“If the art is good, it can hold a lot.”

The title of this post comes from something that Phil Kingston, Community and Education Manager at the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland, said during his facilitation today. As part of an exploration of applied theatre practices in Ireland, Phil hosted a three-hour session with the students, and he invited five of his facilitators and staff to join him in the presentation.

The morning began with us meeting Phil at the front doors of the Abbey, where he proceeded to greet each of us by name with a handshake. Phil had checked out the pictures and bios of the students in advance on our online course site at LORE.com, and he had taken the time to “know” everyone before we arrived. Throughout his three hours of work with us, Phil repeatedly made specific references to past experiences that students had included in their bios. His greeting set a welcoming tone that continued throughout the entire session.

Phil’s facilitators demonstrated a number of challenging moments that they have encountered in the various community projects that they’ve been working on, and it was helpful for us to see that issues that arise in Irish culture are often similar to the kinds of challenges we face in US settings. Conversely, both settings have their own unique challenges as well. It just reminded me to reflect again about community. I encouraged everyone to consider the commonalities that a community of practitioners might share, while also thinking about how experiences might be vastly different based on geographic location, time period, etc.

Phil also provided the students with the opportunity to choose a show from the 2012 Dublin Fringe Festival program and begin to consider different education and outreach possibilities that could be created for each show. The exercise provided an excellent, somewhat related practice run for the final project in the course, a prospectus for an original applied theatre project. Students encountered various degrees of specificity and success with their brainstorming in this process, thus allowing for a very safe experiment in thinking about developing new artistic ideas.

The group also had a chance to hear about a project that Phil’s office is developing with women who work as sex workers or who have left the sex work industry. The project involves interviewing these women and learning more about their stories. These stories will eventually lead to a theatre piece with a tentative showing date in November. As this kind of work with interviews is of particular interest to me, I was excited to hear about this new development for the Abbey. Then to model this project’s process, students worked in groups of three to interview one member of their trio, and then the other two students created a short improvisational piece representing what the interviewee said. Six pairs showed work, and it was moving and respectful. Building artistic work from the stories, ideas, and beliefs of real people requires the artist-facilitator to have a heightened sense of empathy. The interviewees discussed amongst themselves how it felt to be interviewed, and I appreciated the empathy-building that occurred as a result.

I also asked the students to begin to think about what each of our facilitators is doing, and how it might be helpful for the participants (them) in these different inputs that we’ve had and will continue to have. I’ve asked the students to always stay fully engaged as artist-participants in the various processes they are experiencing, but then to reflect after the fact about how that particular process might have unfolded. This prompt of “what is happening and why is it helpful” is one way to focus observations of another’s teaching, facilitating, or directing practice.

At one point in the session Phil said, “If the art is good, it can hold a lot.” I’ve known this concept to be true, but it’s always taken me more words to say it. I appreciated the brevity of Phil’s words, and the power of their simplicity. Artists making work in communities have a responsibility to aesthetics, just like any other artist. Maybe more so. The art-making can’t primarily be about “fixing” injustices or people or societies. Or about therapy. All of these things may be byproducts of the work, but they can’t be the primary focus of the work.

“If the art is good, it can hold a lot.” Simple and to the point.

Thanks to Phil Kingston and his team for a fantastic and inspiring session today!