We didn’t set out to create a company that would be resilient in the face of a pandemic, of course. So it’s natural that, right now, people should be asking us and we should be asking ourselves this question. What is it about the way that we are set up that is not only helping us maintain service but is actually opening up new opportunities for us?
Maybe a little history will help. Back in 2011, when we were beginning, we were a socially-engaged performance company. We wanted to make socially relevant work but, if we’re honest, didn’t truly understand the meaning or power of participation. There were clues in the literature, however, to set us on a new path. Lyn Gardner, the Guardian’s star theatre reviewer at the time, was writing about the need to develop an “army of advocates”. That theatres needed to stop thinking in terms of audience and more about active participants. In 2011 Charles Eisenstein, in his Sacred Economics, exploded the myths of capitalism by showing us that money itself is just a construction, an agreement that we’ve made. At the same time the music industry was under-going an extreme revolution and in 2013 Amanda Palmer gave her “The art of asking” TEDx talk explaining how she’d funded her new album simply by letting her fans pay for it directly. She showed artists, of all kinds if they were keen to see, how they could cut out the middle man and develop a direct symbiotic relationship with their fans/supporters.
Most influential to us though was Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, republished in 2012 but, in extraordinary prescience, first written in 1983. The Gift is a manifesto, a beautifully poetic exposition of the transformative power of giving something away. It was through Hyde that we came to understand the meaning of “community”. Hyde demonstrated that in order for gift to be transformative, it needed to be passed on. More than this, it needed to be visibly passed on. The giving had to be witnessed.
All about the Place
So, by early 2014 we had made some important decisions. We had started as a socially-engaged performance company but now we would now operate within, and serve, a specific geographic community. A defined area where the gift we offered could be witnessed as it was passed, around and around within one square kilometre of landscape – a Squilometre. It’s an archaeological concept in fact, to place a square metre grid down and to study in detail what is enclosed within. We just threw the net a little wider so that we were capturing the essence of “place”. Its heritage, landscapes - green and built - and of course its people. In all honesty, we hadn’t encountered the term at the time but, thanks to Hyde, we had become truly “place-based” even before the term was in common use in the UK.
Circularity within the square
We started by creating a performance on an ordinary suburban street, with a script inspired by the characteristics of that street. We gave the performance away to the residents and 200 of them processed with us, taking time to stop and view it anew, together. They stayed and chatted with us at the end, popped pay-it-forward donations into a hat whilst making nominations for which street, in their Squilometre, they’d like to see celebrated next. Now, five years and nine street-based projects later, they continue to commission and support their own street celebrations. With a little help from local authority small pot grants, the first Squilometre is a completely self-sustaining, community-led, creative enterprise, going around and around their square kilometre in community perpetual motion.
More than this, we took the important decision to be light on our feet. Again, inspired by Hyde who constantly alludes to the deep and spiritual relationship between creativity and the natural world, we understood that we needed to take our performance out of doors. To take it to suburban streets and alleyways. Not only to the green spaces but right there to where people lived – car parks, waste ground and back alleys. If we wanted to make a real social difference we had to help people re-imagine and re-connect with their own spaces.
So, we’ve always fought the pressure to maintain premises for rehearsal or performance. We’ve never insisted that people come to us, we go to them. We don’t keep equipment and we work with our communities to beg, borrow (not steal!) and re-purpose what we need. We’ve always said that if the script calls for a sunset – then go out of doors when the sun goes down! The pressure to have a building of your own is immense of course. It’s a classic sign of success in the old capitalist construct. The bigger your palace, the greater you are. Resisting that pull and becoming inured to the judgement of others takes patience but, of course, we have come to realise that this is one of the most important decisions, for sustainability, that we have ever made.
Taking to the streets in this way, where there really is no barrier between you and your community, teaches you many things – you learn very quickly to let go of the creative ego. If your community is not enjoying what you do, they simply won’t come. Or they’ll walk up to you on the street and tell you – in that sense, evaluation is very easy! You’ll soon know if you’re not doing it right. To get it right, you have to maintain a constant conversation. This conversation is part of your art. This is the other reason that it is so important to define and restrict your community – to make effective two-way conversation possible. Very early on we established an online open forum where we chat daily. Our relationship is ongoing, not timebound. Our communications are open and two-way. Again, in this climate of pandemic, this has turned out to be incredibly important. Our service to our communities (there are now four separate Squilometres – with four separate online forums) has been seamless and uninterrupted.
Releasing the creative ego
You’ve guessed it - we quickly learned too that performance, and certainly scripted performance, isn’t the best way to work within communities. At the beginning we were socially-engaged but we weren’t participatory. In truth we had to learn that. We explored Boal, of course, and tested some of those practices within our communities but, in the end, nothing less than bowing completely into service would do. We came to see at local grassroots, as others had nationally (Fun Palaces, Creative People and Places and the ArtWorks Alliance) that culture already sits firmly within our communities. They don’t need to be taught what it is, they don’t need to be engaged with someone else’s vision of it or to have their stories re-framed and they have every right to express it how they please. Now, when we start a street project we never know how the creative expression will look. Our role is simply to facilitate and, if asked, hook communities up with an appropriate artist or expert to help fulfil their vision. And every once in a while, they ask us to help them perform! Finally in 2019, through Matarasso’s beautifully crafted clarification of participatory practice, we came to recognise ourselves as operating at grassroots “without help and without permission”. We’d slid under the radar and established a direct relationship with our supporters, our communities. In this new world there is a levelling between audience, volunteer, funder, partner and artist. It means releasing your creative ego but it is what some are calling a “Participation Revolution” or “New Power”.
So what of the future?
And what of these “new opportunities” mentioned at the outset? Well, we have long planned to extend our networks online. To create place-based resources that allow people to connect with their neighbours and their neighbourhoods and to give those resources away for free in order to build community, just as we did with our early performances. We also planned to create an online portal, where that gift can be witnessed and passed on and where communities can upload the product of their place-based creativity. More than this, a place where each Squilometre community can connect easily with the product of others. From Beijing to Turin and Adelaide to Aberdeen, a beautiful, open access expression of acting local but thinking global. But we believed that was blue-sky thinking, something for way off into the future. Because of Covid19 though we now have the resources and most importantly the networks to start making this happen. The first two Resource Packs have already been distributed with an online reach of around 10,000. Most extraordinarily, new funding opportunities for the online portal are opening up too. It seems that our blue-sky vision is now shared by others.
Boal, 1979 Theatre of the Oppressed.
Eisenstein, C 2011 Sacred Economics – Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition
Gardner, L 2013 How theatres can make everyone fight for the arts
Gibb, N, 2018 The Participation Revolution.
Hyde, L 2012 The Gift – How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.
Matarasso, F 2019 A Restless Art: How participation won and why it matters.
Palmer, A 2013 The Art of Asking.
Timms, H & Heimans, J 2018 New Power – How it’s changing the 21st Century – and why you need to know.
JoJo Spinks is a Westcountry writer in love with her landscape and her life. She is a founding member of Interwoven Productions CIC and the creator of the Squilometre tool for sustainable community animation. JoJo writes here on landscape, art, community and working in the gift,