“The system needs to be fixed, not the people”: an interview with Collective Encounters Theatre

Can the arts address ordinary people’s experiences of political, social and cultural marginalisation, and redress media sensationalism of working-class lives?

With its roots in radical theatre traditions of the 1930s and 70s, Liverpool’s Collective Encounters seeks to provide an accessible and participatory alternative to rising elitism in the arts. They spoke to New Socialist about how theatre can address ordinary people’s experiences of political, social and cultural marginalisation, and media erasure or sensationalism of working-class lives - but also about the limitations of ‘social inclusion’ in arts and culture without a wider political strategy.

NS: Can you tell us a bit about how Collective Encounters got started, and an overview of the work you do?

Collective Encounters started life as a ‘practice-as-research’ project, led by Sarah Thornton, then a lecturer in Applied Theatre at Liverpool Hope University. At the time Sarah was looking at whether and how the arts could contribute to radical personal, social and political change. The university campus was based in north Liverpool, an area of extreme deprivation at that time, and entirely underserved in terms of arts provision, so the initial research project was conducted there.

This first project engaged approximately 500 local people and diverse community organisations in exploring the most pressing issue within the community - the impact of regeneration on local people. In 2004 north Liverpool was undergoing a series of initiatives that looked to regenerate the area after decades of economic and population decline. Researchers, artists and community facilitators met with residents to find out what was being gained and what was going to be lost through regeneration, what role (if any) local people had been given by policy and decision makers and how there communities were changing on a day to day basis. Creatively the project involved artist residencies, theatre training courses, and community performances on the streets, in community venues and in council buildings. The project’s swan song was a full-length play that articulated the stories and views of generations of families living and working in north Liverpool, The Harmony Suite. The Harmony Suite was produced as a large-scale outdoor community show that animated a derelict street in Anfield, Liverpool. It involved 40 local people in the cast and crew and over 800 local community, policy makers, civil servants, politicians and activists came to watch the performances. The impact of the project was measured throughout and this showed there was a clear ‘yes’ to the question posed – theatre could play a role in bringing about personal, social and political change.

Fast-forward 15 years and Collective Encounters continues to make new work that tackles the country’s most pressing social and political concerns. Over the years we have worked with many marginalised communities, often being the first arts organisations to do so, using theatre as a tool to identify issues, gather stories, build confidence and give a voice to those who are seldom heard in the mainstream media and politics. Each of our productions grow out of an extensive research process. Since we started we have worked with over 20,000 people from across the Merseyside region.

From the very beginning our policy has been not to charge for participation and events and we reimburse people’s travel expenses if they need it. It is rare to find Collective Encounters in a theatre building. 90% of our shows happen in other public spaces such as libraries, parks, health care settings and community settings.

NS: Can you explain Collective Encounter’s philosophy of “giving a voice to those who are seldom heard”, and how this goal influences your day-to-day operations and work?

Popular media gives a narrow view that too often sensationalizes poverty and does not tell the whole story. The communities we work with are predominantly the most marginalised by society. Mostly audience and participants have experience of the care system, long-term physical and mental health conditions, the criminal justice system, migration, exclusion from mainstream education, the armed forces, social isolation, poverty or some other marginalisation. We use the theatre-making process to ensure these individuals and communities have the means to control the narrative about their lives and their own stories.

We strive to engage politicians, activists and policymakers in our productions and in the theatre making process. We broker relationships with local service providers and local politicians, encouraging them to attend events and to meet with our participants and hear their issues.

We link each production with a wider local or national campaign for change that aligns with the participants’ message. Sometimes we will invite campaigning groups to present either before or after performances, or to take part in a post-show question and answer session to enable the audience to get a wider understanding of the stories and issues that arise from the piece. Programmes for productions include ways in which audience members can get more involved and influence change, whether this be something as simple as registering to vote or joining a local campaigning group.

NS: Are there any precedents or previous thinking in arts and culture that inspire your work, or cultural and political traditions that you see yourselves building on?

Collective Encounters’ roots can be traced back to the workers’ theatre movement of the 1930s, and is often agit-prop or cabaret in its form. The approach to community engagement and radical participation we use has grown directly out of the community theatres of the 1970s such as Welfare State International, CAST and 7:84.

We adopt a radical approach to change informed by academics and applied theatre practitioners such as Jan Cohen Cruz, John McGrath, Francois Matarrasso, Augusto Boal, Paulo Freire, Professor John Holloway. Radical change embraces personal empowerment but more importantly leads artists and participants to explore political context and to use democratic processes to identify where power systems can be better understood, challenged and reformed.

NS: How important or influential is the local area of Merseyside to CE’s identity?

Merseyside has a rich cultural heritage and radical tradition. It was home to the first community arts centre in England, The Black-E, and the Merseyside Left Theatre was formed here in the 1930s. The city of Liverpool has a proud reputation for standing up for social justice, challenging inequality and protest. Values such as community, social responsibility and fairness are important to Liverpool and its people and these values are often articulated in the theatre we produce.

We’re based in Merseyside, and this is where most of our work takes place, however one important feature of Collective Encounters’ identity is the way we connect our work to the global fight against poverty and inequality.

NS: What do you see as the primary importance of arts and culture, and theatre in particular, both to individuals and societies?

Theatre tells stories. Excellent theatre tells stories that entertain and also help us understand each other and ourselves. It elevates these stories disentangling them from the everyday, challenging our responses and posing difficult questions. It enables us to think critically and find possible solutions to these questions and alternative ways of being in the world.

NS: What role can art and culture play in building communities, tackling social exclusion or providing political education?

There is increasing evidence of the positive benefits participating in and witnessing arts and culture can have on individuals and societies: it can contribute to better mental and physical health, greater personal confidence, stronger connections within communities, a clearer understanding of the world. This often leads to greater agency, politicisation and civic engagement.

The participatory theatre making process involves deep discussions on challenging social and political issues. The impact of policy decisions, whether at a local, national or international level, are brought forward and personal stories are contextualised within this frame.

NS: What are the limits to what arts and culture can do to shape society?

Over the last eleven years the arts and cultural sector has put much effort into finding new ways to evidence its benefits, as a means to justifying continued public subsidy. Evidence as to the role arts and culture can play in regenerating communities, individual mental health and wellbeing, education, physical health are all brilliant and should be celebrated. However it is important to remember that the arts and culture are not a ‘sticking plaster’ to fix society’s ills – while people who have previously been marginalised may find their voice through a creative process, that same process won’t feed their children when their benefits are cut or heal them when they can’t access vital health services.

Collective Encounters’ position is that it is important to us to situate the positive potential of the arts and culture within a broader political context. That’s why we take a radical view of change - that the system is unjust and needs to be fixed, not the people who suffer from its inequities. We’re concerned that too often ‘social inclusion’ initiatives and poorly conceived participatory arts processes serve to reinforce the system we oppose by blaming the poor for the marginality they experience rather than recognise that the blame lies in unjust policies and governance structures.

NS: Should local and central government play a role in supporting arts and culture? If so, what can they do?

Arts and culture play an important role in all societies, and funding from local and central government is vital for a thriving arts sector. It is the role of local and central government to not only provide this subsidy but also to set up the governance structures to ensure the activities, services and organisation they fund are relevant, of benefit and reflective of the communities in which they are situated and serve.

NS: With mainstream arts and culture becoming increasingly inaccessible to those from working-class backgrounds, can local initiatives like CE provide an alternative?

Absolutely. We firmly believe that all people should have access to the means of cultural production, as well as to experience great artistic product. The level of elitism in the arts is very worrying and is worsening. A continued reduction in available funding has left the arts sector increasingly relying on unpaid internship, work placements and volunteers to deliver their activities and services. This is only possible if these individuals have a private means of income. The vast majority of arts organisations will only look at potential job candidates with a university degree, and we know that the numbers of people from working class backgrounds attending university is decreasing.

Collective Encounters makes a conscious effort to provide pathways and progression opportunities from primary levels of participation to careers in the arts. We have recently secured funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to consolidate our offer in this regard with a Centre for Excellence in Participatory Theatre that will run a training programme for emerging artists from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and will provide learning resources for artists working in the sector who may not have had access to university education.

The average price for one ticket to a mainstream theatre performance is around £25, and as reductions in funding from local councils and central government take further hold this will continue to rise. The cost of one ticket alone will be a barrier for many people in the UK. Most of Collective Encounters are free, and for some this is the only opportunity they will have to experience a professional theatre production.

NS: Are there any practical difficulties or drawbacks to the way initiatives like CE operate, and how could these be overcome?

Collective Encounters does not charge for workshops or performances and 70% of the company’s income derives from grants from public institutions and private trusts and foundations. This type of funding is often output and outcome driven and financial support for overheads or taking artistic risks is in short supply.

NS: Can you tell us something about your current projects and plans for the future?

We’re currently in the research and development phase for long-term artistic residencies in Bootle and Birkenhead. These residencies will enable us to create a new show that will go on tour in 2020, and also train groups of local people on how to set up, fund and manage community arts projects after the residencies have come to an end.

In September we will be launching a new online Centre for Excellence in Participatory Theatre. This online resource centre will house digital and interactive resources to help participatory theatre makers develop their understanding and skills, and hold conversations about issues pertinent to the sector such as ethics, value and cultural democracy. We will also hold training courses that will be open to anyone interested in knowing more about these themes.

Finally in 2019 our youth theatre will continue and we will also launch two new projects. The Summer Arts College is a performance-based course for young people with experience of the care system and Where You’re At is a multi-disciplinary project for young people with experience of migration that enables them to grow their creative talents and work with a diverse range of artists.


Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Rhian E. Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is co-editor of Red Pepper and writes for Tribune magazine. Her books include Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013); Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest (University of Wales Press, 2015); Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) and the anthology of women’s music writing Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater, 2017) and Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater, 2021).