Participation is often measured in numbers. How many people came? How many took part? How many of them were from ethnic minorities? How many people from hard-to-reach groups came along? For how many people was this their first trip to the theatre?
And this stuff matters, of course. Numbers are a crude measure but they’re also the only unarguable one. The number of women involved doesn’t tell you anything about whether the show passes the Bechdel test, but if it’s eleven men and two women then it will do so at best fleetingly.
But if you’re making a piece of work with community participants, you could easily have hundreds of participants while giving them very little by way of meaningful experience, or indeed enjoyment. You could tell them exactly what to do and where to stand, treating them more-or-less like cattle. This would be a chimera of participatory work. It might also sound like a nightmarish fantasy, but I can think of some fairly high-profile examples.
In Wonderstruck, there were 107 community participants, of whom thirteen were not white. The youngest performer was seven, the oldest 91. This is a pretty good representation of the demographic of Manchester. We had some students, and a couple of former rough sleepers from Streetwise Opera.
I don’t know the exact figures for gender, but I’d say 75-80% of the cast was female, not least because one of the choirs, SHE, is all-female. This is not a good representation of the demographic of Manchester, but if you’re going to miss the mark, better to go too far than not far enough.
I’m pleased with all of these numbers. We wanted a representative cross-section of Manchester in the show, and we did pretty well on that (thanks to the remarkable Anna Bunney at Manchester Museum).
But, again, it would be possible to manage all of these numbers while achieving no meaningful engagement whatsoever. The numbers mean very little if the experience is a negative one. So I choose to measure the success of this participatory project in a different way. What is meaningful, if not the numbers?
What is meaningful is this blog written participant, Emma Geraghty. And the poem, written for the creative team by another. And the participant who told us it had been a big step for her to come on board, she’d only just moved to Manchester, but it had made her feel that she could make a home here. The numbers are nothing; the experience is all.
What is meaningful is the spoken word sequences in which participants told stories of ways in which their own lives intersect with the deep history of their region as made manifest in the gallery.
What is meaningful is the process by which this text was created by participants, in close collaboration with the artistic team, meeting their experience and skills with craft and (discipline). The numbers mean nothing if it’s no good. The quality means nothing if everyone hates doing it.
What is meaningful is this song written from the responses of the choir singing it to the gallery in which it was sung. It’s about how everything in the history of the universe has led to us being in this room, together, now:
I loved doing this show.
This blog was written by artist Daniel Bye.
Images © Joel Chester Fildes