Shades of Meaning

At long last I am back from my journeys to Australia and Chile. It has been an exhilarating time full of making new friends, learning about the practice of community engagement around the world, and uncovering insights into new ways of thinking and working in this field. As is typical, I have several weeks of material for blog posts.

CircuitWest Showcase 2019 Attendees

At the CircuitWest Showcase in Perth, Australia artists, producers, and presenters met to discuss their work and make plans for the next several years. Perth is a city of about 2 million people set in the state of West Australia, a state that encompasses about 1/3 of the continent. According to a recent census, the next largest city is Bunbury, population 71,000. The next largest group of cities is in the 30,000 range. And even moreso than in the western U.S., the distances between population centers are vast. Perth itself has been described as the most remote city on the planet. It’s a five hour plane ride from any comparably sized city.

The point of this is not an academic travelogue. The principal topic of conversation at the Showcase was touring, the moving of arts events between the cities and towns of Western Australia. The logistics are one of the most critical pieces of the discussions.

But more to the point with regard to community engagement, the touring artists and production companies have had to develop skills in short-turnaround relationship building in the small cities and towns that host them. (One of the reasons for that is that there has been a concerted push by government funders for community engagement in the arts.) Long-time readers know that I warn that tying community engagement to arts events when there is no pre-existing relationship carries the danger of being seen as exploitative: “You’re just trying to sell me a ticket.” However, in WA circumstances, I suspect that populations understand the realities of travel well enough to be more open to overtures from the artists.

In addition, the touring companies have developed some pretty good engagement chops. Indeed, two of them specifically use the communities as the source material for their work. They spend a week or two in the community, collect local stories, and place those stories on stage or screen for everyone to see and enjoy. It takes exceptional writers and actors to make that work, but it’s a good solution to the inherent problem.

And companies that do not create community-based work typically develop substantive relationship building activities into the run-up to their performances–working, for example, with children and/or adults in the performance medium in advance of the event or holding community discussion opportunities on the topic of the show. (Interestingly, many of the subjects addressed are very serious: domestic abuse, depression, oppression of indigenous people.)

Granted, workshops and discussions look very much like what I typically call audience engagement. However, in the WA context, alternatives are limited; community members are, I imagine, OK with the situation; and the need to develop and maintain relationships long-term is so important to both the artists and the presenters that the efforts appear genuine rather than an afterthought or grudging task.

One suggestion I did make was that the local presenters could work on developing a community engagement infrastructure into which touring artists could tap when they arrive. This would be much like an arts organization in an urban center hiring a community organizer to build local relationships that artists could ease into in their relatively limited time on site. Of course, presenters in the smallest towns are already experts in community engagement out of sheer necessity. Some of the presenter towns have populations under 5,000. You can’t exist as a presenter in a place that size without knowing (nearly) everyone who lives there.

My point and personal takeaway is that the lines between community engagement and audience engagement are not as clear-cut as I sometimes suggest. Context has a huge impact on the nature of our work.

Thanks to my new friends in WA for the insight!