The unsettled and crazy world in which we live can make it hard to see the benefit of theatre and the arts. With so much suffering in the world, the enjoyment of theatre can seem out of reach. If you are from an underprivileged background, physically or mentally unwell, or just not accustomed to visiting the theatre, it can seem inaccessible and expensive. So how can theatre try and address this? How can it reach out?
For me, meeting Kentish Town’s Clean Break Theatre Company last week was a real eye opener. An all-female company with an extensive education programme, Clean Break seeks to help women who have been treated poorly by the criminal justice system. Dedicated to “respect… equality of opportunity…diversity and access to theatre”, the company is grounded in passion and hope, and shows us that theatre can be used as a tool for social change.
We live in a country where the arts are struggling to stay alive. Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian claims, in her discussion of the recent decision to leave arts subjects out of the English Baccalaureate, “Britain’s creative economy could be destroyed ‘within a generation’”. The arts are often not seen as essential study because there isn’t a clear career path to follow, and success in the arts is often hard to quantify. But as Nicholas Hytner (Artistic Director of the National Theatre) makes clear in the same article, theatre is important for “learning and development”.
Clean Break is one of the many theatre companies that are out there fighting the idea that theatre should be replaced with something that can tick a box (look to Graeae, Spare Tyre and Cardboard Citizens for some other inspiring companies). Working with people to develop performance skills can increase confidence, open minds and enable individuals to understand themselves better. In its exploration of inner thoughts and feelings, it can be a form of therapy. As stated in Clean Break’s prospectus, individuals partake in their education programme to “improve self esteem” and “use theatre as a stepping stone for change”, as well as to “expand educational and employment opportunities”.
Using performance as a kind of release, however, shouldn’t just be saved for the classroom. In this month’s Psychologies magazine, Anita Chaudhuri discusses how “performance can lift your confidence and can also be a source of joy” to all of us. Telling her story of reigniting her passion for singing by joining the Mag-nificents (aka the Hearst Singers, a singing group based in London), Chaudhuri explores the benefits of “focusing on controlling your breath, keeping time and carrying a melody” so that “you don’t have any mental space left for stress”. In this context, performing is like a form of mindfulness that helps to focus both body and mind so that we feel very much in the moment, allowing an escape from the hectic world we live in. I like a bit of a sing-song at open mic and I know just what Chaudhuri means. I do feel pretty nervous beforehand but whilst I’m performing I feel totally present and alive and, afterwards, a lot more relaxed.
So, whether you just fancy going to your local this Christmas with some friends to perform some carols (you never know, you might just enjoy it) or think theatre can be used to facilitate learning and development, theatre is much more than just what happens in a theatre on the stage. Its uses are diverse and it can be used for individual fulfilment and within the community.
Image from Clean Break Theatre.