I: I called this session because I’m interested in representation in socially-engaged practices. I believe that with non-professional there is a problem embedded in the body of the performers. Usually the performers are trained to be expressive. If you place a non-professional on stage this expressivity is missing. Their body is not trained to be expressive. Are they representing? Are they presenting?
And what’s the ethic behind putting a non-performer on stage? Do you want to impose a vision or do you want them to represent their reality? And in that case: where’s the line between representing and presenting?

B: I just graduated from Narrative Environments and my background is in spacial design.
The course I’ve just finished promotes research and code design. What you are talking about is related to performance. I’m questioning how it relates to my practice.
You are taking something and making it understandable through the body of the performer. In my case is how someone uses the space.
The relation between experts and non experts is huge in socially engaged practices and very interesting. In performance of course you need an expertise to plan a space, an engaging performance piece.
If you want to start representing their voice... - there is a difference between voice and experience - if you want to represent their voice it’s complicated.
Are you a conduit? If you put someone in stage is probably already enough to represent themselves. Quality is a very big deal. In terms of expression.

I: if you put someone who is not a performer and who wants to express his story, represent/present to an audience, do you train them? Do you ask them to represent? Do you manipulate the transition between them and the audience? I think you want to give the audience what the non-performer wants to give them. What if they don’t have the expressive means to represent their stories, their views?

S: we are talking about amateurs vs performers. I think the point is that you don’t just put someone on stage. That’s my point in working in socially engaged practices.
It’s about sharing, and giving the participants the skills, understand what they can and what they can’t do, don’t put them in front of an audience if they are not ready.
To frame it in a way that the audience understands, don’t make judgements about an appropriate level of skills.
If you work in a way that is tailored on them, you have ambitions for the quality but you work with what you have and you don’t go against their abilities because that’s unfair to everybody.

I: what I’m questioning is: is this presenting or representing? There’s a lot talking about the crisis of representation: is it linked with the increase of socially engaged practices and non-performer on stage?

S: is there an increase? Maybe it is just a perception.

I: What I mean is the increasing tendency to have non-professionals to work alongside professionals and to be on stage in the end of the work. I’m not talking about amatour productions.

S: yes, I’m talking about socially engaged art, I don’t think that’s new.

I: I think that in the past 30 years it became bigger and bigger, until it became quite a trend whereas before it wasn’t.

A: you don’t have to second-guess the audience: I can read the emotions that a non-performer is trying to express on stage even if the language is not perfect and if they are nervous, and I quite like it.

S: it’s the authenticity. This is what I mean by saying working with what you have. And to do with what they want to. The group you are working with i s a group of people who decided to step up and that’s where our expertise comes up: to support them, making it happen. And also to be able to understand.
The worst is to put a real person on stage without intention and say: “look, a real person”
Sometimes it would be more appropriate for someone else to represent someone’s story if they can’t do it.
I’ve been doing this job for 30 years and it changes and it shifts but it’s about a safe practice.
I’m worried about the professionals who work with communities because it is fashion and they don’t care about the engagement and they make assumptions about these groups.
The motivation is the key.

A: back to your original question, I think it’s always a representation: even if the person on stage is telling a story and it hasn’t given any suggestion about how to do it, he/she is transforming the story into a form of art.

H: I work with lots of amateurs, I worked with a community choir called the Mixed-up-chorus, none of them is professional and we have been doing a lot of work with migrants and refugees.
What I’m angry about is when people have been put on stage without preparation and they haven’t been engaged enough in the creation of that material. The final piece is about giving them ‘a voice’. I’m quite new to working with refugees and migrants and it seems to me that there’s a lot of people keen to talk about migrants and refugees and in behalf of them.
One example: I went to a performance which was supposedly a refugees choir. The musicians were very accomplished. The musicians were all white and the refugees all black. The choir hadn’t been properly rehearsed, they didn’t know their lyrics very well and you couldn’t hear them properly. You couldn’t really see them because they were at the back of the stage and they were singing a song about immigration that had been written by the musical director. One line of which was “We are so grate-grate-grateful to great-Great Britain”

S: it’s a little bit fashionable and tick-boxing at the moment. Sometimes people have very good intentions. But there’s a lot of talking also about what it means to be a refugee artist. There’s an awful lot to working with.
We want to work creating material with them. The other thing is to manage the expectations of the audience. You are allowing people to appreciate things for what they are.
There’s something for me about the change in the relationships in between the perticipants, who become quite a company.

M: the value of a more democratic approach of working in a different way

S: the worst thing is when you try to do what you want as an artist

A: there is also an assumption that when you work with refugees they want to talk about their status as refugees.

S: and old people who want to talk about their memories.

A: I’ve worked with refugee children in Athens and we didn’t talk about their stories at all. It was just about fun

H: Fun is a quite underestimated quality

M: (about Generation) somebody yesterday said at the end that what was important about the process was that they had fun.

S: someone asked me to work on teenagers and bullying

H: because if you work with teenagers it must be about knives-crimes and bullying.

M: it’s about the politicisation of arts and how you treat them all as victims.

S: issue based theatre is what we call it. It’s about what issues are you presenting? It’s about presumptions.

M: and who are you doing it for

A: you can present their voices without representing their stories

H: of course it can be an opportunity for people to talk about their stories in a meaningful way but it’s all about the playfulness and openness of the process.
And we are also looking into hierarchy and you allow people to feel comfortable and that’s a challenging thing to address.

S: it’s quite unusual to find yourself younger than the people you are working with

H: I was at a session once when they were trying to set up a teen committee for an art project. The older members of the group and the professionals were brought in blindfolded by the younger people. They asked them to do a simple task like stacking cups just by listening to the young people. It was all about starting the session by listening for real the young people. Constantly building this into your work is very challenging.

S: carers sometimes are not blocking but they know the elder people better than the artists and they know their limits.

H: it works both ways. Sometimes you just need to ask.

I: this leads to another question for me: if you want to give people a voice and to talk about what they feel important to them, how can you get funded? Institutions will want to know at least which is your topic and what they are funding.

S: just get really smart at telling the funders what they want to hear. Frame in a clever way so that you get to do what you want to do.
You need to imagine what can happen, show them you are prepare and show them why they need to do it (maybe they rely on another funder).
If you say thing like “This will improve the young women confidence because…” or “ This will help them to become more problem-solving…”

M: spot what the bigger agenda are, funders have to ask these questions but most funders have a bigger agenda and that is more important and if you hit that they will be sympathetic...

H: most funders now understand that being participants led is a really important aspect of a project. You put a provisor in, saying that this is what you want to do but you are willing to change according to what happens. This will strengthen your application rather than weaken it. You must achieve something that they need to achieve anyway.

S: what we offer is a different way to tell a story. Our creative skills and creative framework help to allow people to express themself. Almost whatever you setup to do it will do. You create frameworks for people to express themself. My creative method, approach, is going to help people to… Will help people in this journey...

M: you are releasing the creativity that everybody has but not everybody is able to express

S: maybe it will allow to tell a different story from what they expected. But creating a safe space.

B: ...without consequences. I like how you use the word “invite”.

C: I think I have a problem with the phrase ‘giving people a voice’, i think it is patronising

H: in the broader world of people who don’t care about socially engaged arts, these sentences mean something. Finding a language that works is often really challenging. If you want to get any coverage, if you want to engage the media, this kind of phrases are very helpful.

S: Big institutions are putting more money in socially engaged practiced. The status of these practices is changing because it’s something that big venues are meant to do.

H: it’s good that they know they must do it but they hire people who know how to. There has been a progress in the past 25 years.

S: I think it’s a flip-flop. You think you are progressing and you end up with Donald Trump.
It’s always important to have high artistic ambition, being realistic.

H: I’m working with the Royal Opera House at the moment. We did some work last year and they were unsure about what we were doing, whereas this year they got the press to cover it...

S: we are doing a lot of partnerships too. My fear is that it goes in waves, it’s the consistency of this interest. As the political parties change, the interest changes, the fashion changes. Now the fashion is dementia, next one will be obesity. That’s the challenge, to meet the bigger agenda, the trend.

H: the challenge is how do we do the project that we want to do, but meeting the bigger agenda. In a way that we tick the boxes for the funders.

M: I am a bit cynical about some big institutions being interested in socially engaged practices.

S: But that’s when you take advantage of the moment and you try to get funded to do it. But you do very good quality work.

Holly: It’s important to have really high, but appropriate, artistic ambition.

I: I’m going off topic. You mentioned the Royal Opera House. Since I started this group talking about representation, I wonder how do you approach the participants if they are not represented in the main stages? Won’t they always feel that the kind of art they are doing is less valuable because they are not represented in the main stages?

S: a lot of the work is not about making and showing but also going to see things together.
Our practice consists in creating a relationship with them and in their space, the space it’s familiar to them.
A few years ago we made a project with a photographer from Brazil creating new postcards of the London I fell in love with, not the one you usually see in postcards.
We had a day out with asylum seekers, people who don’t usually visit London as tourists.
We were introducing people places they can go for free, we started a relationship.
We went to the Tate with a group of teenagers and we gave them some tasks. We gave them an introduction on some works. They’ve been giving the permission to access and respond to the works in the Tate.
Part of our work is to help them to access art, for people who maybe did not grow up in a family where they go to theatre. Maybe they don’t go to the opera because they think they are not dressed properly.

I: who are we presenting our socially engaged practice to? Who are they talking with and why?

S: you have to think it from the beginning, maybe it’s just people from your local community. Maybe it’s just about talking with people from your neighbourhood to have a better life together. It doesn’t need to be necessary in a big platform.

I: Coming from Generations, I wonder if the Generations’ participants felt maybe safer - emotionally - because they did not ‘represent’ themselves but they were improvising, although they surely felt less safer on other grounds. But I’m wondering: who were they performing for?

S: I think in this case the audience mattered that much wasn’t really the main focus, it was more about creating a relationship. It was more about developing another skill, to have them working with you (CSM students).
For them it was a chance to come here, work with you, working with Improbable, a group with an international reputation.
One of the participants said that the last time she did something like this she was a child and we thought about the fact that children and elderly people are less inhibited.
There’s something very interesting in working with elderly people because you can’t tell them what to do: they’ll make it very clear that they won’t be doing it.
It’s horrendous when they don’t want to do what you want, but it’s brilliant because you learn so much.
There’s a danger as we love being involved, but our job is to persuade others that they can enjoy themselves too.

B: it enhances the quality too, if you are passionate and you are doing something that is really good you don’t have to prove them anything. They see you are enjoying it, they won’t care if they are going to perform in a big theatre .