Imagine, before coronavirus, that you attended a weekly community activity that was open to all.
Let’s say this was a local drama group in a neighbourhood community centre. Maybe you were attracted by an advertisement that said things like ‘everyone is welcome’ and ‘no previous experience necessary’. The organisers talked about their commitment to ‘Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion’. Despite your nervousness, or challenging life circumstances you thought that this would be an accessible space that would enable you to make some theatre.
When you got there, a different picture began to emerge.
Some people were inside the hall, comfortably laughing and joking with each other but most were not. Some had coats and scarves on because the temperature was too cold for them. The steps leading up to the building meant that many people could not enter, others had to be bumped up the steps in their wheelchairs.
Some people were outside looking in. Standing at the windows, trying to make themselves understood by their gestures whilst others who couldn’t get a glimpse inside were shouting ideas, hoping some of them would be heard.
Some didn’t even get there at all. The map with directions to the hall was so difficult to understand that they didn’t even bother trying.
Does that sound unlikely? Such a scenario would quite rightly be regarded as exclusionary for most people but it is the analogy I want to use for the way I am looking at digital access issues that have become so apparent in the current pandemic. This is not about being a “technophobe” or joking about being “bad with technology” but about material facts of life: many people do not have access to the internet – either because they can’t afford the equipment (laptops, tablets, smartphones) or because they are having to choose between the cost of data usage and other essentials of daily life (food, heat, rent).
Digitally excluded, socially isolated
I am white, male, able-bodied and middle-class and therefore have a lot of privilege. With not much effort I was able to keep in contact with family and friends, work, join in quizzes, meet people from across the world and play in a blues band whilst not leaving my house during lockdown.
Contrast this with the conversation I had with one of the community organisations we work with who have had to call the police on numerous occasions because they are worried about older people who are contemplating suicide because of lack of social connection, and the digital divide seems like a chasm. Add to this the increasing number of government services and consultations that are moving online, many people feel like they have no say in any decisions affecting their lives or no way to get help. Social distancing and social isolation have increased social exclusion
I run a theatre company called Active Inquiry in Edinburgh working with many community groups. Since our foundation in 2008 we have worked with local groups, developing ‘forum theatre’ productions based on the principles of Augusto Boal: drama can be used to explore and influence the chance of changing life for the better.
Space to grow
Our drama groups are open and welcoming to all. Our advertisements do indeed stress that no experience is needed and yet the groups we support have regularly exceeded all expectations, performing to live audiences in Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Leith Festival, and the Just Festival, among others, receiving critical acclaim.
We were set up to remove social and physical obstacles. Flashback, one of the regular groups that we support,(currently working on a new, postponed, play for the centenary of the amalgamation of Leith and Edinburgh) is for anyone over the age of 18 with an interest in creating their own theatre. Participants in the group range from 20 to 70, come from all over the world and have differing levels of theatre experience. Inclusion is central to this group.
Likewise three other inspiring local community groups – Port in a Storm, Shakti theatre Company and The Alma Theatre Company. For four years we have worked together devising innovative and exciting new theatre. Exploring issues such as homelessness, addiction and domestic abuse, the scripts are based on the real life experiences of participants as part of our Spect-Act Network. Our latest project, Home, toured.pieces of theatre exploring the topic of housing to community venues, professionals theatres, conferences and The Scottish Parliament.
Working so closely together, the theatre groups formed supportive relationships, based on trust and mutual respect, rooted in a local community of cafes and community centres. Although Active Inquiry does not have its own physical theatre, our groups and productions have inhabited local public spaces, enabling audiences and actors to navigate a well-known physical environment, familiar and easy to find. Until Covid struck.
Reaching out on- and offline
From the middle of March, like many others we had to learn new skills and adapt quickly at the start of the pandemic. For us this has taken three main stages: firefighting, holding steady, and creating work.
Firefighting meant phoning and texting all our participants to ensure they knew that our existing programme was cancelled and that we were still here and to get in contact with us if they needed to.
Holding steady, involved working with our participants to bring them into the new era of Zoom meetings. This was where we met the obstacles mentioned at the start. We discovered that some people had access to the internet, others managed to phone in and some could not enter at all. One surprising discovery was that going low-tech was an important tool. We put together art boxes for participants, making doorstep deliveries with arts materials and invitations to create. However, in our online space, we began to realise that we were just ‘holding’ people rather than enabling them to create.
Creating work has been enabled by funding from Creative Scotland helping us to buy tablets and data for some participants with no internet and to reach out to organisations such as ACE IT (an Edinburgh tech company with a mission to bridge the digital divide) who have helped us to get everyone online.
Drama for democracy
Through lockdown, we have realised that it is no longer acceptable for people to be in the hall with their coats on, or peering through the windows. Or unable to find the way there. We need to turn up the heating, and build a ramp. We must make the route map crystal clear.
But how? As we start to create work again digitally, we still face many issues around working together productively and safely online. How can we help people to make contact in a world where social isolation forces us apart?
Can drama offer a way forward? Can we enable local communities to influence the decisions that can change the way we live our lives? Active Inquiry is now embarking on Drama for Democracy, an ambitious three-year project supporting local communities to influence the decisions that can change the way we live our lives. Here, working again with members of our Spect-Act Network, we aim to use Scottish theatre spaces as sites for participatory democracy. We have just embarked on Stage 1 which will give us time for research and development and to build the connections needed to make the project a success.
Please contact us if you want to get involved or think you can help. Old fashioned landline calls and letters in the post are also welcome!
Legislative Theatre the potential of theatre to involve people in the decisions that shape their daily lives
Augusto Boal: A brief biography
Further viewing, Active Inquiry YouTube channel