre production before, it was amazing to see what a collaborative and supportive process this was.
The power and conviction of the show was incredible.
There were a few key moments that really touched us, and made it completely worthwhile. At one point, one of the community members who had found it difficult to articulate himself during rehearsals, said his line with such emotion that he got a spontaneous round of applause. At another point, during one of the monologues, the actor, who had been cracking jokes as part of his monologue, said “I’ll end with this last one – what do you call a room full of people who can actually make a difference?” and after a moment of silence one of the audience members called out “us” – it doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was golden.
We’re still trying to make sense of what happened at the people’s platform, and how to take forward the energy and spirit of the night. We were overwhelmed by the people that came to the show, including the children’s commissioner for Wales, Baroness Kay Andrews who wrote the report on poverty and culture, representatives from the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government, the chair of the Arts Council and several Arts council staff, representatives from NTW and the national theatre of Malta, community development workers, local leaders of the community and of course people living in north Merthyr. We’ve been contacted by Baroness Kay Andrews and Dawn Bowden, the AM for Merthyr, both of whom want to carry on the conversations with us. We’re planning to do some debriefing with participants as soon as we can, to go through the table cloths and post it notes, and decide what might happen next. We have already met with Welsh Assembly colleagues, who have already begun to use our work as an example of how to do engagement, and it is informing their engagement strategy for the coming term. We will be going back in the autumn to discuss the potential for further work with the Assembly.