How do we integrate community theatre into a more mainstream theatre?  Should We?

Convener(s): Paul Margrave

Participants: Malin Frobes; Helen Bryer; Emma Bernard; Vouile Jeffreys; Jonathan Petherbridge; William Lann (plus more that joined later)…..

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

How do we engender a professional mindset in community theatre participants that want to enter “professional theatre”?

What is this ‘professional’ mindset?  Community principles and working methods (working with abilities, needs and experiences of participants) can lead to more collaborative working creation of better theatre when working in any environment.

Maybe the working methods and attitudes of community work is “right” and “professional” theatre needs to learn from it and grow?

There is a lot of assumption about what is professionalism and what it implies – some of it (time keeping, focus) can be great learning tools (eg working with younger people) – some of it seems not to be universally agreed or accepted.

Work with older people’s groups: participants were slow to accept changing working practice after stating they wanted to work on a more ‘professional’ footing.  Could this just be the nature of working with older people? 

To create good community theatre, the practitioner needs to be involved with that community for a long time (possible 5 years).

Working methods:

Directing a group of community participants should be approached the same as trained actors.  Integrating trained actors with community participants can allow both ‘groups’ to see how the director works the same with all cast and this can prevent a teacher/child relationship developing with community participants.

Obviously care needs to be taken that the trained actor isn’t given the star role and treated any differently. 

Audience Expectations:

Do we market community work differently?  How do we define the work to our audience?  Marketeers as well as directors have an input into this.  Will the audience come in with a different set of criteria to judge the show by?

As theatre makers working with community groups, we should be aiming to still create high calibre theatre (however we define this) that CAN be judged by the same criteria that all theatre is judged by.  This may take longer to achieve, but we are still making theatre so quality must be an issue!

Does this undermine the social unpinning principles of community work?  Surely there must be a way to appease both principles – or we make a choice dependant on context and individuals involved. 

What happens if you only have a short period of time to create theatre with a new community group and would struggle to create ‘good’ theatre as judged by usual criteria?  Do the same as you would in other forms of theatre….. don’t try to do it.  Call it a scratch performance, call it loose… don’t sell it as a finished piece.

What are these assumptions of excellence / professionalism that we are aspiring to?  Can we challenge them?  Can we get our audiences to challenge them? 


Theatre makers need to talk to audiences to discover what they want, what will delight them, how they feel about the work being created.

Stating that the audience is responsible for their appreciation of a show is an attempt to control the audience and maybe to pass the buck.  However, life happens and sometimes another audience member can affect your enjoyment of a performance or you do pick a show to see that just doesn’t resonate with you – no matter how objectively ‘good’ the show is.

Who you are making theatre WITH will affect who you are making theatre FOR. 

If you buy a loaf of bread and don’t like it, you don’t complain to the bread maker.  But you did know whether you were buying a nice white plain loaf or multigrain…..

So…. a general conclusion: the same principles / criteria for judging ‘mainstream’ theatre should also be applicable to judging community theatre.

(possibly then, the distinction between community theatre and other forms of theatre is a term internal to the industry)

Audience Choice:

There is a current trend towards ‘participatory budgets’ where audiences get to choose where public money is spent.  This already happens in a lot of festivals – where the audience can choose which acts get booked -  “Fan Funded Theatre”.

This could be very dangerous and fail miserably – but there is a lot of scope for community theatre to engage and pull in support and turn existing ‘warm feelings’ for the work into hard cash!


Do we WANT to integrate community work into the mainstream?  e.g. Young At Heart.  When community work achieves such a high commercial success, does it undermine the social principles of community work?  How important is the process vs the end product?  Maybe this small amount of commercially successful work can support less financially successful work and raise the profile for the sector as a whole.

If we make audiences aware of the journey of participants, we can help them to understand the power of the work and of the process.  But should an audience need to know this?  Especially if we accept that community work should be judged by the same criteria as the rest of theatre. 

There is a strong risk involved in making a narrative of the participant’s journey – we are in danger of exploiting and exoticising vulnerable adults.  When Channel 4 filmed a group of young people working with the Birmingham City Ballet, the result was a very powerful piece of TV, but when the film crew go away, what mess is left to clean up and how sustainable is the project?  But perhaps it did a lot to raise awareness of the good work being done?

How do we support ex-community participants move into paid work?

We need to make them aware of the consequences of their decision – do they REALLY want to do this?  The open market may not appreciate what they have to give and they may find it a hard place to survive in.  Don’t turn your hobby into a profession!

If the individual is still keen to take that step, they should be offered the same signposting, advice and resources as anyone else to understand professional standards and how the industry work and what they can realistically expect to encounter.

Perhaps community organisations can move more into mainstream venues / develop more partnerships to facilitate an exchange of information and understanding.


Maybe the question isn’t “How do we integrate community theatre into mainstream theatre” but…

How do we integrate theatre into mainstream community?