Interview with Gavin Crichton – Artistic Director of Active Inquiry

3rd August, 2015 - Posted by Gavin - Comments Off on Interview with Gavin Crichton – Artistic Director of Active Inquiry

Below is an interview conducted by journalist Charlie Hanks with our Artistic Director Gavin Crichton about the work of the Company and our recent Resilience project.

Interview with Gavin Crichton, ACTive INquiry

“That verb ‘to act’ is so important to us,” explains Gavin Crichton, Artistic Director of ACTive INquiry. “It doesn’t just mean to act on the stage; it is also to take action in your own life and in society.”

At its simplest, ACTive INquiry is a theatre company. At its most ambitious, it seeks to “enable grassroots communities to use theatre as a catalyst to uncover and challenge injustice.” Theatre can happen anywhere, Gavin beams, and anyone can make it. His enthusiastic belief in his work is infectious.

At the end of January, the group reprised their most recent piece, Resilience, in a slightly revised format and for a new audience. The latter is noteworthy; ACTive INquiry’s work aims to present to the audience a clear question, centred around a protagonist whose aims come up against societal pressures, and then encourage them to consider what could have happened differently. The piece is played a second time and the audience is invited to stop the action, replace the protagonist on stage and try something else at any moment. There is no right answer – if there is, Gavin suggests, you haven’t got the piece right – but it is a “genuine inquiry into what we could make the world.”

Resilience sees a fictional community organisation in Edinburgh, ‘The Kitchen Table’, threatened with closure by the inflexible council to make way for Fancy Schmancy Homes’ new development. The bias is unashamed, the techniques simple, but this is ‘forum theatre’ – it is a chance to give a voice to those who relate to the ‘oppression’ witnessed on stage. It always seems a strong word, and Gavin is cautious with it. “It probably has different connotations in Portuguese,” he admits, referring to the inspiration for ACTive INquiry’s work, the Theatre of the Oppressed, developed by Brazilian practitioner Augusto Boal. “Oppression is perhaps not so clear in Scotland today as it was in 1970s South America, but we come up against injustice all the time.”

In devising Resilience, ACTive INquiry worked with three local community groups used by vulnerable people, including the Bethany Trust men’s group. Gavin would ask them to think of an injustice they had suffered and to create a ‘picture’ that felt real, even if it was not photographic. In these sessions, images are an extremely important part of eliciting what is important to convey and of pluralising peoples’ personal stories. The image gradually becomes the ‘reality’ of the whole group and is brought to life with a single rhythm or word. A problem with forum theatre, according to Gavin is that “it becomes very much about speaking; it could be two people sitting around a table having an argument and then somebody comes on stage and has a bit of an argument. What we want is to enable the audience to come up on stage and do things. We spend a lot of time thinking about: what are the underlying rituals of everyday life that cover up oppression? Can we make those more relevant in theatre? So people can look at those and counter those without even needing to speak.”

Another problem, I suggest, must come in rehearsal for a piece like Resilience, in which the actors could be presented with an infinite number of audience interventions and must be able to give a credible reaction to them; there cannot really be a satisfactory outcome. “It is difficult for the actor playing the oppressor,” Gavin accepts. “There’s a difficult line between being not so oppressive that whatever the audience comes up with you’ll push them over every time, but you don’t want to be a pushover either. We do a lot of work on developing tensions, pushing and pulling.”

The outcome is as much down to the audience as anything. “Playing with what might be outside the theatre space is something we deal with a lot,” Gavin says. When I first saw Resilience in October, the group was trying a different aspect of Boal’s work, ‘legislative theatre’. This essentially adds a level, a concrete outcome, to forum theatre. A panel of three (including an actual city councillor, and members of voluntary and community alliances) were charged with assimilating the debate into two proposals to be put to a vote. After occupations, media attention and petitions to the council had failed in the fictional arena, the audience voted almost unanimously in favour of a motion that would elevate human impact to parity with financial impact when considering the future of community organisations. It was an energising and enlightening experience of what political theatre has the potential to do. Since then, however, it has been a slow process trying to turn this into influence within the council but Gavin feels it gives him a “bit of a mandate” to try to push towards a positive outcome and to continue to use the format.

I ask which is more important to the company’s work, furthering participative arts or participative democracy. “It’s impossible to split the two; by doing one we’re doing the other,” he says, but edges towards democracy. Is it in fact theatre at all? “Yes, 100%. I have no issues with that. This works best when it’s good theatre, using good aesthetics. Theatre makers often don’t think enough about what the audience might be thinking, or what they might think going away.

“It’s all about education, but not in a monologue way. What we do is all rooted in the educational work of Paolo Freire: creating a dialogue of knowledges and a chance to debate on a particular subject. It’s about building knowledge rather than transferring knowledge.” Is there work to be done to attract new audiences, then? “Yes and no. It’s not about bringing people to the theatre. We take a lot of work to cafes, community centres and so on. I’d like to see institutions really getting people involved in what they do, rather than saying ‘we’re making good theatre in the middle of the city, people should come to us’.”

This sort of outreach is difficult in the current funding climate; ACTive INquiry recently missed out on funding from Creative Scotland and Gavin remains the only full-time employee. He is now looking at project funding to try to create stronger relationships with groups like the Bethany Trust, with a long-term view of coordinating a network of forum theatre-makers across the city. “We go across a lot of different worlds in the work we do. We are a professional company, but we work with a lot of community groups and non-actors. I do worry that political theatre in traditional theatre spaces would alienate a lot of people that might see those, there’s that whole cultural thing about coming to see theatre. It’s not just cost.” He doesn’t, when I ask, go as far as to say traditional theatre environments are no longer important but suggests a shift in focus would be welcome, from funders, from bigger theatres, to bridge the gap.

“Bridging is a really good word. Talk of political theatre can be about community stuff or about political playwrights; but what might it be in a broader sense? We want to get people thinking critically. But also, part of what we try to do is to get people to think that they can be not just consumers, they can actually produce, they can do things, they can change things.”

Charlie Hanks

Posted on: August 3, 2015

Filed under: News

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