Community Theatre and the Audience by Jane Mauret



“Primitive rituals were the first form of drama” (Barba & Sanzenbach, 1965, p. 154). Primitive theatre could be termed religious as the main aim was to conjure the gods for a variety of practical reasons, e.g. warding off disease. Early societies put value on the repetition of traditions and folklore that were handed down verbally and visually, manifest over time via movement/dance, sound/music, masks, and the taking on of characters.

It has been suggested that early Indo-European societies related to a holy triumvirate comprising “a supreme god, a warrior god, and a civil god” (Dumézil, 1968, 1971, 1973, cited in Qiuyu et al., 1989, p. 15). So ritual theatre and religion were intricately bound up with each other and covered all facets of life over diverse regions. The dramas would generally be led by proscribed individuals, e.g. shamans, but all the tribes-people took part and had a part to play. We can know something about ancient rituals because some remain: “even today, one can see numerous forms of “primitive theatre … ancient forms closely connected with religious ritual that have been preserved in certain remote regions as living fossils, essentially unchanged by modern civilization” (Qiuyu et al., 1989, p. 12).

Intrinsic to the original notion of (ritual as) theatre is its two-way operation in that the audience were as significant as the performers, and today, without an audience, a performance is not theatre. Where once the drama might take place, geographically speaking, anywhere in the community and environs, modern drama came to be performed in a specified place: the theatre. With the advent of the raked stage, elaborate true-to-life sets, the proscenium arch, technical wizardry, and the darkened auditorium, the spectators became steadily segregated from the ‘action’ (Kershaw, 2003). The curtain was there to change the set away from the audience gaze – a further separation of the modern shamans and the tribe.

To act is to perform in the dramatic sense, but act also means to take a stand, to take action (Boal, 1992). To do or act comes from the Latin agere which is also the source of ‘agenda’. The terms audience and auditorium are derived from the Latin root audire, to hear. These simple words sum up what became the dampened down role of the tribes-people. Despite the modern emphasis on inclusion in many areas, the tribes-people at the theatre have been relegated to listeners, positioned in the listening area, remote from the engagement (the agenda!) taking place before them.

Acting in the 21st century is mainly about entertainment and practitioners (especially in films) are still regarded with awe and are in receipt of high accolades. When we shower tributes upon actors we say that their rendering “was so real” and that “I really felt their emotion”. This in an era when many of us struggle to express emotion in our actual lives. We put value on those who can be emotional on cue and often we laud the storyline alone. It is no secret that audiences like to identify with what they see in performances and this must hark back to early times when the audience was as vital as the performers. As in rituals from the past, we want the themes to be of importance to us – more than that, we want the performance to be about, and sometimes by, us. It is interesting to note that “theatre involving only the spoken word, with no music or dance, is rare on a world scale, even though it is the commonest unmarked form of theatre in the West” (Beeman, 1993, p.382). This then also contributes to the desire to be involved when text alone is everything to the event.

Audience Re-evaluated and Re-valued

Demystifying performance by offering alternative ways of working helps make theatre accessible to more people. Originally, ritual performance was likely central to a society’s attempt to maintain order. I have been using the terms ‘ritual’ and ‘drama/theatre’ interchangeably but there is a major difference – ritual was never fiction (Gilbert & Tompkins, 1996). There was also a real reason for constancy and repetition for fear that changes to the recipe might upset the status quo. Charlie Chaplin1 intoned that movies were a fad as “audiences really want to see live actors on a stage”. Despite the global popularity of film/video, he was certainly correct on the second count. The performers also rely on the audience for a response. I have always felt that audiences at live shows feel more important than film audiences because they know the actors know they are there and audiences do affect performers.

There has been a movement to reincorporate the audience to make their experience more meaningful as in the distant past. The latter half of the 20th century saw many pioneers in experimental theatre who redefined theatrical genres and purposes. Among these are Augusto Boal and Jacques Lecoq. The former urged actors to politicise and the latter to create, each encouraging participants to break the rules: “these practitioners both emphasize[d] the strength and expressivity of ensemble work …. with an emphasis on the actors as creators/devisers of their own material and, potentially, of their material circumstances” (McCaffrey, n.d., n.p.n.). Boal implemented Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) and Forum Theatre whereby audiences were reframed as ‘spect-actors’, meaning they could “rehearse active resistance to oppression in the theatre, to ‘try out’ different possibilities within the relative safety of the theatre” (Green, 2001, p.47). The goal was that their participation would carry over into life enabling them to solve problems with their neighbours and society. These movements can be termed community theatre (CT). Palmer and Jankowiak note that this type of theatre goes further than simple ‘expression’ and proffer the term ‘enactment’ which “allows not only for performances to audiences of others but also for inner enactments, inner performances” (Palmer & Jankowiak, 1996, p.241) which is why this format is so meaningful to ‘the group formerly known as the audience’.

Anna Deavere-Smith | The Laramie Project

Other CT practitioners have embarked on initiatives to reincorporate the audience. Among these is Anna Deavere-Smith who in 1979 began collecting material for a series called On the Road: A Search for American Character. One of the series was the 1992 one-woman documentary-style piece with 29 characters called Fires in the Mirror, based on riots between Jews and blacks the previous year. Her work was formulated from the actual words of those involved to “capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person – myself” (Smith, I992, p. I8, cited in Martin, 1993, p. 46). Deavere-Smith initially began research by asking three questions: What were the circumstances of your birth?; Have you ever come close to death?; and, Have you ever been accused of something you did not do? We can see immediately these questions would get to the heart of anyone who would like, or need, their story told (Martin, 1993).The above method was taken up by Kaufman and associates from the Tectonic Theatre Project who put together The Laramie Project (TLP) in 2001. The text was also composed entirely of verbatim interviews from the community where a 21-year-old gay man, Matthew Shepard, was murdered in 1998. This production sought to convey the townspeople and the effects on them. A major theme was forgiveness as Matthew’s father asked for life imprisonment over the death penalty for his sons’ killers (Wangh, 2005). I saw TLP in 2003 – and tears in the actors’ eyes – so one can only imagine the effect it must have had on the actual population. Theatre experimentation started some decades back and demystification coupled with audience inclusion/contribution was a solution initially for political scenarios. I see a further function for CT which is to counter the effects of globalisation: the earth as village.

Globalisation and a Secular Society

I think the earth as village analogy is not as cosy as it sounds. Incredible strides in communication have really made people more isolated as many swathe themselves in new media. This applies to the workplace and private life. Many people prefer to send texts or emails rather than see, or talk to people (I am maintaining that the telephone has merit!). I am all for technology but it has brought with it new ground for miscommunication. We may even think that because we can research people and communities on the Internet that we ‘know’ them. We may also think that via uploaded videos and blogs we are articulating to an audience; does that really satisfy the need to express ourselves, communicate, and identify with the community?

Having referred to the close link between religious expression and drama in early societies, what significance does drama have today for modern secular societies not in awe of gods. It could be that our inner self is the new god and that we want paradise on earth now, not after death, in the ‘gimme, gimme’ world. This does not sit well with a look back at the first few years of this new century when religious wars are on the agenda after an absence of 400 years. This is an irony of advanced communication, i.e. we are no longer left happily ignorant about what is problematic for communities far from us geographically. Wangh has said that it is playwrights’ place to ensure people “listen and respond nonjudgmentally to the stories that this most difficult, most sacrosanct, and most powerful character in our world – religion – has to tell us” (2005, p. 13).

Schechner framed the issue by separating traditional theatre from the concept of performance with its “multiple meanings and applications” (2001, p.164). He further demonstrates his point by referring to McKenzie who has said “performance will be to the 20th and 21st centuries what discipline was to the 18th and 19th that is, an onto-historical formation of power and knowledge” (2001, p.18, cited in Schechner, 2001, p.159). These two commentators stress the value of performance as a way of combatting the lure of technology and reinstating our individuality. A huge task in the face of a whole generation brought up within media convergence.

I find myself being cynical about how much people need help having lived in a Muslim country for three years where self-expression is quashed in that there is no theatre or dance (talking modern here), few books and library items are censored with black pen or paper and sellotape. The vast majority of people work long hours six days per week for little pay but they are always immaculately turned out even though the floors of their extremely crowded homes are dirt. I also find them serene and sincere. While I have been here, news broadcasts tell of women being flogged up to 100 times and people have been jailed for ‘fornication’. These are the people who would benefit from Boal’s initiatives but the impediments are not a matter of choice; to quote Barba: “I do theatre because I want to preserve my freedom to refuse certain rules and values of the world around me” (2000, p.56). When in a first world country like my own, I notice how much the population complains and feel disappointed in line with the cliché “you don’t know you’re born” and wonder if too much help is just over-indulgence. I am in agreement with Green who queried, “does giving everyone access to a Theatre of the Oppressed so dilute the political meaning of oppression that it becomes a useless concept?” (2001, p. 4).

This suggests theatre is associated with liberty on two counts: firstly, to perform theatre appears to be a simple human right yet authorities fear it will spread ideas (exactly the aims of Boal et al.). Secondly, theatre can literally open up a new world for people and help them, whether they have a dysfunctional background or are disabled in some way. The latter idea has been developed by Tony McCaffrey with his Different Light theatre group made up of physically and mentally disabled youth and able performers. Interestingly, McCaffrey has questioned what his own motives really are and what the group is really achieving2, but I think there will always be some result since “it is through performance, whether individual or collective, that humans project images of themselves and the world to their audiences” (Palmer & Jankowiak, 1996, p. 226).

Boal’s techniques have been used successfully in allowing the refugees and the incumbents getting used to each other by exploring various social and moral dilemmas (Day, 2002). Immigrants and natives need to be able to express their culture too, for “culture can be stored in the form of artefacts and writings; it can be remembered in people’s heads. But to be living, vital culture, it has to be performed constantly” (Bohannan, 1992, cited in Palmer & Jankowiak, 1996, p.225). Playback theatre (retelling significant episodes) has been suggested as a means to help immigrants and citizens overwhelmed by their surroundings: “many people in modern society are alienated, without a place to tell their story. Playback Theatre can offer that space. As they listen to the story, the attention of the witnesses crystallizes the teller’s identity, and community bonds are formed.” (Fox, 1994, cited in Good, 2003, p.9).Conclusion Some wag once said that an audience is a large group of strangers who congregate for 1½ hours – to cough. We have seen that current audiences can value, and add value to, theatre, which must relate back to its origins in obligatory ritual. Just as children learn how to ‘be’ and what behaviour is appropriate, so theatre at local level is a valuable tool. Taking a part really can change people, although not necessarily for the better. A famous experiment with university students had them be guards and prisoners; the trial had to be halted as the ‘guards’ turned into vicious tyrants!

When people see performers improvising they can often be heard to say “I could never do that” when in fact they are doing it all the time they are not alone. We even improvise with our pets and our plants. It comes back again to communication, a basic human need, which we practice and seek feedback for at every opportunity.

Of course, only a minority of people get the luxury of being involved with theatre for it to make a difference to their lives. Obviously I have not referred to the Australasian scene where the history and culture of the aborigines in Australia and New Zealand have only relatively recently begun to be taken seriously. This is because I was taking more of a general world-view but I did look into this area and found that it is very high on the agenda as set out by Kelly (2001) and Peterson (2001). Again, it is a matter of regularly presenting what matters at grass roots to individuals and communities – the ‘bottom-up’ approach.


Barba, E., & Sanzenbach, S. (1965). Theatre laboratory 13 Rzedow. The Tulane Drama Review, 9(3), 153-165.

Barba, E. (2000). The deep order called turbulence: The three faces of dramaturgy. The Drama Review, 44(4), 56-67.

Beeman, W. (1993). Anthropology of theatre and spectacle. Annual Review of Anthropology, 22, 369-393.

Boal, A. (1992). Translator’s introduction: Games for actors and non-actors, pp. xviii-xxxi. London: Routledge.

Bohannan, P. (1992). We, the alien: An introduction to cultural anthropology. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Day, L. (2002). Putting yourself in other people’s shoes’: The use of forum theatre to explore refugee and homeless issues in schools. Journal of Moral Education, 31(1), 21-34.

Deavere-Smith, A. (1992). Playbill 92(7). Program for Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights Brooklyn and Other Identities.

Dumézil, G. (1968, 1971, 1973). Mythe et épopée. (3 Vols). Paris: Gallimard.

Fox, J. (1994). Acts of service. NY: Tusitala Publishing.

Gilbert, H., & Tompkins, J. (1996). Post-colonial drama: Theory, practice, politics. London: Routledge.

Good, M. (2003).Who is your neighbour? Playback theatre and community development. Retrieved from 3 January 2012.

Green, S. L. (2001). Boal and beyond strategies for creating community dialogue. Theater, 31(3), 47-61.

Kelly, V. (2001). The globalized and the local: Theatre in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand enters the new millennium. Theatre Research International, 26(1), 1-14.

Kershaw, B. (2003). Curiosity or contempt: On spectacle, the human, and activism. Theatre Journal, 55(4), 591-611.

McCaffrey, A.E. (n.d.). A different light: An integrated theatre company attempting an imaginative renegotiation of performances of ability and disability. Retrieved from on 5 January 2012.

McKenzie, J. (2001). Perform or else: From discipline to performance. New York: Routledge.

Martin, C. (1993). The word becomes you. An interview. The Drama Review, 37(4), 45-62.

Palmer, G.B., & Jankowiak, W.R. (1996). Performance and imagination: Toward an anthropology of the spectacular and the mundane. Cultural Anthropology, 11(2), 225-258.

Peterson, W. (2001). Reclaiming the past, building a future: Maori identity in the plays of Hone Kouka. Theatre Research International, 26(1), 15-24.

Qiuyu, Y., Dongsheng, H., Wichmann, E., & Richardson, G. (1989). Some observations on the aesthetics of primitive Chinese theatre. Asian Theatre Journal, 6(1), 12-30.

Schechner, R. (2001). Performance studies in/for the 21st century. Anthropology and Humanism, 26(2), 158-166.

Wangh, S. (2005). Revenge and forgiveness in Laramie, Wyoming. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 15(1), 1-16.


  1. Chaplin, C. (n.d.). Retrieved from on 3 January 2012.
  2. I have studied under Tony and believe him to be a tremendous educator.

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